Science

Do We Need Death?

The battle against our limiting genes

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No. Next question.

All right, seriously folks, why would anyone think that that we need death? Pro-mortalists generally fear that longer lives will result in a nursing home world, filled with aging, miserable, debilitated people draining resources from the young to keep themselves alive. Second, they worry about the social consequences of longer lifespans.

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  1. Ron’s avarice argument is completely true.

    I am now 8 years from retirement & often find myself checking my calculations as to what I will be able to afford. Money is a concern that I did not have 30 years ago.

    If I suddenly found myself with another hundred years – let alone 1,000 years – of healthy life span, I would feel much freer to take financial risks.

    I wouldn’t mind being physiologically 21 again, either.

  2. Doubling of life spans wouldn’t seem to change anything fundamentally.
    Immortality, on the other hand, would. Reproduction would be at best unnecessary, and at worst highly problematic. Since the drive for reproduction is the hishest goal of evolution (even the desire to secure resources is just to promote reproductive opportunities–consult Tony Montana for more details on this), human evolution would stop. Unable to evolve, humans would be headed for evolution’s circular file.
    Maybe.
    Witnessing who is reproducing in today’s society (an observation made by prominent sociologist Harvey Danger), an argument could be made that stopping human evolution would be preferable to the current trend: Devolution.

  3. Why would a species that has mastered biology to the point of achieving immortality need to evolve naturally?

  4. Dave B. —

    …because perhaps a creature that has achieved immortality through biological manipulation would be hesitant to muck about more with the same tools, for fear of screwing up the immortality that they have achieved.

    I would imagine a society of non-aging people would be a psychotically careful one. After all, even with insurance against old age, you can still die from stepping the wrong way, falling out of bed, or getting hit by a bus…

  5. Wouldn’t those same possibilities of death spur even greater efforts to achieve immortality? That’s why I’m getting a Robot body that’s a brain surgeon. And besides I don’t think people would be foolish enough to experiment on themselves. Beta testing is for clones.

  6. Many people view immortality as THE prize…for those who do, no, I don’t think they would be much stimulated beyond being careful not to trip, catch a virus, or get shot. For those very few that do not see it as the ultimate prize, but rather simply a means to some other greater end…sure, they can build the robot bodies and the nanoprobes. If the jealous mediocre immortal mob doesn’t kill them all first. I would imagine the worst thing possible would be to be mediocre and stupid FOREVER. That there, that would suck, and cause a wee bit of ressentiment.

    No, I don’t think the clone thing will catch on…but I’m too tired to elaborate much. 😉

  7. I don’t know where you think the masses are going to get the money for immortality. By the time it gets popular, eugenics will have bypassed the mediocre. And my robot body will be able to take on scores of mere mortals, while my brain case sits in a bunker.

  8. We are, in my opinion, beyond evolution being an important factor in future human development. We can now tinker with our children’s genes, and before long will be able to do more. I expect that practical immortality will happen within say two generations or so of further technological progress.

    Given this happens it will either be cheap, or very expensive (or some technologies will be expensive and later replaced by cheap ones).

    If cheap we will have a very serious population problem unless we engage in some sort of serious population control. This is due to all adults being for practical purposes young adults with normal sex drives. Unless something is done about that, in which case many will not want this immortality and which may set up an underground immortality, and we are back to a population problem.

    If expensive, we have a major class division between those who can afford it, and those who do not. This also will make things interesting.

    I am all in favor of immortality, and would prefer the cheap sort, but the problem seems obvious to me, and the solution does not.

    I do not like the idea of a government dictating who can and cannot have kids and how many.

  9. Does anyone seriously believe for a moment that life extension technologies and therapies will be available to humanity at large? Much as I’d love to live for a thousand years, the thought of living in a world where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt get to live for centuries on their Ethipia-shaped island in Dubai while actual Ethiopians struggle to LIVE is a prospect I find morally sickening.

  10. OK fine then we only bestow immortality on the super babies with hand picked genes and prenatal nootropics. I’ll just go the way of the naturally selected.

  11. Chris Wren says: “Does anyone seriously believe for a moment that life extension technologies and therapies will be available to humanity at large? …”

    This is a limited view, think of the business models that are possible with extended lifespans. Consider a Life Insurance company, they make money off people living and paying the premiums, if you give your clients free or discounted life extension treatments in return for long term life insurance this would neatly solve this problem in a “win-win” mode. The Insurance company would make more money, the clients would have much longer lives “for free”.

