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Whenever I talk about the notion of radical longevity--essentially, finding ways to stop the aging process and with it the inevitability of death--I'm always surprised at the amount of resistance that idea encounters.

Some of the resistance comes from a fear of overpopulation, which I don't think is supported by historical observation. One of the things we tend to see whenever a society becomes more prosperous and more long-lived is declining birthrate. Worldwide, longer lifespan is coupled very tightly to lower birthrate; many industrialized countries, in fact, actually have negative population growth, offset only by immigration. As the world advances in standard of living and in longevity, there's no reason to believe birthrates won't continue to decline.

Some of it is based on the notion that many people don't seem to want to live forever. That's fine; I'm quite fond of the notion that people should be able to choose, if they like. If a person doesn't want to live for two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years, that seems perfectly reasonable to me, even if I don't share that choice. I don't advocate that anyone be forced to live forever; and on the flip side of the same coin, I'd appreciate if folks not advocate that I be forced to have a lifespan that's only 70 or 80 years or whatever.

But some of it, I'm convinced, is due to the influence of some religious ideas that I think are both self-contradictory and toxic; and they're ideas which have so subtly engrained themselves in American society that they're held even by people who don't consider themselves religious at all.




An objection I sometimes hear when I talk about increasing human lifespan is "What makes you think you deserve to live longer?" And that argument floors me every time I hear it.

It is interesting to me how common the notion that longer life is something that must be "earned" is. It's an idea with deep roots in Christianity, of course; the promise of heaven for the righteous and hell for the wicked directly couples a person's good behavior to the offer of eternal life. And there's no doubt that Christian Protestant traditions have planted very deep roots indeed into the soil of American society. Libertarianism, for example, could be argued to be the little more than the Puritan work ethic dressed in modern language.

But curiously, this argument seems to be very limited in its scope. We rarely hear that people need to earn the right to live for 70 years, in spite of the fact that this is a good 30 years longer than the average life expectancy at the turn of the 20th century; apparently, sufficiently small and incremental extensions to lifespan escape the "you have to justify your life in order to earn this privilege" clause.

And effectively, that's what the argument is: a presumption that an effectively unbounded lifespan is a privilege, not a right, and therefore something to be revoked upon insufficient demonstration of worth.

Taken to its (il)logical conclusion, one might postulate that if we start from the premise that long life is something that only the sufficiently righteous have earned, we might propose a system whereby people at the age of 20 or so--the nominal lifespan of early humans in nomadic hunter/gatherer societies--are tested on their worth, with those being deemed insufficiently worthy being taken out behind the chemical shed and shot. They might, I don't know, even be seen as a resource, with their remains being liquified and fed to the living or something.

Yet I've never heard anyone, even those who say "What makes you think you deserve to live forever?", propose such a thing. It seems that long life must be earned, but only up to a point; before that point, it's a right, not a privilege.

And that's where the whole philosophy falls apart.




It seems to me that many religions, particularly Christian religions, hold on the one hand that eternal life is something that must be earned, but cling on the other to the idea that life itself is sacred and that all living people (with some limitations and exclusions that vary from denomination to denomination, and may include gays, lesbians, heretics, atheists, convicted criminals, and/or brown people) have an intrinsic right to life.

This right to life is promoted most directly and actively when it comes to children and infants, with some folks believing so strongly in this essential right that they feel called upon to defend it by planting pipe bombs and shooting doctors.

And all of this strikes me as being a bit contradictory.

You see, from my perspective it looks a bit odd to say that life is something sacred, which is the most basic and most sacrosanct of all human rights--but only in limited quantities, to be determined by the average longevity of the folks around you plus perhaps a decade or two; anything more than that is a privilege to be earned. So presumably a Medieval artisan who declared his desire to live to be a hundred years old might be met with "What makes you think you deserve to live that long?" whereas a modern American might only be asked the same question if his desire were to be to reach, say, two or three hundred.

