Thought experiments can be really useful tools to better understand the implications of abstract ideas—especially ideas that are accepted at face value as self-evident truths. In some cases, they resemble proofs by contradiction in that they allow us to see that, if said ideas were true, they would end up clashing with other ideas accepted as non-negotiable principles. What we’re going to try today is something like that.
Crossing into another dimension
Every long-standing rejuvenation advocate has had to put up with people claiming that aging is a good thing on the questionable grounds that it may help to prevent overpopulation, cultural stagnation, the rise of “immortal” dictators, getting bored of far too long lives, and so on. (I was even told by a friend of mine—a truly stalwart advocate who’s anything but afraid of bringing the topic up whenever he gets the chance—that a man once briskly dismissed rejuvenation nonchalantly by saying, “Come on, a little bit of death is all right.” It’s hard not to wonder if he’d think the same if the people close to him were dying.)
While we normally fight against this claim, now we’re going to embrace it and assume that aging is a demonstrably good thing indeed for the reasons above. Armed with this assumption, we will now hitch a ride on Dr. Who’s TARDIS and head to a rather bizarre universe where human aging never existed.
Through the looking-glass
Our imaginary journey will require us to make other, fairly reasonable assumptions. (Enjoy them while they last, because they’re just about the last reasonable things we’ll come across.)
Human aging can hardly be uncoupled from the aging of any other species, but in our thought experiment, we will assume the lack of human aging alone; we’re not concerned with whether other species age or not. We also assume that, while your probability of dying in this universe doesn’t grow with age, this doesn’t influence demographics very much until we get to the equivalent of our 1900s; before then, dying of old age in our world was far less common than it is today, and it was especially uncommon when the average human tribe had to fight for its meals—or to prevent its members from becoming meals themselves. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that this was also the case in the parallel world we’re visiting, so not many non-aging people got to live very long anyway.
Human history in this imaginary world was more or less similar to ours, so people living into their 80s (and eventually far beyond) were rather rare before truly effective medicine came along. Essentially, once the humans of this world got infectious diseases under control, they were pretty much done with developing health care, and at that point, the effects of their aging-free nature started to manifest.
Remember that we decided to embrace the assumption that life without aging would be bad, that life extensionists have basically just a bad case of thanatophobia, and that anyone in their right mind would see how aging was a good thing. Therefore, we can expect that, once people in our parallel universe had infections under control and their lifespans started skyrocketing upwards, they would most certainly notice the, er, “problem” of non-aging.
Some of these people started to realize that their lives had lost meaning simply because they had lived past age 80 or 90; as they were still perfectly young and healthy, they regretfully noticed that they would no longer be able to look forward to the agonizing and fatal diseases that would end their meaningless lives.
Others still were bored, and the reasons depend somewhat on the kind of parallel universe we ended up in. It might be one of those nasty parallel universes where all manner of human progress comes to a grinding halt the moment one hits what we call old age, where everything magically loses its appeal if there are enough candles on your birthday cake, or where picking up new interests is forbidden by law to any citizen older than 80 or so.
Beyond these personal problems, other people started to worry about potential, global problems, like overpopulation. (They didn’t worry about pensions because, as aging didn’t exist, they never had any to begin with. They did, though, start to lament how their everlasting good health never gave them an excuse to quit work and instead spend decades suffering from ever-worsening ailments.) They worried that all those old people, by virtue of simply being chronologically old and in spite of having ever-young bodies and minds, would slow down the world’s social and cultural development (apparently, not even the fabled wisdom of old age, which they still praised, could help with that); they were concerned that now dictators could live for a seriously long time; and what about jobs? The old people, no longer decimated by infectious diseases, would now hoard all the jobs, leaving none to the young!—who, incidentally, could never complain about how they were too healthy to quit the jobs that they never had to begin with.
Since the humans of this world never had aging, some of them did get lucky enough to live to a very old age, like two or three hundred, but before hygiene, vaccines, antibiotics, proper safety measures, and so on became widespread, they were simply outliers, rare occurrences far too few in number to justify these concerns. However, now that progress had allowed human lifespans to stretch out to their natural length (that is, a potentially indefinite one), the time to worry about these things had finally come.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
Let’s revisit our initial assumption again: living too long is bad, and aging is an obviously good thing that prevents all personal and global downsides of living too long. Therefore, it goes without saying that, in a world without aging, we should make it happen.
