Aug 14 2008 9:42am

On Immortality

Immortality, or at least extreme longevity, is a familiar theme of SF/F which (almost) always seems compelling, from the classic immortal vampire of Bram Stoker, to the body-hopping, post-singularity consciousnesses depicted in Charles Stross’s Accelerando. However, like many other SFnal tropes, this one is slowly becoming more science fact than science fiction. For example, it seems that scientists have succeeded in stopping the aging process in mice livers (insert joke about hard-drinking rodents here).

This put me in mind of a TED talk I watched a short time ago by anti-aging researcher/firebrand/Alan-Moore-stand-in/caffeine-fueled nutjob (and I mean that in the nicest possible way), biomedical gerontologist Aubrey De Grey, in which he talks about aging as a disease, and lays out the general ideas behind his “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence” (SENS) proposal, and the activities of the Methuselah Foundation, which he co-founded to promote anti-aging research, awareness and acceptance.

Check it out:

(As an aside, do yourself a favor and check out the TED site if you haven't done so already. It’s chock-full of free talks by some of the leading creative, scientific, and philosophical minds in the world. It’s a constant source of inspiration for me, and I talk it up whenever I get the chance.)

De Grey’s presentation is intentionally light on science (that’s not what TED’s about, after all), but it certainly sparks some questions. I’d venture to say that most of us here would like to see the futures we so enjoy speculating about: we want to see how it all works out. We want our flying cars, or our jetpacks, or our own winter home on Mars, etc. But what are the practical implications of longevity? How would we, as individuals and as a society,  adapt to such a change in our way of life, in how we fundamentally experience life?

For instance:

Would it be acceptable to be a student for fifty or one hundred years, hopping from school to school on a protracted search for knowledge? How would scientific achievements be affected, if you could have geniuses like Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking stick around for some eight or nine hundred years?

How would young people’s perceptions of the old change? If a 200-year-old woman old doesn’t look like a decrepit little old lady on death’s door, and her wits are still very much about her, will the young regain some of the respect for the wisdom of their elders that other cultures still have? Conversely, will the old make way for the young, or will they declare that they have absolutely no reason to step aside, and continue holding on to the reins of power (be it in politics, academia, the arts, or wherever)?

Taking a purely logistical tack, one could safely assume that if people stop dying of natural or pathological causes, birth control would no longer be a choice: it would be a necessity. There just wouldn’t be enough space on this planet if the old stopped making space for the newborn by giving up their ghosts. Would we become a society composed exclusively of adults, or would special allowances be made for keeping children around? Would adults then extend their childhoods, much in the same way that so-called “grups” have extended their youth into their thirties, and even their forties?

Additionally, we would probably be forced into serious efforts to colonize space, again, due to lack of space on Earth. Space travel would also be a bit more feasable, at least in terms of making it out to remote places, since manned expeditions wouldn’t have to depend on schemes like cryogenic stasis or generation ships in order to keep humans alive long enough reach their destination (now, what to do on board these ships for hundreds of years without going insane, or dying of boredom, that’s a different story altogether).

What about our attitude towards death in general? I think it can be safely said that this is already rather unhealthy in Western culture, but what happens when the only deaths that occur are purely spontaneous and accidental? How would you feel if, when you’re 1000 years old,  your parents, aged 1400, suddenly died in a plane crash (or in a freak accident on a Martian colony, for that matter)?

These questions and many more may be poised to become serious issues instead of idle speculation, if people like De Grey are correct, and aging is something that can not only be reversed, but prevented in the first place. Personally, I plan to live to the ripe old age of one hundred and twenty. It’s a notion I've had in my head since I was a child for some reason, and I look forward to living through what little future I can experience within that lifetime. If I can get more years, in good health, then bring ’em on.

How about you? Would you like to live for 1000 years? What other issues do you think we’ll have to wrestle with if this comes to pass?

Paul Arzooman
1. parzooman
The question isn't whether anyone would like to live 1000 years but who would decide which of us does?

