Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What if the inevitable becomes the optional?

Brian Appleyard has a new book out: How To Live Forever Or Die Trying

The Amazon blurb says: “I want to live for ever" sang the Kids from Fame, and they are not alone: the search for immortality has been a constant human refrain throughout history. But medical science has improved at an exponential rate in recent decades and there are those who believe that the ability to cheat death will soon be within our reach: the first person to live to be 1,000 years old has, they say, already been born. What has happened to get people so excited about the prospect of eternal life? And if they are right, what would it mean for us as human beings? If death became negotiable, would we still fall in love or have children? Would we still, in fact, be human? HOW TO LIVE FOREVER OR DIE TRYING tackles these and myriad other questions with dazzling skill. Funny, thought-provoking and often profound, it manages to grapple with the big issues of existence without blinding the reader with science, and sheds new light on why we are the way we are.

One question is: is this a scientific reality?

The more interesting questions are:

1) If you could take a pill that allowed you to live indefinitely, would you?

2) What if the pill meant that you permanently had the physique of a healthy 25-year old?

3) What if you couldn’t have children because of fears about overpopulation?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) Isn't that a famous curse? I know I have seen sci-fi dystopias on that theme.

2) Sure.

3) Have the kids first, then take the pill. Overpopulation will take care of itself in the long run, so there's not point in worrying about it now.

January 17, 2007 8:15 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Apparently most people answer no to question 1, change their mind and say yes to question 2, and then change again to no at question 3.

One thing you might not have considered is the role of death in making humans human.

Most art is about death at some level. Religion, cathedrals, temples - all about death.

If we lived indefinitely we'd all be like teenagers. Teenagers assume they are immortal and there are infinite days to play with, so they are quite happy to stay in bed all day.

Death lends life a certain urgency.

Except, we'd be worse than teens. Teens also have a reduced fear of physical accidents.

We'd be terrified of getting run over by a bus/personal hovercraft and blowing all those extra centuries for which we paid up front when we bought the Magic Pill.

So even if we could be bothered to get out of bed, we'd never leave the house.

That said, I could happily do without the prospect of disease, cancer, Parkinsons etc.

January 17, 2007 8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think answering "no" to 1 and then "yes" to 2 is changing one's mind.

As for death in defining humanity, I have read more fiction books than I can count that have that as a theme, so it's hardly unexplored.

As for being a teenager forever, my teen years were probably my most happy and productive, so I am not seeing the downside. Nor do I see the downside of never leaving the house.

January 17, 2007 10:40 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

No, this is not a scientific reality. It's a hope, backed by exactly the same science-fictional assumptions about what will be possible at some future point, that were prevelent in the 60s.
It is, however, a hope that's much more firmly supported by today's science than it was back then. But there's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip.

Essentially, what would be necessary for someone to live to be 1,000, beyond great good fortune in avoiding illness and injury, is either a method for gradually replacing aging brain cells, so that one's brain is continually renewed, or some method for imprinting one's personality and memories on a new brain, whether of flesh or silicon.

Good luck.

Nevertheless, I could be persuaded that the first person to live to be 200 has been born, and today's tykes have a better-than-even shot at seeing 120, and liking it - at least, in developed and developing nations.

January 17, 2007 11:43 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

As for the "pill" question, I've already "taken" it, and it does mean that one permanently has the physique of a "non-pill-taking" healthy person 15 - 25 years younger.

But, it's actually four pills, and there are a lot of minor side effects, which is why most people don't take them, even though they're potentially all free, nearly free, or even pay you to take them.*

So worries about overpopulation are not a factor, at least until the "pill" is an actual pill, no doubt very expensive, but easy.

Pill #1; Pill #1a, (much more detail).
Pill #2
Pill #3 forestalls this.
Pill #4

* By saving the average person money, natch. A passive profit.