  12. Schaub suggests that “a nation of ageless individuals could well produce a sclerotic society, petrified in its ways and views.”

    So he wants to keep things the way they are to avoid a generation who will keep things the way they are? Sclerosis is staring at him from the mirror.

    Pro-mortalist Callahan has asserted “There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death.”

    There sure as hell isn’t any social good coming from turning our back on the possibility.

    Callahan points that the “problems of war, poverty, environment, job creation, and social and familial violence” would not “be solved by everyone living a much longer life.”

    War: Young people fight them. The lower the percentage you have in the “I’m invulnerable” age range the fewer soldiers you have. And as you get older you find better ways of resolving conflict.

    Poverty: Poverty in the U.S. is having one TV set, not a decision every winter whether to let a child starve or to put grandmother out in the snow. Plus, one of the biggest expenses in poverty is health care. Having a healthy population frees up major resources to deal with other aspects of being poor.

    Environment: Pul-lease. Who’s going to worry about environment more than the folks who expect to live in it for a millennium?

    Job creation: Two words. Compound interest. The bigger problem may be that most people wouldn’t need a job most of their lives.

    Social violence: One of the major predictors of crime is the percent of the population in the teens and twenties. See war, above.

    Familial violence: A toughie. However, sooner or later violent people tend to cross the wrong person and eliminate themselves from the population. If the average age of giving birth approaches 200, maybe Darwin will solve this one.

    At the end of her essay, Schaub worries about decreased fertility; that healthy oldsters would be less interested in reproducing.

    I sure hope so! She’d do better worrying about the opposite. Increasing life spans by an order of magnitude while keeping the same birth rate would really cause problems. Living for a thousand years means you only need to produce slightly more than one offspring each.

    Why would a species that has mastered biology to the point of achieving immortality need to evolve naturally?

    Moot question. Given our control over the environment and our limited control over what used to be fatal-before-you-reproduced diseases, humans haven’t been evolving naturally for at least several decades.

    If (immortality is) cheap we will have a very serious population problem unless we engage in some sort of serious population control.

    Or expand beyond Earth.

  13. I am one of humankind’s older persons now, having just turned 65. Like Aresen, money is now a concern that I didn’t have 20 or thirty years ago. I had a good job, and the salary was able to support a lot of nice and useful things. Now, I have acquired a decent “nest egg,” but I expect that if my wife and I don’t die soon, most of it will eventually be consumed by one kind or another of elder care.

    In some ways, I feel smarter than I ever have been– not because of formal education (that stopped over forty years ago), but because of “life experience” (for want of a better term). But I think that considering life expectancies and the physical and mental limitations that growing older brings these days, I don’t have the inclination or the expectation to put that experience to work. I keep thinking that, although I may have acquired a modest amount of wisdom, I haven’t done anything to convey it to my kids, let alone anyone else. I haven’t even figured out how I would organize it into a useful body of knowledge to pass it on. It might be useful to learn how to write (non-fiction? plays? poetry?), but assuming that I even have the talent, my first work has little chance of being my best. How long do I have to get it right?

    I like Alan P.’s idea of how insurance companies could play a role in life extension. I think they are often overlooked (by others and themselves) as a free-market way of getting things done. They used to run their own fire departments. I think that they should be the institutions that license everybody that needs licensing. Why not invest some of their assets in life extension?

    This discussion brings to mind Robert A. Heinlein’s recurring character, Lazarus Long. He is the result of a long, careful, yet simple, privately financed program of selective inbreeding: identify people with a familial history of longevity, and give them nice stipends to marry and reproduce. I think most people would shudder at that concept these days. But what’s so wrong about it?

    CrackerBarrel.

  14. If cheap we will have a very serious population problem unless we engage in some sort of serious population control. This is due to all adults being for practical purposes young adults with normal sex drives. Unless something is done about that, in which case many will not want this immortality and which may set up an underground immortality, and we are back to a population problem.

    So, when we have the technology to vanquish death and disease, we’ll neglect reproductive control?

  15. Speaking more realistically, I’d say we have absolutely no effing idea what sort of social/cultural/economic/political changes would be wrought by practical immortality. I mean, we had next to no conception of how the printing press, or television, or the Internet would change those four areas…and comparatively those were modest changes to the human experience compared to immortality.