No doubt the wealthy would be the first to afford any treatments offered and would probably prefer it to stay that way. But what would be the consequences of the wealthy and powerful living for that long? Would there be a spike in political and personal assassinations as rivals and family members would rather a particular person were no longer on the scene? Would people want to live in a world where they could be around for a thousand years - in poverty. Where are the jobs coming from to sustain a long-lived population? Would there be social services that would take care of people's basic needs and allow them a lifetime of personal achievement instead? Or is it the dream of the Singularity crowd that all social problems will be solved (including feeding the population)by some yet to be developed artificial intelligence and its ability to create anything we want out of thin air?
Nathan Ballingrud
2. Nathan_Ballingrud
My first thought is that this phenomenon would be available only to those who could afford it. If the source of this amazing longevity is pharmacological in origin, that would be a vanishingly small proportion of Earth's population. Resource management -- already an issue of growing concern, and already skewed grossly in favor of rich nations -- would become even more stratified, with the wealthy Methuselahs requiring more and more energy from a very limited supply. I think "birth control" is putting it mildly: we'd likely see mass sterilizations of poverty-stricken populations. Enough would be allowed to breed to keep the machines running. It strikes me as a vision of Hell.

Or Heaven, if you're a Friedmanite! :)
Chris Meadows
3. Robotech_Master
Elizabeth Moon looked at some of the issues provoked by life-extension in her Herris Serrano series.

I never really thought about it all that much. I would kind of like to live forever, too—not so much because I'm afraid of dying, but that I really hate having to miss the "end of the story." History is so fascinating, I want to know what happens next!
Kerry Kuhn
4. Kerry
Robotech_Master: The Elizabeth Moon books were the first thing I thought of, too, when the politics of aging was mentioned by the OP. I wish she had gone deeper into it than she did, though. She brought up the questions, but didn't propose any answers that I can recall.

Heinlein, of course, didn't mention long-lasting political or economic effects in any of the Lazarus Long books - everything just "was" with no background on where the food came from or anything else.
Chris Meadows
5. Robotech_Master
I seem to recall that the "answer" she ended up going with was that the ruling body should be composed of people who had not opted for life-extension, and opting for life-extension automatically opted them out of taking part in that body.

Come to think of it, I think that the Martian civilization in the novel Spin (formerly available as a free ebook from Tor) had something similar for its people who opted to undergo their life-extension process—they could no longer take part in the government, at least not in the same capacity as unextendeds.
James Nicoll
6. JamesDavisNicoll
2: If the source of this amazing longevity is pharmacological in origin, that would be a vanishingly small proportion of Earth's population

Ah, the way penicillin is reserved solely for use by the uberwealthy? I was just rueing how one third of us still die of bacterial infection as we have since the dawn of history thanks to the the Struldbrugs' cruel near-monopoly on antibiotics.
James Nicoll
7. JamesDavisNicoll
Additionally, we would probably be forced into serious efforts to colonize space, again, due to lack of space on Earth.

I would like to issue a formal notice that I am sitting on my hands at this point.

Space travel would also be a bit more feasable, at least in terms of making it out to remote places, since manned expeditions wouldn’t have to depend on schemes like cryogenic stasis or generation ships in order to keep humans alive long enough reach their destination (now, what to do on board these ships for hundreds of years without going insane, or dying of boredom, that’s a different story altogether).

David Lake (who doesn't seem to get published in North America any more) had a series back in the 1970s and 1980s about the flotilla of STL starships that went out to the nearer stars after the nuclear destruction of the Earth's biosphere (and later the surviving colonies on the Moon). One expedition ran into a civilization that had been around for a long time, who shared some interesting information about the galaxy. Intelligent races tended to fall into two groups, mortals and immortals, and mortal races never bothered with interstellar travel (1). The fact that humans were clearly mortal and had interstellar flight marked them out as very exceptional, although not in a good way as far as the Xumans were concerned.

1: Mortals were also well advised never to get the attention of a race of immortals. Or worse, two of them, since the crossfire could alter climates.
Torie Atkinson
8. Torie
Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars broaches the political questions. When a treatment is invented that extends life (not indefinitely, just another 30 years or so), revolts break out on Earth and the world powers fight over access to these drugs. It's not pretty.

