“We don’t know how old the first person who will live to 150 is today, but the first person to live to 1,000 is almost certainly less than 20 years younger.”
Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey as quoted by Peter Singer,
The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 27 Dec 2012.
Coupla questions there, Aubrey. First, who the hell are you? Second, what’s that quote really mean? Third, if you are right, should I be celebrating or heading for the barricades?
Answer number one. Aubrey de Grey started off in computer science, getting a B.A. from the University of Cambridge in 1985. But then he got interested enough in biology to stick around for a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now Chief Science Officer and co-founder of the SENS foundation. SENS stands for — are you ready? — Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Since Cambridge is not known to spread around Ph.D.s like confetti and since de Grey’s CV devotes several pages to a list of his peer-reviewed papers, we have to assume that he knows a lot about the biology of aging.
Answer number two. The quote reminds me of Bilbo Baggins’ farewell speech: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” It takes a while to work it out. The first part of de Grey’s statement is an inference masquerading as an admission of ignorance: although we don’t know how old the first person to live to one hundred and fifty is, we are supposed to infer that he or she is alive today. Okay, let’s be extreme and suppose that person has just been born — say on the first day of 2013. The second part of the statement says that the first person to live to one thousand will be less than twenty years younger. In other words, the first person to have a thousandth birthday will be born before 2031. And will live until 3031. Give or take.
Answer number three. The rest of this blog.
Take a few minutes and scribble down some of the problems that will land on us if de Grey’s prophesies are fulfilled. Here are some of the more obvious ones.
Overpopulation. You don’t need a degree in demographics to see that if a good chunk of the world’s humans hang around for an extra nine hundred years, things will get pretty tight. Of course, we would have to have strict limits on the number of children born. And we all know what a raging success that has been so far. Even if we do manage to control the birth rate, we will have to restrict child-bearing to the youngest. Child-rearing skills are highest in those who still remember their childhood. The rest will be befuddled by how many “great”s they will need to describe their relationship with the newest generation.
Who will get it first? This is one of the top topics raised by most people. If long life is available only to the rich, the answer is simple and frightening. Donald Trump. For the purposes of the rest of this discussion, though, let’s assume the procedure for lengthening life is simple and available to all.
What about a career? So, you’ve been a business executive or engineer or doctor or university professor for eighty years. Now you are ready for something else. Those of us with a bit of nous will probably have the grit to plunge back into university and learn some new science. (Oops, things certainly have changed since I went to med school!) But what about the substantial subpopulation of people who don’t have the intellectual or physical chops to handle a change? Wanna be a store clerk for nine hundred years?
Facing technological change. I don’t think the substantial technological changes over a long life time will be a problem. Even those of us in our seventies can work an iPhone; given extended life, all of us will keep up.
Accidents and chronic diseases. Although I am assuming that good health will accompany longevity (we will all be as robust as we were in our thirties), we cannot assume cures for all illnesses. For example, it is statistically certain that some will become disabled over the course of their lives. We will not have eliminated travel accidents, earthquakes and bathtub falls. Of course, the incidence of disabling accidents over the course of a single year is small. But these people will live on; and over a thousand years, the proportion of able-bodied survivors will diminish.
Apathy. In his robot series, Isaac Asimov describes a space-faring offshoot of humanity who enjoy extended life. They keep themselves busy with arts and research in science, but they do not feel the same urgency to come up with results that the earthbound, short-lived population does. As a result, earth is a far more interesting place.
Marriage. My wife is nothing if not honest. “I love you very much, but not for 900 years.” Those of us who made and kept long-term commitments will have to rethink them.
Memory. I am in my eighth decade (the picture of me on this blog is my 1957 passport photo). Back then, I was . . . hm . . .. What was I? My best friend in school was Colin, no, John. Hm. The girl I first had sex with was . . . never mind! That I do remember. But an interval of 50 years has wiped a lot of memories. And those I do retain have been, if the psychologists are right, corrupted. If memory is such a false witness to a short life, how lost will a 900-year-old person feel? First love — gone; memories of childhood — evaporated; the neighbourhood in which you grew up — changed beyond recognition; when, exactly, did you learn to swim or ride a bike? Our identity is tied up with our memories; lose those and we lose ourselves.
The point being —
Even sitting in front of a computer in 2013, it did not take me long to come up with a half-dozen problems. You can probably dream up others.
The point being — we have not a clue what a tornado of problems will beset us in the next century if de Grey’s predictions are true.
To repeat myself — we have not a clue. The only way we can prepare is to change ourselves into a society flexible enough to deal with the challenges as they crop up. That means fostering ingenuity, educating our people and working together. Not much hope there.
Does this bother de Grey? Apparently not. In an interview on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast August 10, 2010, de Grey said:
“The extension of life span is not going to happen overnight; it will happen one year per year and a lot of other things in society in technology are going to be changing a hell of a lot faster. So if we ask any of the sociological questions about overpopulation … it’s just meaningless to answer these questions in any terms that relate to contemporary society.”
This is a clear contradiction to his more recent quote given above. Which of his assertions are we to believe? If the latter, I will happily live out the remaining 20 — if I’m lucky — years of my life. If the former, am I going to be spending 900 years as a nonagenarion? After all, the promise is to extend life, not to return youth. Kind of disappointing, though, to die at the youthful age of 95.