As for longer lives making people more cautious, I don't get why that's a bad thing, unless of course people really don't get out of their beds. The minor day-to-day risks that we currently accept are based on a psychological perception of what our lives are worth, and a new paradigm wouldn't necessarily be worse, just different.

So fewer people die in traffic accidents and by slipping in the tub or falling down flights of stairs; what's the downside ?

January 17, 2007 1:37 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Oro - what are your realistic expectations of the benefits of that combination of pills?

January 18, 2007 1:19 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Well it might not be a downside, but if everybody knew they could live to 1000 or beyond, everything about humans and our outlook on life would change utterly.

Everything that happened to us or in the world would seem transient, trivial. It would have to or we'd go mad.

How would marriage work, for example? Could even the most saintly couple stay together for 1000 years? Maybe we'd get divorced and remarried over 100 times each.

How would we view our children? 80 year olds would be relative infants. They might not even bother to leave home til they were 300 or so.

Imagine having to work for that long. With the same people! An appalling prospect. So would you keep changing jobs. Would any job ever seem important or fulfilling?

Even really trivial stuff. Tom Cruise starring in movies for centuries. Imagine how tedious professional sport would be if it was the same few competitors who never age, while young whippersnappers of 420 try to break into the team.

Imagine arguing darwinism on the Daily Duck for 1000 years - actually that's easy to imagine...

January 18, 2007 1:58 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

This is a great topic, it raises so many philosophical questions. I agree with Brit that near immortality would change so many aspects of the human experience that it is nearly impossible to judge how people will react to the reality of the condition.

I think just about everybody but the fanatically devoted to not playing God would take the pill. It is in our nature to do so. We'll look at the options and think "well, even if it isn't as good as I imagine, it has to be better than being dead". If you find that you don't like it after 200 years or so, you can always kill yourself.

At one time when I nursed the dream of writing fiction I began work on a short story about the problems with serial immortality. It was premised on a future technology where one's brain state was "backed up" onto a neural network every 30 days or so, and if you happened to die then your body would be regenerated from cloned tissue and your cloned brain would be "rewired" with all of the memories, skills, habits, etc from your backup.

The story took place in a counseling center. A man who had died and been restored several times started committing suicide on a regular basis, and the authorities assigned their best psychological troubleshooter to figure out why someone would sour on immortality.

They reviewed his case. His first death was due to what would once have been termed an act of heroism, as he leapt into the path of an oncoming train to save a young girl.

When his new cloned self was ready, he went through counseling to discourage that kind of behavior in the future. As the girl would have been reborn with no memories of her violent death, he was only acting contrary to logic. What had been a defining moment for him, the knowledge that he did something heroic, was erased.

His second death was a suicide after he committed a heinous crime. He raped a woman and then killed her. Thinking that unresolved issues from his first experience with death led him to this act, which was not really considered a crime since the woman was cloned with no memories of the event, the counselors walked him through both episodes.

He became obsessed with finding a defining moment for himself, something that would sum up his life and give it meaning. The first death was heroic, but being revivied negated that. The second death gave him troubling insight into what he was possible of, and he brooded over the fact that if the first death had been final, the shame of his crime in his second life would never have occured. But the new ethos in society was that no life will have finality, and so noone could experience the defining existential moment that an act of courage, heroism, or even cowardice or evil in the face of death could supply.

The psychologist could not crack the case. From one life to another he followed this tortured soul. Even without providing him any information of the circumstances of his previous deaths, he continued to off himself with regularity, sometimes doing something "heroic", other times doing things dark and nihilistic. Out of fear that his neural network was infected by some persistent meme that could spread to others, they finally gave him his wish and stopped rescusitating him.

January 18, 2007 5:26 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I like the story.

Maybe a fundamental problem with fantastic longevity would be that psychologically we aren't geared to that kind of timeframe.

Mayflies live faster than us, galapagos turtles live slower than us. We live for three score years and ten - plus now a medically prolonged period of dotage, and that's how we make sense of our time.