Which leads me to wonder: how would longevity affect our views on violence and war? It's one thing to volunteer a short life for a cause, but what if you could live to be 1000? Inevitably wouldn't everything from science to peace be approached as an investment, since you'd be around to reap the benefits of even the longest-term solutions?

@ 6 JamesDavisNicoll

Penicillin is quite inexpensive to produce, and thus (thankfully) readily available in many places. Gene therapy is appallingly expensive. I just assume the worse with things like that, but if these theoretical drugs COULD be made cheaply that would change everything...
James Nicoll
9. JamesDavisNicoll
Someone on soc.history.what-if either sat down and ran the numbers on age distribution and revolutions or found someone else's research on the subject. There's a particular average age above which nations become extremely unlikely to turn to revolution . Unfortunately I no longer recall what that age is, although I think it was surprisingly modest.

I also seem to recall surpluses of young males are somewhat correlated with outbreaks of war but this can easily be dealt with with pre-birth gender selection and state-sanctioned enforced gender reassignment or failing either of those those, a sufficient number of bricks in a sack. Sperm production wise, there's no real need for more than one in a hundred people to be male (Obviously, I am assuming some sort of milking machine/IVF set up).

One thing I noticed (my personal tin foil hat model) about Great Wars is that they are generally spaced out enough that not only will all the veterans of the previous Great War cycle be dead by the time the next one kicks off, most of their kids will be too. It's as though you need to eliminate everyone with a fairly clear idea just how bad an idea direct wars between evenly matched Great Powers is before you can get another Great War started.

We'll get a better idea if this supposed pattern is real or just the product of a very small set of data some time around 2040 - 2060.

1: Obviously culture plays a role too. Aside from Lower Canada Rebellion, the Upper Canada Rebellion, the Red River Rebellion, the North-West Rebellion, and sundry other armed uprisings too numerous and minor to mention, Canadians have always prefered jaw-jaw over war-war, whereas I assume revolutions break out in the US every ten minutes or so.

2: The history of the nation state is probably too short for any real patterns to exist but there have been at least three periods of nation-state Great War (Thirty Years War, the Anglo-French Wars of the 1760s-1810s and the World Wars) and in two of them, there was an armistice of a couple of decades in the middle before the losing power began things again under a revolutionary form of government.
Jeffrey Richard
10. neutronjockey
Shortly after DeGrey did this seminar I ran across an article about how a group in CA were trying to stop aging in liver cells in mice.

I went googling away for it and came across something even far better: It appears they announced it just a few days ago...


If you have disposable income to buy stock---nano and biotech is the way to go.
Stefan Raets
11. Stefan
Great, now I have to go and re-read "To Live Forever" by Jack Vance.
Stephen Covey
12. coveysd
I raised some related issues in my blog post, Challenges of Immortality. My key points include:
1) Accidental deaths would result in a typical lifespan of 500 to 1000 years.
2) You must drop the birth rate by a factor of 10 or so, but that results in unprecedented economic and cultural changes. Quoting myself, "If everyone retired after 50 years of working (lets assume that 90% of the population is retired or at least not building things or farming), then the 10% that are being currently productive have to work hard enough to feed, clothe, house, and entertain the other 90%. They might not appreciate the burden."
3) Is the human brain adequate to retain a millennia of memories? Is the human brain capable of learning new occupations, century after century?
4) Will the prospect of biological immortality increase or decrease the value we place on life?
Richard Treitel
13. richard.treitel
This question was old when I was young.

One of the first ScF stories I remember was by Alan E. Nourse on how humans would react to immortality. His tack was that the best creative people would, in effect, say, "Since I can afford to wait forever for the perfect , that's what I'm going to do," and that humanity would have to outlaw immortality if we wanted to make progress at all.

Blish commented that memory need not be a problem because we'd offload it onto computers ... and I have largely done that! Niven asked how often you can change your convictions without losing them all. And so on.

First, there's the Tithonus question. De Grey and nearly all the ScF I've read make clear that they want us to stay, not merely alive, but young, so at least there won't be a problem with the dependency ratio.

