I just read a very interesting article about a girl who hasn’t aged in 16 years (which isn’t exactly an accurate statement, but fits well enough). The story briefly talks about how studying the girl’s bizarre condition could potentially teach us a lot about human aging, and perhaps even how to prevent it.
But I was a bit troubled when I read this:
In the long term, the idea that the aging process might somehow be manipulated raises serious questions about what human beings might do with that knowledge.
“Clearly, that’s the science fiction aspect of it,” said Walker, describing the social and ethical dilemmas that would arise. “We can’t have continued reproduction and people who don’t age.”
This confuses me, and makes me wonder why a doctor would say such a thing. Surely he has no problem with treating people medically to prolong their lives. Aging is a natural process, but so are cancer and seizures and disease. Thanks to medical science, the average human lifespan has doubled over the past 2000 years or so (I didn’t bother to look up that number, by the way). In a way, aging is just another problem with our bodies for scientists to fix.
The doctor in this story brings up the issue of reproduction among a populace that lives much longer than we do now. That’s certainly a valid concern, but it’s not exactly difficult to think of a solution. In fact, we’ve already got one, and have been using it for centuries: don’t breed as much. In the Western world, people are both living longer and having fewer children. In China, where the problem of overpopulation is a much bigger problem, they’ve instituted policies that restrict families to only one child (with monetary penalties for more).
On the extreme side of things, let’s say that people are able to live 1,000 years. If we assume that people reproduce at the same rate and number that they do now (let’s say 2 kids by age 30) we’d see huge problems with overpopulation within 100 years. You’d potentially get to see 33 generations of your own offspring. But that’s assuming that our habits wouldn’t change in the future from what they are now, which is absurd.
That’s why I think it’s so weird that people are still asking whether we should or shouldn’t extend human life spans. It’s going to happen. You can’t prevent people from learning things that could radically change society. If we find out how to do it, people will do it. If anyone tries to suppress that information to prevent it from being used, somebody else will discover it. Longer human life spans are inevitable.
Some rambling follows
This whole issue reminds me of a book (and its sequels) that I read a few years ago (and I may be remembering certain aspects incorrectly). The book is called Eon, by Greg Bear. One of the many things it deals with are the “descendants” of humanity, removed from us by thousands of years and very advanced technology. The less-advanced Naderites (and if you’re thinking that they’re somehow related to Ralph Nader, you’re right) are more or less human as we are now, but the Geshels are much more interesting.
The Geshels have fully embraced the technological augmentation of the human body to great effect. For one, their life spans are very long, and they can even have multiple lives, though they’re limited by their society to just a few. Their brains are backed up in great computer networks, and even after they’ve used up all of their lives, their knowledge and personalities are saved, so that future generations can benefit from their experiences and interact with the “dead”.
Geshels also aren’t limited to the typical human form. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who look nearly identical to modern humans. On the other end, there are those who have chosen to completely forego human forms, instead existing as balls of light or energy. What’s so interesting about this to me is that this makes you wonder exactly what constitutes “human”. Where do you draw the line, and can a line be drawn at all?
Being so different from modern humans, reproduction for Geshels is also quite different. Parents merge parts of their knowledge, experience, and physical and mental traits, and a new “human” is created, which grows up in a virtual environment until a certain age, when it’s allowed to choose what its new body will look like, what gender it’ll be, and so on.
Sounds really cool.