  16. Immortality, on the other hand, would. Reproduction would be at best unnecessary, and at worst highly problematic.

    Let’s assume that overpopulation would be a problem. Well, there’s a simple way to deal with it: every person gets to have one kid. So every couple gets to have two kids. BUT…if they have two kids, they have to sign a binding contract to commit suicide at age 200.

    If they have one kid, there’s a coin flip at birth to determine which one must commit suicide.

    And anyone who commits suicide at any age, without having had a kid, gets to designate someone else to have a kid.

    I don’t think it will ever come to this, but this arrangement would ensure that population doesn’t increase beyond a certain amount, and everyone (who didn’t die by accident) would be assured of at least 200 years of life.

  17. Much as I’d love to live for a thousand years, the thought of living in a world where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt get to live for centuries on their Ethipia-shaped island in Dubai while actual Ethiopians struggle to LIVE is a prospect I find morally sickening.

    I have predicted that the world per-capita GDP (year 2000 dollars, purchasing power parity) will exceed $100,000 by 2055, and $10,000,000 by 2100. In other words, every single person in the world will be a millionaire (year 2000 dollars) well before the year 2100.

    21st century economics

  18. “…We are, in my opinion, beyond evolution being an important factor in future human development. We can now tinker with our children’s genes…”

    I agree that we can use technology to imitate evolution, but I am not at all convinced that our lab version is better. We can make things happen faster, but that is about all.

  19. I have predicted that the world per-capita GDP (year 2000 dollars, purchasing power parity) will exceed $100,000 by 2055, and $10,000,000 by 2100. In other words, every single person in the world will be a millionaire (year 2000 dollars) well before the year 2100.

    So, we will all be rich and live forever. How nice! I guess my aunt really does have balls.

  20. “…In other words, every single person in the world will be a millionaire…”

    At rate the US dollar is declining, it could happen at any moment…

  21. Let’s assume that overpopulation would be a problem. Well, there’s a simple way to deal with it: every person gets to have one kid. So every couple gets to have two kids. BUT…if they have two kids, they have to sign a binding contract to commit suicide at age 200.

    Now that’s certainly a libertarian solution.

  22. “So, we will all be rich and live forever.”

    I never said anything about living forever. (Although that seems like a significant possibility by the end of the century.)

    I *did* say that everyone will be a millionaire by the end of the century. I you disagree, go to my Long Bets prediction, and vote against it:

    Long Bets #194

    We’ll see who’s right. I’m pretty confident that by 2025–a good year for predictions–it will already be apparent that everyone on earth will be a millionaire by the year 2100. (That’s barring global thermonuclear war, or other similar massive calamity.)

    Let’s assume that overpopulation would be a problem. Well, there’s a simple way to deal with it: every person gets to have one kid. So every couple gets to have two kids. BUT…if they have two kids, they have to sign a binding contract to commit suicide at age 200.

    Now that’s certainly a libertarian solution.

    I never claimed it was a “libertarian solution.” I put it out merely to show how trivial the “over-population” problem theoretically caused by immortality is.

    It could be amended to “binding contract to commit suicide at age 200 or get off of the earth.”

  23. “…In other words, every single person in the world will be a millionaire…”

    At rate the US dollar is declining, it could happen at any moment…

    Perhaps you should read more carefully. Or better yet, you could be a little more honest, and quote me fully:

    In other words, every single person in the world will be a millionaire (year 2000 dollars) well before the year 2100.

  24. Mark Bahner,

    He just keeps on ticking.

  25. LarryA said in part–

    Montestruc– If (immortality is) cheap we will have a very serious population problem unless we engage in some sort of serious population control.

    LarryA –Or expand beyond Earth.

    No, that does not solve population problems on Earth. At some point you reach a maximum practical capacity on Earth (which given sufficient technology may be larger than current population, but nevertheless an upper limit will exist.)

    One plausible (to me anyway) legal mechanism is as follows. Immortals will still have a finite death rate due to suicide, violence and accidents; also you will have out migration to space. The allowed number of births in the year following can be limited to the previous year’s deaths plus out migration total. These may be sold by persons out-migrating and may be willed or sold by the estates of the dead.

    What can be done is to have a requirement that if you wish to have children in excess of what you could pay for or inherit as above, you must out migrate, and can use the sale of your right to live on earth as part of your ticket.