But what really gets me is the number of folks of no particular religious leanings, and occasionally even folks who identify as entirely atheistic, have bought into this notion. Life is precious, sure, but only if as it doesn't last past a certain sell-by date, which is never clearly enumerated but definitely seems to be greater than 100 years or so. A person wanting to live for a hundred and sixty years might get a few raised eyebrows; a person wanting to live for a thousand will almost certainly be asked "how have you earned it?"

It seems to me that if life has intrinsic value, then the pursuit of that which frees us from the ravages of old age, the indignity of encroaching enfeeblement, and the ultimate insult of death must necessarily be a virtue; whereas if life is something which must be earned in order to be justified, then it seems entirely consistent and logical to make it an ongoing thing, perhaps with regular tests, and give an exemption only to those too young to have yet begun to work toward earning it.

But what you can't do is have it both ways.

If you believe as I do that every death is a travesty, the permanent loss of a unique perspective on the universe, then even asking a question like "What have you done to earn it?" becomes an appalling insult. But then, I would say that I fall firmly in the "life is sacred" camp, perhaps even more than the folks who proclaim this principle on the part of some god or gods. And unlike those folks, I don't attach an expiration date to the preciousness of life.


Comments

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kitwench
Jun. 27th, 2010 03:23 am (UTC)
I'd be more concerned that radical longevity would reduce change.
Overall, the older someone is, the more likely they are to resist change.
I won't address the idea that a few wealthy folk will hold all the power over who gets to live longer - new health tech will always flow first to those who can afford to play guinea pig.
However, even with open access to R.L. across the playing field, those who do choose to live longer will have more time to rise to positions of influence and will eventually control more wealth, for far longer than the brief spans you mention as past changes in human longevity.
After all, the 'average' of 40 years you mention includes a very high mortality rate for those under 5, and while 70 was not typical then, it was not unheard of - and we can now foresee R.L easily doubling if not tripling that.
That's a fairly radical change, and while blazing new trails is very much a human trait, our tendency to reject change as we age is fairly common.
So - a society that intends to reduce a birth rate being not all bad, the same society being run by folks far older than we've previously experienced for far longer per 'person in power' indicates a potential stagnation that does NOT hold much appeal.

londubh
Jun. 27th, 2010 05:06 am (UTC)
My girlfriend read a book that solved this problem quite nicely. In this world, where lifespans are so long that you're not considered to be a master of something until you've been at it for 200 years, you were not allowed to be a politician past your... 150th year, I want to say?

Certainly, that would result in slower change than we currently see, but it avoids the whole "It worked fine a millennium ago" argument.
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red_girl_42
Jun. 27th, 2010 03:53 am (UTC)
It is interesting to me how common the notion that longer life is something that must be "earned" is. It's an idea with deep roots in Christianity, of course; the promise of heaven for the righteous and hell for the wicked directly couples a person's good behavior to the offer of eternal life.

Of course, in both of those instances (heaven and hell) people are actually getting eternal life. It's just that one eternal life is wonderful and the other is, well, hell.

Perhaps religious folks object to radical longevity because they see it as a way to avoid being judged. If you don't die you never have to face your maker and either be rewarded in heaven or punished in hell. Evil people can live forever without fearing hell's damnation.

Just a hypothesis--I have no idea what deeply religious people think.

curgoth
Jun. 27th, 2010 04:40 am (UTC)
My understanding of soteriology (as a not exactly religious person) is that the idea is weirder than that - that salvation, being so awesome, is *so* awesome that it cannot even be earned. Hence, God's grace in saving people who cannot do anything good enough to deserve it. You can, however, screw it up and prove yourself deserving of damnation by not doing what the religion in question says.

When you get into Calvinism, it gets weirder.
lovewithoutfear
Jun. 27th, 2010 05:22 am (UTC)
Wow, fascinating topic. To me it was poignant, your remark about death as a loss of a unique perspective on the universe. Especially as another person on my flist just posted about her mother's death and all the things that woman had left undone that were uniquely hers to do, that no one else could finish.