Next, population growth. If I could confidently expect to live to a thousand and be fertile most of that time, I can imagine that I'd have a kid, wait while s/he matured, and then have another. Meaning a kid every century or two. But in this world, I'm fifty and already have two of them. So the rate of growth need not be faster than it now is. If we can't double the carrying capacity of this planet in a century, we are too stupid to develop useful space travel (or to deserve it).

But the most important question is ... well ... to quote the late great James White, we are caterpillars trying to think like butterflies. Imagine that I had been asked, at the age of ten or even fifteen, to predict what I would want this year. Now try asking me to predict what I shall want when (if) I turn five hundred. Waste of time.

And yet, when I think about the behaviours and beliefs of people from the XVI century, and wonder whether I'd want to have those people alive now (the mass of them, not just Shakespeare), the answer pops up very quickly in my head. I don't think we'd be stuck with Tudor technology, but the thought of living in anything even mildly resembling a Tudor society horrifies me.

Willing to be corrected by a suitably qualified historian ... perhaps.
Allyn Edgar Hughes
14. allynh
A series of comments:

1) The wealthy, the top 2% of society, would have the main access to any immortality treatment.

Everybody needs to remember that the Western/First World is the top 2% of society. The poorest of the First World will still have access to the treatment before any Third World peasant.

2) Over population caused by immortality.

As coveysd mentioned (in post 12), the life span of immortals would be between 500 to 1000 years.

Take a random sample of a thousand people who get the treatment today, and a thousand years from now only one of those people will still be alive. Immortality does not protect you from accident, murder, suicide, stupidity, or boredom.

3) An immortal society would not face a population explosion, but a population crash.

We already see that in society today. First World countries are having a population crash. Countries like the USA are growing only from immigration. All societies that achieve a middle class living standard have their population drop below replacement level. In southern India, where the big cities are, the population has dropped; while in northern rural India, with people still living in feudal conditions, the population is exploding.

- The main reason for this is due to educated women having reproductive choice.

Aside from the cost and time needed to raise a child, thus cutting into the earning power of women, what most people don't realize is that giving birth to a child is dangerous. No matter how immortal she is a woman can still die while giving birth. The percentage of dying has dropped in the past hundred years but it is still a non-trivial number, and an educated woman will think very hard before she risks her thousand years.

4) No such thing as retirement.

Retirement is based on having money to pay the bills the rest of your life. Today, you are expected to die within a decade of retiring so the retirement fund is not exhausted. If you are immortal, that means you have to have enough money to generate continuous income for a thousand years, at least. Unfortunately, that assumes the banks/financial institutions last that long. As we have seen, and will see in the next few years, that is not a safe bet.

As an aside: Anyone who retires and does nothing but exist will be dead after a slow agonizing decade. That's based on the concept of, "If you don't use it, you lose it." If you don't actively challenge yourself with new activities the brain atrophies, killing the body.

On a personal note: At the end of 2007 I was able to achieve my Dilbertian Dream of reaching the Day of Retirement. Now, at 52, I have the money to start my next career, so watch out world.
Sammy Jay
15. Malebolge
Life insurance would become a nonfactor. That said, people who have become 'immortal' or at least extremely long-lived with crippling disabilities would become a huge tax drain- they'd be unable to provide for the economy, but unlikely to die of natural causes for any stretch of time.
James Nicoll
16. JamesDavisNicoll
14: Everybody needs to remember that the Western/First World is the top 2% of society.

2% of 6.5 billion is 130,000,000. I therefore deduce that not only are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the whole of Western Europe and all of the economically developed nations of Asia not part of the first world, neither is about 2/3rds of the USA.

Alternatively, only Japan is part of the First World.

As coveysd mentioned (in post 12), the life span of immortals would be between 500 to 1000 years.

Take a random sample of a thousand people who get the treatment today, and a thousand years from now only one of those people will still be alive. Immortality does not protect you from accident, murder, suicide, stupidity, or boredom.