    Note that as time goes on, places near Earth will become overpopulated as well and you will have a hard time finding a place willing to take you that you can afford to get to. Interstellar travel will always be expensive IMHO.

  26. If I do not die than I do not go to heaven. That would be bunk as hell. Hence, I need to be ushered into the after-world, but not by my own hand. All these scientists can kiss it if they think they can keep me from the warm embrace of my Creator.

  27. IF WE could all live to be 1,000, well, Social Security really is smoked.

  28. The effects of increased lifespans (I’ll settle for 200 years at first) will have such an effect on a culture that I doubt we can predict what will happen. Some SF writers have taken stabs at it–especially with the effects of bio-engineering. I’d start looking at some of Stanislaw Lem’s writings.

    And yeah, we’d probably have even more pressure to get off this planet. I would anyway–if I had 5000 years of life there’s no way I’m going to stay stuck here on this asteroid gravity trap called Earth.

  29. “Perhaps you should read more carefully. Or better yet, you could be a little more honest, and quote me fully:”

    Mark, I guess my statement was a counter-point to yours. You are saying that everybody will be rich ($1m in constant dollars). I am saying that everybody might well have $1M, but they will be far from “rich”.

    By the way, I think the notion that everybody on the planet will be wealthy is beneath absurd.

  30. “…a world where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt get to live for centuries on their Ethipia-shaped island in Dubai while actual Ethiopians struggle to LIVE is a prospect I find morally sickening.”

    So you’ll forgo the bypass surgery if you need it because not everyone can afford it? Or other high-tech medical procedures/drugs?

    Why does this issue come up every time there’s an age extension debate. We already use medicine along with hygiene, air-bags, doppler radar, etc. to extend and improve our lives while the majority of humanity doesn’t have access to these things.

    There has also been much discussion about uploading. This would probably be much less expensive than biological immortality.

    Of course we have no idea how much immortality treatments will cost. If the nano-bot future appears it might be only as expensive as a vaccine. Or maybe some will let lose an immortality plague.

    Regardless- you don’t have to live forever if you don’t want, just don’t get in my way.

  31. There will be no overpopulation problems, even in a world with dramatically increased lifespans.

    This is because the cost of childrearing is so expensive compared to the cost of birth control. It’s costs almost nothing to prevent pregnancy. And we already experience a dramatic drop in birth rate in the wealthiest countries with the longest lifespans.

  32. Mr Bailey –

    Nice bit of work. Thanks for taking a stab at the festering doubt and fear.

    I don’t necessarily agree with your points, however. “How would human relations be affected?” is a very important question, one which deserves an answer rather than being lumped in with a question on monogamy and psychic energy. *wry grin*

    In point of fact, one that I agree with grumpy realist’s post above that we have NO idea about. Did the people alive in 1900 understand what 2000 was going to be like? Not even close, even though some of them did live that long. Given the continuing change we’re experiencing as well as the adaptation, mutation and destruction of society to attempt to deal with that change, I rather doubt we have a clue as to what a 200-year-long mostly healthy life will generate. It’ll be a stress that’ll blow many modern social, economic, and political assumptions and preconceptions out of the water. (Your example of term limits later in your post is one that may well alter given such lifespans, especially if there remains a society of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ such as exists today.)

    I would also argue your point, “It is very suggestive that as life expectancies increased over the past century, levels of violence also declined.” This oversimplifies a VERY complex series of events that we’ve lived through. I would posit that both extended life expectancy and reduced violence are more likely to be resultants of a series of causes, rather than being directly linked as you seem to presuppose. (It seems that the primary source of lifespan increase has been via improved epidemologic techniques, which in my opinion have little to do for or against violent behavior.)

    Regarding “Whatever can she mean by “aging of the spirit?” ” – excellent question. There seems to be all sorts of hidden assumptions here, including one of my least favorite pro-mortalist arguements, the assumption of boredom replacing infirmity in an extended lifespan scenario. However, you continue to state “But perpetually vital oldsters would have no need for such security…” (referencing avarice), which is something I’d rather disagree with. Avarice is an ongoing effect of the reality underlying economics – unlimited wants, limited capability to fulfill those wants. I would suggest that (as per above) the healthy aged society that is presupposed as the scenario here would be rather different from what you, I, or anyone here could predict.

    Averice MIGHT continue strong. It may wither and disappear, it might become stronger. We just don’t know, without doing the experiment. *wry grin*

    My two cents’ worth.

    Sincerely,
    John B

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