I've never heard the deserving and earning arguments you address here. When this topic has come up in my hearing, the objections I've heard have had to do with

1)elitism/the notion that R.L. would just make the rich and powerful richer and more powerful and

2)skepticism. I don't think many people believe the human lifespan *can* be expanded that much. Maybe out to 120 or so. I wonder if those who are skeptical are annoyed with what they see as crackpot science or claims to Sooper Sekrit Knowledge, and that in turn is where the accusations of elitism come from.

Personally I think life is precious and sacred, AND I think that is not incompatible with its having a beginning, middle, and end. It seems to me that death is a natural part of life -- pretty much all living things die, so I don't think I identify with seeing each death as a travesty (though each is a loss). That said, I do of course empathize with the longing to make life as satisfying, happy, healthy and long as (ethically) possible.

Thank you for the thought provoking topic! There's a lot to chew on here.
tacit
Jun. 28th, 2010 05:00 am (UTC)
Longevity would ultimately, I suspect, make EVERYONE more rich and more powerful, as we are also pursuing things like molecular level nanotechnology which, if they are realized, would make many of the assumptions of a scarcity economy somewhat obsolete.

That's a whole 'nother issue, though.

It seems to me that death is a natural part of life...

Sure it is. So are typhoid, hookworm, smallpox, botulism, starvation, and being eaten by leopards. But folks rarely argue in favor of these things on the grounds that they're a natural part of life... :)
addiejd
Jun. 27th, 2010 06:01 am (UTC)
Hell yeah, Logan's Run!

The objection that first comes to my mind would be that if you don't expect to die one day you won't appreciate everything that happens in your life, but, then again, that would also depend on the individual person. Even if it was universally true that wouldn't answer the question of what that time limit should be, who should decide it, and what right they have on subjecting others to it. Also, even if you did want to die after a certain time period, I'm sure that you would appreciate the medical advances that would keep you in tip-top health until (s)he decided to pull the plug.

As for the age leads to stagnation thing, my grandmother is in her late 80's and has learned (limitedly) to use email and surf the internet. I say limitedly because she only learned enough to suit her needs, as a retiree with a full and busy life she doesn't have time to spend hours per day online, and it has nothing to do with her capacity to absorb it. In fact, she volunteers in the winter/spring to do taxes for people who can't afford to pay to have them done, and that requires her to learn complicated new laws and rules yearly, which she wouldn't be able to do if she wasn't still able to think clearly and adapt. If your fairly typical immigrant (people who are arguably, according to anthropologists, the most resistant to change because they want to hold onto the culture of their past homes) who has English as her 5th language and has been in the country for 50+ years can appreciate technology and change I don't see why anyone else couldn't; people just need to be taught to appreciate it and why.
tacit
Jun. 28th, 2010 05:03 am (UTC)
The objection that first comes to my mind would be that if you don't expect to die one day you won't appreciate everything that happens in your life, but, then again, that would also depend on the individual person.

Indeed. Most joyful folks I know personally aren't joyful because they think they're going to die; and contrawise, the inevitability of death, for many people, snot only doesn't make them appreciate life, it actually makes them reject life. Think of how many religious traditions tell their followers to turn away from "the World" and to see life as an unfortunate burden to be got through because the REAL reward is in some supernatural heaven that we can only get to after we die.

knaw
Jun. 27th, 2010 07:48 am (UTC)
Wrap music.
This is off-topic, but how do you get the text to wrap around your photos like a magazine?
tacit
Jun. 28th, 2010 05:05 am (UTC)
Re: Wrap music.
With HTML. You add more code to the HTML IMG tag, like so:

<img src="the URL of the image" align="left" style="margin-left: 0px; margin-right: 10px;">

align="left" tells the browser to put the image to the left of the block of text that follows. The style tells the browser to put a 10-pixel margin between the image and the text.
sweh
Jun. 27th, 2010 01:05 pm (UTC)
I'm confused; doesn't your position require you to have as many children as possible, because life is previous, and to increase the number unique perspectives on the universe? (Fortunately you allow people "choice" so this would prevent you being a rabid anti-abortionist :-))

In my case I think I was infected with "long life good!" at an early age because of James Blish's "Cities In Flight" series, which had universal anti-agathics which could stop the aging process indefinitely (as long as the drugs were taken). Not sure if they could reverse some of the symptoms (been so long since I read the books). And then there's Heinlein's breeding program leading to extended life through genetics.