January 19, 2007 1:51 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...


A normal, healthy human who did all of those things from their mid-20s should expect to avoid dying of anything but trauma or infection, and to live to be at least 70, with a great quality of life. After 70, one's genetic bequeathment is more of a factor, but even then one will be maximizing the hand one was dealt.

Cultures that include those behaviors, (with the exception of the fasting, which as far as I know isn't the strict practice of any large population), such as the Okinawans and some religious groups, routinely live into their 80s.

So, those behaviors don't extend maximum human life span, but they do vastly increase the likelyhood of anyone reaching that max, and very importantly, they allow the practitioner to enjoy their latter years - alert and mobile.

Personally, I expect medical science to come up with some wonderous stuff with which to extend human life, such as cloning human organs and glands, to replace a donor's failing originals. Getting a new set of innards every few decades would surely go a long way towards extending maximum life-span. Plus the aforementioned "brain transfer", a concept that Duck fleshed out some in his post, and a thousand other drugs and treatments.

However, I don't expect such stuff to be safe, cheap, and readily available until at least mid-century, so by combining the "best practices", including the fasting, I hope simply to keep body and soul together until clinical longevity treatments can make a real difference.

I recommend such behaviors to everyone, because who doesn't want to avoid dying of cancer or heart disease, and to be active and vital until the end ?

Although, as I say, few people actually do deny themselves all the sweets that they can stuff into themselves, so clearly most people don't make the connection between indulging themselves now, and suffering greatly for it in a few decades.
It's the health version of a "credit card mentality".


That seems like a great story !
Why no publication? Just a matter of style?

January 19, 2007 5:15 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I never finished it. I wrote about a page and then crumbled it up in disgust. Actually, this summary is the farthest I've gotten in defining the plot. Maybe I'll have another go at it.

Style is a huge factor. I've never been happy with any fictional style I've tried. I have a hard time describing the scene and the atmosphere. I'm too linear, and I tend to leave the plot line naked, without enough embellishment.

January 19, 2007 8:39 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Style is a huge factor. I've never been happy with any fictional style I've tried. I have a hard time describing the scene and the atmosphere. I'm too linear, and I tend to leave the plot line naked, without enough embellishment.

None of which stopped Dan Brown becoming a millionaire.

January 20, 2007 1:25 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Everything that happened to us or in the world would seem transient, trivial.

I don't think so. From a religious perspective, carnal existence is both fleeting, and the lesser part of existence.
Yet few religious people withdraw from the world; indeed, they're often the cause of upheaval.

While there would be some change in mass psychology if the average lifespan were 1,000 years, or even 500, I will be gobsmacked if people aren't still caught up in the day-to-day dramas, especially in their first few centuries of life.

January 20, 2007 5:26 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

1) Maybe, depends on the conditions.

2) Now that's cleared up, definitely.

3) Indefinite life under the conditions of 2) means the absolute certainty of having children. Unless, that is, death by accident also vanishes.

Given indefinite life in the prime of life, I suspect most would react by becoming very risk adverse, possibly even to the extent of foregoing motor vehicles, or at least reducing the speed limit to about 12 mph.

Even so, unless we manage to abolish earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, lightning, etc, we would still need children.

Probably at just about precisely the rate of 2 per couple.

However, I'm not the least bit worried this will ever happen. The human body is an extraordinarily complicated system, requiring an equally complicated systemic approach to protracting its life span beyond its built in sell-by date.

January 21, 2007 6:35 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Yes, that's so, but some folks are pinning their hopes on, for instance, nanotechnology, which theoretically could flood our bodies with billions of microscopic robots, whose job it would be to keep all of those incredibly complicated systems running in tip-top homeostasis.

I dunno if we'll get such a thing working well anytime soon, but I'm willing to expend a bit of effort to hang on a few years longer than I otherwise might, in the hopes that we will do so.

January 22, 2007 2:07 AM  

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