I think you've misunderstood the term "typical lifespan" here. If the typical lifespan for a Canadian is 70 years, it does not follow that after 70 years only one person in 70 in a given cohort is still alive.
Clifton Royston
17. CliftonR
I can't believe nobody's name-checked John Wyndham's Trouble With Lichen, one of the absolute classic SF books about the discovery of an anti-aging drug. It looks like it can be found used for a buck or so online; well worth seeking out.
Nina Lourie
18. supertailz
Starting from a solely personal level, I would wonder if it would negate my desire to make something of my life. I think perhaps not completely, but where would my drive to be successful/make myself known/respected go if dying weren't an issue? I wonder if having set lifetimes, as we currently do, makes us strive and hurry to achieve. I would worry about making society even more self-centered than it is at present if you took away the impetus to make a name for oneself in a limited period of time.

I'm a little surprised no one has mentioned these already, but when I think about issues of longevity I tend to think of Cory Doctorow's stories - both Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom and Truncat - which I think deal remarkably well with the questions that never-ending life bring up. How much of our society is based on death? How much would we have to change? Everything from morals and laws (murder? If we can "backup" our consciousness and get restored to another of our own bodies is murder a big deal after all? At the most you're probably killing half a day of someone's life.) to the way we interact with people and eventually even our currency.

Arachne Jericho
19. arachnejericho
I would kind of be relieved if I could live forever. Not having a legacy in any form or shape would be less of a concern.
Jeffrey Richard
20. neutronjockey
An additional ethical question I think would be that of suicide: Our bodies (genetically engineered to do so) could handle "immortality" but on a biological spectrum we are still a "live fast, breed fast, die young" species.

Would we honor an eight hundred year old's request to end their life?

Regarding overpopulation: I think initially a concern only. Psychosocial models of behavior would change after several generations of (and I use the term in a relativistic sense) immortals have passed on. I think our breeding behaviors would inevitably change as well.

...or, the Earth being the closed ecosystem that it is, would find another nifty disease to spit at us to wipe out a significant portion of the planet.

All's fair in love and war and bacterium and rhino-viruses. We calibrate our molecular will they.
21. designguy
Fascinating questions that I think the sociologists and statisticians would best answer as I would argue that the persons who post here do not represent the values of society as a whole (with all due respect, of course).

I would be most interested in knowing how a person would define a 'successful life' if you were likely to live in excess of 1000 years. What would be the likely day-to-day activities, the medium- and long-term goals?

If we remove much of the drama from the conversation and presume that humanity has reached some type of sustainable balance, a measure of wisdom, and sufficient technology to overcome the day-to-day difficulties of medical, food, energy, etc.. and that we have just realized our first generation of near-immortality... ((so, i suppose that there is still the upcoming threat of overpopulation, but not just yet))

I envision a renaissance-man approach - a want to see and know all things - experience much and contribute to several different aspects of society. Let's temper this with the assumption that an individual needs to contribute a certain amount of their time to the system despite how automatic and self-sustaining it is... say, a 20-hour week.

I think that technological innovation and the arts & humanities would all accelerate, due to all the cross-pollination of individuals with diverse interests and specialties... but here I break down... do renaissance-people then naturally have/develop a shorter attention span, an inability to get things done, a lack of dedication and commitment? Do we get a world predominantly of procrastinating super slackers? Do we become like the Eloi, the child-like surface dwellers of Time Machine - babied in their lack of suffering. My father, a principal, often quoted an educational concept 'forced anxiety'. I have never googled it - and have always taken it to mean that one does not learn, excel, create, unless their is a measure of stress - be it pain, anger, fear, a deadline...
I am sure that someone else can provide a better detailed, more compelling thought experiment.
It may be just too much of a good thing that forces us to lose our humanity - damn inevitably dystopic humanity.
Mitch Wagner
22. MitchWagner
@designguy -

I think that technological innovation and the arts & humanities would all accelerate, due to all the cross-pollination of individuals with diverse interests and specialties...

Would it? Or would progress slow into stagnation?

Revolutions in thought start out as fringe ideas held by only a few kooks, and then gradually percolate through society until the once-revolutionary idea is now common wisdom, and it's only a few kooks who don't believe the new thing.

This doesn't happen because the people supporting the old ideas are convinced of the value of the new way of doing things. This happens because the people supporting the old ideas die.

