What is it that really matters: preserving individual lives or preserving humanity? Is it more important to grant individuals the option to live as long as they’d like in good health, or is it more important to ensure the preservation of our species?
This sort of question isn’t unheard of in the context of discussions of pros and cons of rejuvenation biotechnology; at times, when presented with the possibility of indefinite lifespans, some people reply that focusing on the preservation of our species is more important. This observation is reminiscent of the “other priorities” objection, and one could respond to it in the same way. However, this issue is also worth examining from other angles.
Quick comeback: the two goals aren’t incompatible
A practical remark to make here is that preserving individual lives automatically preserves the human species because the species only exists as long as there are humans. Not everyone agrees that having a population of individuals that live indefinitely is “good for the species”—be it for fear of overpopulation or of cultural stagnation—but this concept is rather vaguely defined and not objectively measurable. However, here we are stepping into a different territory, one that has been explored in other articles, so we won’t go there in this one.
Another point worth making is that some people are concerned that indefinite lifespans might, for some reason, spell the end of humanity in the sense that the species might die out. At this point, there is no evidence to think that this would be the case, and it certainly cannot be taken for granted. One thing that is granted, though, is that if somehow we knew for a fact that indefinite lifespans would inevitably lead to humanity’s extinction, with no possible workarounds, then we’d better let go of the idea. In such a scenario, presently alive people would die whether we develop rejuvenation or not; between two options entailing our death, we might as well choose the one that doesn’t entail humanity’s doom too. Thankfully, we’ll hardly have to make this choice.
Do you care about humanity? Then Don’t leave it
Some among us are very fond of the idea that our species will still be here long after they’re gone. They deem the survival of the species more important than their own. That’s very noble indeed, but there is something about that worth noting.
You can care about humanity, or value its survival more than your own, only for as long as you are alive. The moment you pass away, even if you’ve held humanity as the dearest thing to you until your very final breath, you will stop caring, because you will stop existing. Maybe you will pass away with the blissful feeling that you’ve been part of a great civilization that will go on until the end of time, but that feeling will be over in a brief moment followed by nothingness. You won’t be able to remember it or enjoy it, but this is not the worst part. The worst part is that any deathbed certainty you may have that humanity will go on beyond your death is not a certainty at all.
The only surefire way you have to know for a fact that humanity is still there is sticking around with it. Anything may happen past the point of your death, and there’s no way for you to know that humanity won’t go extinct in the future, no matter how much faith you may have in it. Worse still, if you’re dead, you can’t help in preventing the possible demise of humanity; even without dramatizing the issue so much, if you’re dead, you can’t help humanity improve. If you really care about humanity, then you shouldn’t leave it.
Humanity is not a football club
One of the innumerable romanticizations of death that we’re often presented with is that, as one generation dies out, it’s just passing on the responsibilities of life to the next. Someone else will take on the task of perpetuating the species, and in general, it doesn’t really matter who it is. Never mind that we all die; as long as there’s someone to pass the torch to, somebody who will continue to play for team humanity, that’s all it matters.
That may be a nice-sounding metaphor, but it is very inaccurate. There’s no marathon that humanity is running, no game that it is playing. Other species may just keep on reproducing for reproduction’s sake and play evolution’s game; we don’t have to.
Speaking of games and metaphors, there’s one I find rather enlightening—and timely, since, at the moment of writing, the World Football Championship is taking place. You might never have thought of it, but sports teams are mere abstractions, and I always found it odd that people would root for one or another. Members of a team—from players to managers—are only on a team for a certain time before moving on to another team, another job, retirement, or even dying. After a couple of decades, a team has completely changed, and the only thing that is probably still the same is the name.
When you root for a team, you’re actually rooting for its name, or more accurately, the idea of that particular team. Not the players, not the management; those change and may well change often during your time as a supporter of the team. Supporters often hope for this or that player to join the team, and for some other whom they dislike to leave for the good of the team itself, whose only real constant is the name—which is what you’re really rooting for.
Not that there’s anything wrong with it: it’s an innocent, completely legitimate pastime. Except that we adopt this very same model when we speak of a generation passing on the torch to the next; that, as it involves the death of millions, is a touch less innocent.
Humanity is not a football club, and neither are other, smaller groups of humans. The family of my great-grandfather, intended as himself, his wife, and their children, is dead. Their genes are still around, and other families have descended from them, in some case even bearing the same family name (another abstraction), but the specific individuals making up my great-grandfather’s family are gone, and so is that specific family.
You might argue that they’re still alive in their descendants’ memories and genes or that their name is being passed down, keeping alive the family, but these are all mental gymnastics to present the fact that they’re dead in a less unappealing fashion. They’re dead, and whether someone still remembers anything about them, or carries a few of their genes or their name, doesn’t make them any less dead.
Even if we accepted the mental gymnastics, no one in their right mind would argue that my great-grandfather’s family is still there, only with different members, like we do in the case of a football team, but that’s exactly what we do when we say that humanity will carry on without us. The whole of humanity of the 600s is dead and buried, and entirely new humanities have come and gone since then. Currently, humanity is comprised of around 7.6 billion individuals, including you and me, and as things stand, they’ll slowly be plucked out one by one and replaced by new individuals, who will collectively inherit the name “humanity”.
However, “humanity” doesn’t have goals, dreams, expectations, feelings, or desires; the people constituting today’s humanity do. Far from being unimportant, the fact that we all die matters a great deal, and even if team humanity will still exist, only with different players, it doesn’t make it any better. As conscious beings, perpetuating our species for the mere sake of reproduction should hardly be a worthy goal to us; the preservation of its members, present and future, should be.
A brief detour: of carts and horses
On the subject of future generations, one often hears that their well-being depends on our actions today, and thus we should work to leave them with a better world than we had; this is a commendable intention, and, in fact, it is one of the reasons why we should develop rejuvenation—to spare future human beings the plague of age-related diseases.
However, future generations are not here yet; we are, and it’s rather mystifying how everyone frets about the currently nonexistent needs of people yet to come but not so much about the very real needs of people who already exist. Today, people suffer from, and die of, age-related diseases; it’s a concrete problem, with tangible effects on the world at large in the present; yet many people seem to worry more about the potential problems they imagine that rejuvenation might cause to future, hypothetical people who’re nowhere near being in their potential mothers’ wombs yet.
Some people are even concerned about the opportunities taken from unborn people, who might be born thanks to the resources freed up if we kept dying of aging instead. According to this line of thinking, living, breathing human beings should give up not only their lives but also their good health so that some unspecified, imaginary people may be born. This isn’t even putting the cart before the horse; this is putting the cart before the horse before carts were invented, before anything vaguely resembling horses ever evolved, and before the concept of “before” was ever thought up for the first time.
The number of different people that could, in theory, ever be born is astronomical, and just picking one partner over another to have children with immediately “takes opportunity” from a myriad of them. The factors that lead to someone being or not being born are innumerable, and there’s no hope that any choice you make will not lead to a hypothetical someone missing the birth train. By the way, as far as we know, there are no unborn people dwelling on the fact that they don’t exist, so perhaps we can remove this from our list of things worth losing sleep over.
And the winner is…
So, who’s more important? Individuals or humanity? It should be clear by now that we’d better think in terms of individuals. This is not to say that one’s own benefit should come at everyone else’s expense; not many people would sleep soundly if they had to choose between their own lives and those of everyone else. If they chose to sacrifice themselves, it would hardly be to preserve the species; more likely, they’d do it to avoid sacrificing so many other individuals.
The good of humanity shouldn’t be about maintaining our presence in the universe just for the sake of being here; it should be about the well-being and life quality of the individuals that make up humanity—and when they’re dead, or about to die, individuals aren’t generally doing very well. Being concerned about future generations is both understandable and commendable, but it should not lead us to neglect who’s already here. As long as we exist, and our good is taken care of, the preservation and the good of humanity will be ensured as well; future humans are welcome to join.