Two days ago, famous billionaire and new Twitter owner Elon Musk Tweeted that he cannot think of a worse curse than living forever, in reply to a Tweet relating to the predicted heat death of the universe.
A consistent argument
This is not Elon Musk’s first mention of opposition to longer lifespans. In a March 26 interview with Business Insider, he noted that most modern political leaders are considerably older than in past eras and opposed the idea of life extension on the grounds that it would facilitate a gerontocracy, expressing the opinions that old people with old ideas would be out of touch with the average person and cause a halt in social advancement. While he did not express a fear of immortal dictators, that argument shares many of the same characteristics.
The inability of many older people to properly adapt to new situations is not a magical property of chronological age. Instead, the inability to form new memories and learn new things can be traced to biological impairments in neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, which becomes impaired by, among other things, exposure to old serum. With this biological origin in mind, it is somewhat disconcerting to see a noted transhumanist such as Musk, who has co-founded a company developing brain-computer interfaces, concerned about an ossified gerontocracy for this reason.
In that same interview, he also stated that he would like political leaders to be within 10 to 20 years of the average age. In a world with widespread and effective life extension, this would be a gradually narrowing characteristic.
Living forever, immortality, and life extension
We at Lifespan.io, along with every other responsible life extensionist, do not discuss “living forever” or “immortality” as part of the goals of life extension. Forever is a very long time, and making someone actually immortal would entail removing all possible causes of death for that person. Some people use the term “biological immortality” or negligible senescence, which is the removal of all age-related causes of death; if you were biologically immortal, your body’s processes would indefinitely sustain your life instead of gradually failing due to age-related diseases. This is not the same as actually living forever or being truly invincible.
Some transhumanists see life extension as a stepping stone to a greater goal: removing more and more causes of death, biological and otherwise. As a life extension advocacy organization, this sort of far-future thinking is simply beyond our scope. Instead, we focus on the age-related diseases that are actively causing harm, misery, and death to billions of ordinary human beings right now.
Worse curse #1: Alzheimer’s disease
We have written extensively on potential treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, but these articles do not usually discuss the human tragedies involved. People who suffer from Alzheimer’s forget who they are. They lose the ability to remember their own spouses and children and can no longer perform the basic functions of everyday life. Their loved ones are left helplessly watching as their minds gradually deterioriate. Whether or not Alzheimer’s is a fate worse than death is a thorny and delicate ethical question, but to suggest that it is a fate worse than living healthy and not dying is, on every ethical level, nonsensical.
Worse curse #2: Sarcopenia
The age-related loss of muscle known as sarcopenia, and the concept of frailty more generally, destroy the ability of older individuals to take care of themselves. It often turns children into caregivers, as the aging parents can simply no longer physically do the things they need to live safe and comfortable lives. People with sarcopenia and related mobility impairments, such as arthritis, become more and more disabled, gradually losing autonomy and the ability to do the things they loved. This is also certainly a worse curse than staying in good health indefinitely.
Worse curse #3: Stroke
Like Alzheimer’s, stroke is much more frequent in older people and causes brain damage; unlike Alzheimer’s, the damage occurs all at once. Not all strokes are fatal. The American Stroke Association has an extensive site detailing what might happen to someone after a stroke. This includes drastic behavior changes, vision problems, language problems, partial paralysis, or even complete, ‘locked-in’, whole-body paralysis. Having an indefinite healthy lifespan cannot be a worse curse than that.
Worse curse #4: Cancer
The incidence of cancer, of course, increases with age. Like aging, cancer is not a single disease; cancers vary wildly in their prognoses and treatment. With modern methods, some cancers, such as melanoma, are relatively easy to deal with if they are detected and treated early; other cancers, such as pancreatic, have much worse prognoses. Cancer is often an exceptionally agonizing condition, with the pain getting worse and worse as the condition proceeds to its fatal conclusion. It is difficult to believe that staying alive and healthy can be a worse curse than this.
Worse curse #5: Inevitable aging
Nearly everyone in the world has, since a very young age, known that they are going to grow old and die. Nearly everyone has also come to accept this. This is, and has been throughout all of human history, entirely correct: without interventions, everyone in the world, including you and all of your friends and family members, will one day die of age-related diseases if nothing else. Unlike Elon Musk, we believe that we can, and should, use all available technologies to change whatever is possible to change about this situation for the good of all humanity. Having the sword of slow death by aging hanging over your head is a worse curse than not having it there.
Elon Musk’s Tweet can be understood in the context of far-future transhumanism or near-future life extension. It is wrong in both cases. Obviously, we can’t survive an actual heat death of the universe, and the idea that we will simply run out of things to do and become bored in the far future is highly unlikely. Even if it is the case, that’s a problem for our future selves to deal with – if age-related diseases don’t kill us first.
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