Now, I'm willing to slow the pace of scientific and technological change to a crawl in exchange for a 1,000-year lifespan, but I'm not so sure about slowing social change. Take gay rights as one example: I expect, given current lifespans and trends, that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation will all but disappear in 25 years or so. Gay marriage will be perfectly normal, and we may even see our first openly gay president by then. Am I willing to tell my gay friends that they're just going to have to hold off for a century or so on that -- maybe forever?
Jeffrey Richard
23. neutronjockey
@ Mitch Wagner (above)
Take gay rights as one example: I expect, given current lifespans and trends, that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation will all but disappear in 25 years or so. Gay marriage will be perfectly normal, and we may even see our first openly gay president by then.

25 years? I would like to agree with you. There is simply too much hate and narrow-mindedness left in this country. While older generations may die, they still indoctrinate their children with their own sense and set of morale values, ethics and prejudices ---whatever those may be.
Allyn Edgar Hughes
24. allynh
Check out the movie:

Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth (2007)

They talk about the life of one immortal person who has lived from the stone age to now. I think the main character's viewpoint is realistic.

- People will stay people no matter how long they live.

- You can only know what a normal person knows.

- It doesn't matter how much you study/learn over the years you will forget what you don't use.

The immortal person will have to work and live, be alive, for those thousand years. The brain melts away when it's not used, not challenged with new tasks. At some point the loss is so great that the brain can no longer support the body, and the body dies.

Go to the website for Nova: World in the Balance and see how the world is changing now, simply with people living a long life.

Nova: World in the Balance

By the end of the century, Japan's population is expected to shrink by half, with one out of every three people retired. And Japan is not alone. Over the next 50 years, Europe is projected to lose 63 million people, while Russia shrinks almost 20 percent. As elders over 60 outnumber children under four, the economic and social changes will be wrenching.

The First World population is imploding, the Third World is still growing. As the Third World becomes First World, i.e. middle class, there population will drop as shown by the difference between south and north India

Hour 1: The People Paradox

Hour 2: China Revs Up

The two main shows about the brain on PBS are:

The Secret Life of the Brain

The Brain Fitness Program

I couldn't find transcripts for the two shows. The first has a website with downloads, the second does not, but both are available on DVD.

The essential message from both programs is:

- A day to day, rigid, unchanging life is not sustainable. People change, fashions change; when they don't, they die.

Personally, I look forward to continuing this discussion over the next few centuries, and I'll leave you now with one of my favorite quotes:

"Millions dream of immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon." - Susan Ertz
Mitch Wagner
25. MitchWagner
@Neutronjockey: OK, maybe 25 years is optimistic. How about 53 years then? That's the span of time from Rosa Parks to Barack OBama.

@allynh: Interestingly, you point out how this whole immortality question is actually two separate issues -- at least in science fiction it is. On the one hand, you have immortality through medical science (as we've been discussing here), perhaps starting with a small group but eventually percolating out to the general population. On the other hand, you have one immortal, or a small group of immortals, who are basically freaks of nature. They live forever while normal people die, and nobody really knows why or can reproduce it.
James Nicoll
26. JamesDavisNicoll

You may want to take a look at George Turner's Vainglory. Unless I mean his Yesterday's Men.
27. dlynnpen
After reading the topic post and all the comments I have to ask myself and everyone reading this that given the means and wherefores to live well beyond our "Time" would it change the person you are now?
Would you be the same inside?
Culture as we know it would change.Marriage would go from a moral practice to a myth.
Parts damaged replaced by life like robotic parts.Gives you the appearance of and abilities of the youthful "Old" you.
1000 years or more?
At what point in our life do we want to stop age/appearance and remain that way for our life?
Finally who regulates just "Who" will obtain this "Gift" of forever life?
Who will be able to say "Who will get it and who will not?" and not just from the money angle but will even so much as a birth defect put you on the "Sorry but you can't "Have"it list.
Live Forever?The reality will oneday happen.Maybe.
28. Maude
Give please. There are sadistic scientists who hurry to hunt down errors instead of establishing the truth.
I am from Barbados and also now'm speaking English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: "The synthroid. All read as outdated, but there are deadbolt of people with mayor rocky anderson calls synthroid a marketing scam and refuses to distill."

THX :-(, Maude.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment