According to the bible human lifespans should not exceed 120 years and while even today almost nobody reaches this..well…biblical age, this seems to have been a good estimate. In fact, while there have been quite a few people who lived to see 119 there is only one known person, Jeanne Calmet, born 1875, died 1997, who managed to breach this barrier, reaching an age of 122.
However, in the bible we can also read stories of Enoch, who allegedly died at the ripe age of 365 and his son Methuselah, who, depending on the interpretation lived to see his 720th or even 969th birthday.
Let’s move away from the fact that these numbers are symbolic in nature. What if humans could in fact live to be as old as Methuselah, what, if we could become practically immortal?
This is a question which will certainly become more important during the coming decades. Even now it is possible to prolong the healthy life of mice by up to 35% and just last year clinical studies commenced for Metformin, a diabetic medication, which seems to have the side effect of drastically reducing the occurrence of many age-related sicknesses.
And indeed, the goal to prolong human life is closely intertwined with the extermination of sicknesses. First, even if we could extend our lives indefinitely the fun-factor would be greatly decreased if this was accompanied by permanent sickness and decay. Second, the aging-process is an important factor for the occurrence of many diseases and as prevention is a better strategy than therapy, the elimination of aging should be one of the main goals of our medical apparatus. So, the prolongation of life will most likely involve the prevention of aging and thus lead to a form of limited immortality (limited in the sense that a truck crashing into you will probably still be bad news for your health).
And how would the human even look who lives to be 80, 100 or 120 years in perfect health and then drops dead?
This should also alleviate one of the main concerns people have when it comes to immortality, as of course we are talking about prolonged life in good health. Although, at least in the western world, we have experienced a significant increase in life expectancy during the last decades – for example, while a 60year old in the US could expect to live for another 14.8 years in 1901, this number went up to 23 years in 2009 – this additional time is seldom associated with good health. Indeed, sometimes appears like our modern medical system mostly prolonged the period of suffering. Nobody would sign up for an additional 100 years in the hospital, but I doubt that someone would object to that same period of time, if it could be spent in good health.
But is it even ethical to strive for a prolonged, potentially even indefinite life? Is it not egotistical if I never want to look death in the eye, ignoring the societal wellbeing?
To answer this question, I would like to present an argument made by the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey (although slightly modified): I do not want to develop Alzheimer and I do not want anybody else to develop Alzheimer. I also do not want that anybody to develop cancer or suffer a stroke or anything similar… I also do not want anybody to die, if he does not want to. As I believe that these wishes are shared by most people the individual wish becomes a societal good, so, in short, there is not dichotomy between the individual and the society.
However, there are more than humanistic reasons for defeating the aging process. In fact, it would also be a pretty good idea from an economic standpoint. Especially western societies suffer from an extreme superannuation of their populations. In Japan a quarter of the population is 65 or older which leads to significant economic problems, which could be counteracted by stopping the aging process. Additionally, the costs of healthcare could be lowered immensely, as there would be less research required into age-related sicknesses and the cost of illnesses increases dramatically with age. And not only on a human level, also from an economic perspective the yearly loss of knowledge and experience is nothing short of a catastrophe.
Every human should have the chance to unlock their full potential as this is the educational mandate that was given to us by so many great thinkers. From Meister Eckert to Comenius, Humboldt and Goethe we always find the same fundamental goal, which Goethe describes as follows: “the cultivation of my individual self, here as I am has […] been […] my wish and my purpose”.
How many people wish, at one point or another, to have chosen a different path but it simply is too late for a new apprenticeship, a new major, a new venture. A prolonged lifespan would afford them the time to fulfill their dreams, to become the best version of themselves and this would certainly be worthwhile on a personal, as well as on an economic level.
Maybe some people would even gain a greater respect for their own life. Maybe people would be less willing to sacrifice theirs for an ideology considering that the price would be eternity.
Currently 150.000 people die each day and as I see it, this is a humanitarian catastrophe of inconceivable proportions, we have just gotten used to it.
Of course, there are additional problems which could be caused by eternal life. Are we ready to deal with immortal dictators, work for centuries? What about the threat of overpopulation or societal stagnation?
I personally believe that none of these arguments is particularly persuasive.
The fact that work is seen as something negative by many people is in itself problem which should be solved independently of the duration of human lifespans. Of course, nobody wants to work a 40 hour job that he hates but in general people strive to be productive members of society (and are willing to work for it). So, it should be our goal to create jobs which do not contribute to the slow destruction of the (motivation of the) workers, no matter if one stays in that job for 10, 40 or 100 years.
Let’s turn to the overpopulation problem. There is one huge misconception that seems to be quite common when discussing this. When people think about population development they automatically assume that we are talking about exponential growth and indeed, if I have 4 children and each of them go on to have 4 children things go south fast. The good news is however, that if people don’t die, they tend to do that only once. This is why the effect, although noticeable, is not as large as would be expected. Also, overpopulation is a very relative term. I did the calculations for Germany and it turns out that for a hundred years, people in Germany could stop dying until they would reach the population density of the Netherlands. Also, it is worth noting that countries with higher life expectancies tend to produce fewer children per capita.
Then there is the problem of societal stagnation and why I believe that it is not a problem at all. First, I do not think that every new idea is superior to older ones and if they are, they will prevail, even if the people who supported the old ones, don’t die out. To turn to Germany once more, 84% of the people over 50 accept homosexuality, even though many of them were raised with very different ideals. Of course, it may be that social development slows down to some extent but is this really a bad thing? Shouldn’t we strive for quality, not quantity?
The scientific development however is not even in danger of slowing down. As a study of Science magazine shows, age is not a significant factor when it comes to the question when scientists produce their best results. In fact, they may write their magnus opus during any point of their career.
But what about the dictators? Well, they don’t tend to die of natural causes anyway.
Of course, maybe we will simply get bored after the first couple of hundred years. Well, this may be but then there is an obvious solution and to quote Brian Kennedy (altered slightly): if I had the choice between cancer with 75, Alzheimer with 80 and dead with 85 or bored at 150 I know what I would choose.
Prolonged life for mice:
Situation in Japan:
Acceptance of homosexuality:
Quotes from Aubrey de Grey and Brian Kennedy