My concern with reality, though, is how we get there from here. Current life prolonging techniques are not anti-agathics. The result of a declining birth rate is an aging population. Do we want a society where people live to 120, confined to chairs hooked up to machines keeping them alive? Could we afford it (even now social security may not be able to match population trends; what happens when more people are taking out than putting in)? Is the person thus confined having a good "quality of life"?

Sure, some people are active for longer (my parents are 72 and 68. They're both in good health; they just repainted their vacation home in last week; Dad's back, knees, ankles ached a lot afterwards, but he can still do it). But there's already a lot of things he can't do and is dependent on others. Mentally they both seem mostly OK.

An indefinitely long life where people are in their prime... yes, good. But that's just science fiction. It seems to me that we're getting an increased active period and an even more increased dependent period. And that concerns me.
fallingupthesky
Jun. 27th, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
There are people who manage to make it to their 100s while still being just as active and healthy as someone in their 30s or 40s. Aside from a bit of luck, this also requires a lifetime of being engaged in a general lifestyle which is strongly at odds with the modern corporate financial system - one that is "designed" to burn people out for the sake of short term profits for the wealthiest and then throw them away.
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libbydabomb
Jun. 27th, 2010 01:32 pm (UTC)
I'd rather die young and live a legendary life than live long and be forgotten. :)
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fallingupthesky
Jun. 27th, 2010 08:40 pm (UTC)
Throughout history most societies have banned compound interest. It is a stupid, stupid idea. Aside from perpetuating injustice, in the long run it also crashes the financial system.

The only reason why we've been able to get away with it for so long in modern times is because the use of oil has exponentially expanded the global economy, which mostly negated the drawbacks of compound interest. Now that we've hit the practical limit as to how much oil we can extract at one time, the economy can't expand anymore. So it's crashy time, whee!
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roguebaby
Jun. 27th, 2010 04:39 pm (UTC)
I think extended life would best go hand in hand with space exploration/colonization.

This would handle alot of the objections that certain people have: overpopulation, stultification, bordom... tho maybe not elitism.
It would be damn hard to be bored with strange new worlds to explore. This sort of thing, I don't understand why everyone doesn't find exciting to think about

I don't think I would ever get bored of long life, as I am too curious and always have that desire to 'see what happens next'. The only thing that gives me pause is the thought that certain douchbags in the world, Limbaugh to name a one, would be around forever, spouting their particular brand of asshattery.
malaika02
Jun. 28th, 2010 01:21 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure how overpopulation could be an objection that only certain people have... I think it's the primary dilemma that would have to be addressed, either by colonizing other planets or finding a way to reduce the rapid consumption of Earth's resources. If you believe that Earth has a finite amount of natural resources that we are consuming faster than can be replenished, then it does indeed become a matter of who "deserves" to live and consume those resources-- a superhuman for 1,000 years, or 10 people (10 unique perspectives...) living 100 years each over that 1,000 years?
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peristaltor
Jun. 27th, 2010 05:24 pm (UTC)
Two perspectives from literature should be considered.

The first, Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Gulliver along his meanderings met with a society who occasionally had immortal members, identified with a birth mark on their foreheads. Instead of spending their immortal lives living, though, they were cursed to spend a normal life of a normal span, then spend the rest in dotage, a permanent drain on the resources of the society. Picture nursing home residents that will never leave.