That’s precisely what happened in the parallel world of our thought experiment.
Initially, authorities and institutions started recommending unhealthy diets and more sedentary lifestyles in order to increase the risk of a good old heart attack or diabetes. Vegetables were not made illegal, but by law, they had to have labels like “Eating vegetables seriously benefits you and those around you” or “Veggie-eaters die later. Don’t begin.” (Cigarettes were given for free at public events, but as the immune systems and DNA repair mechanisms of people never really gave in, they weren’t as effective in causing cancer late in life.) Likewise, to respect freedom of choice, gyms weren’t closed down, but they became rather unpopular and frowned upon; the popular magazine Men’s Ill Health once ran an article titled “Exercising is the new non-smoking.” Milk was fortified with alcohol, and vitamin D became a state monopoly in several countries.
These measures and similar others did manage to increase the incidence of disease a little bit, but not much. Afterall, human bodies were still set up by evolutionary means to tolerate a great deal of damage, and only a few unlucky or naturally weak people were affected by these changes.
Then, one day, everything changed when Dr. Aubrey de Gorthaur, a guy without a single hair on his face, came along and proposed what would later be known as SEIS—Strategies for Engineered Inescapable Senescence. He argued that the unthinkable might be possible: age the body thanks to aging biotechnologies. (Arguably, in this world, the words “age” and “aging” would carry little meaning, but we take the liberty of using them to ease our own understanding.) By periodically inflicting enough damage, it might be possible to cause a slow, relentless deterioration of the body with age so that one’s chances of death would rise exponentially after a certain age, eventually ending up with a virtually 100% probability of dying in your 90s. The book in which Dr. de Gorthaur proposed his idea, Ending Youth—The Aging Biotechnologies That Could Cause Human Aging In Our Lifetimes, was a nearly instantaneous hit, although critics found that the “in our lifetimes” bit was somewhat redundant.
Initially, the idea was dismissed as a pipe dream, but thanks to the relentless efforts of an ever-growing advocacy community, it eventually gained acceptance. Among the most prominent advocates, the most worthy of mention are Unreasonable, the chief editor of the Fight Youth! blog, as well as the Life Shortening Advocacy Foundation, which had a stated goal of crowdfunding the cure for youth (not to mention an unpronounceable acronym). Advocates reasoned—if you pass the expression—that aging biotechnologies, by worsening people’s health with age and shortening their lives, could solve all the problems that people were worrying about in one fell swoop: no more immortal dictators, overpopulation, cultural stagnation, boredom, and so on. (A bunch of other problems tied to an aging population would happen instead, but hey—you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, right?)
In 2013, a paper titled The Hallmarks of Youth was published in a prestigious scientific journal, identifying the root causes of human perennial youth that could be targeted by medical intervention to cause aging, further validating that getting sicker with age was possible.
People all over the world embraced the idea, and within a few decades, aging was finally a reality. Yahoo, I guess. (Some people who, like most, were in favor of aging in that it was a good thing for society, had a problem with the fact that non-aging was natural and aging was not. Rumor has it that they all lost each and every one of their marbles attempting to solve the conundrum.)
This is why you shouldn’t hitch a lift from strangers
If you’re starting to suspect that what we hopped on was actually the RETARDIS, you’re likely not alone. Nobody in their right mind would ever think that, if aging wasn’t a thing, we should make it happen and cause people to get sick and die. The only reason why we’re so accepting of aging is that we were born with it and not changing something requires far less effort than changing it. Aging happens slowly enough, and late enough into our lives, that we allow ourselves the luxury of forgetting about it until it’s too late and then make excuses for it.
Rather than attempting to invent biotechnologies to cause aging, what the people in our parallel universe would likely have done if they ever really ran into problems tied to very long lifespans is simply what we have been doing since day one: re-adjusting our society and institutions to keep up with the pace of progress. It might be easier said than done, but it sounds a great deal better than asking people to give up on their good health and lives.
Unlike the parallel-universe people, we’ve got the shortest end of the stick; in our reality, making your health go downhill is far easier than maintaining it, especially as we age. So, let’s leave them to their own devices and focus on turning their problem into our solution.