The second, Bruce Sterling's Distraction. In this, only those who could afford the treatments got them. As another commenter mentioned, this meant they amassed a fortune and managed it at a different level than people who have only spent thirty or so years working and saving. This elevated the treated elderly to a very different societal level than the naturally aging, and caused enormous discontent with those who could not only not afford the treatments, but who saw their own inheritances spent on their parents' treatments, sticking them in permanent poverty.

We've already seen something like the social disruption of these two scenarios, though in microcosm. Think about the pension systems of the states and of the larger corporations, with a retirement eligibility from a bygone era before medical science could reliably prevent heart attacks and strokes. People used to retire at 60 or so and die a few years later; now they're dying 20 or 30 years later. Those still working are getting their own future benefits reduced (me included) to pay for the currently retired. The Baby Boom Bulge ain't helping.

With that said, I say anyone who gets a radical treatment had better demonstrate complete economic self-sufficiency, and the ability to continue contributing to their society's economic production long before their dotage. Otherwise, expect such increases in life to destabilize societies around the world, and for these newly long-lived to die horrible deaths from unnatural causes fueled by impotent rage.
fallingupthesky
Jun. 27th, 2010 08:49 pm (UTC)
I've never heard "What makes you think you deserve to live longer?". If I had, my response would be that I don't believe anyone really "deserves" anything. So while I don't deserve to live longer, I also don't *not* deserve to.

The one I hear most often is "only death gives life meaning". To that I say... I... Um... Er... WTF?!
petite_lambda
Jun. 28th, 2010 09:49 am (UTC)
If you believe as I do that every death is a travesty, the permanent loss of a unique perspective on the universe, then even asking a question like "What have you done to earn it?" becomes an appalling insult.

Actually, that was my first reaction. The first thing I thought was that the argument makes the status-quo fallacy and also is extremely offensive. I always thought of myself deserving to live as a given. I'm not sure I'd want to talk at all with someone who does not share that view...
emanix
Jul. 1st, 2010 01:33 pm (UTC)
Heh, interesting - I came via Twitter, where you posted the precis as the "What have you done to earn it?" question, so the first thought that came to me was that this was an article about HOW people can achieve radical longevity for themselves. That is, 'what action are you taking to lengthen your own life?'

Clearly my assumption that everyone deserves long/infinite life is so ingrained it didn't occur to me there was another meaning until I read the actual post!

So I shall respond to what I thought the post was about, instead of the actual essay , which needs only a nod of agreement.

A rather fabulous edition of Readers Digest that I wish I'd kept focused on the 'super young' a set of unusually long-lived & young-for-their-age folks, many in their nineties and 100-pluses. The study came to one conclusion only: The one thing that all these people shared was a positive attitude. Several of them also advocated physical activity (gardening, housework, walking, sports etc.), but not all.

Being well aware correlation does not = causation, it's still enough for me to conclude that a positive attitude may well be my best chance to stick around (or as my grandad likes to put it "I'm going to live forever, or die in the attempt!"). Cheerfulness, it's good for you! :D

BTW Have you ever read Terry Pratchett's Strata? It's a more sci-fi precursor to the Discworld series, the relevant bit being that The Company (who employ most of the human race in the opening scenario) pays its staff in Days - or in other words, longevity treatments. Well worth a read if you haven't come across it, even if just for the opening chapters.
tacit
Jul. 1st, 2010 11:16 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a really interesting book. I'll have to look for it! Y'know, in my spare time and all.
ysabetwordsmith
Jul. 6th, 2010 05:43 pm (UTC)
Wow!
janetmiles directed me here as part of a Poetry Fishbowl prompt, for a project I'm doing today. Having discovered that your LJ is full of fascinating ideas, I have friended you.

That ripping sound you hear is me dragging my attention away from the fuzzy velcro of your writing, so that I can get back to work.
tacit
Jul. 6th, 2010 11:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Wow!
Why, thank you, and welcome aboard!
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