what if we reign in the grim reaper?

November 15, 2009

Imagine yourself in a future which allows you to live far beyond your normal lifespan. Since there’s technically no kill switch in your body, it’s hypothetically possible for scientists to slow down the aging process and as a result, extend your life well beyond its current potential, and even past its theoretical maximum. Now, think of putting an upper limit on how far that life extension will go. No, I’m not talking about setting an arbitrary limit on the technologies of the indeterminate future. I’m talking about a legal decree which determines the maximum age of any living human, sort of like the 160 age limit in Futurama. Live past the limit and robots dressed like the Grim Reaper come to take you away. Only they would really do that. Sound a bit disturbing? Well, this limit might be a potentially necessary future law according to the writers of a Cracked.com article. Should we live too long, they note, not only would overcrowded hyper-cities become the norm but society will break down…

future metropolis

Now, why would anyone bother to do a post on an article by comedy writers? So what if they’re talking about a future law to limit people’s lives? Well it would be one thing if only Cracked.com had an opinion of the subject, but when it comes to extending human lifespans, there are a number of books and editorials which paint any attempt at significant life extension as potentially ruinous for our society in general and a number of futurists, even optimistic ones, expressed misgivings about trying to achieve immortality since we would physically run out of space to live in several centuries of rapid population growth without a significant number of deaths that normally keep our population in check. We’d devastate the planet and eliminate jobs for hundreds of millions of people by keeping those with a century of experience in positions that would ordinarily be switched several times over and provide a path into corporate life for younger generations. Those concerns are real and they’ve been expressed many times over, which is why the writers of Cracked are putting their spin on it.

However, there are a few caveats with all these arguments for limiting the human lifespan even if we do finally find a way to radically surpass our natural limitations. Humans are not going to get a magic pill and live for an incredible amount of time overnight. It would be great, but the plausibility of this turn of events is very, very low since aging is a very complex thing and treating it involves a whole array of tools. By drastically improving our healthcare with new medical technology and cures for a host of age related diseases, we could be reaching a theoretical maximum lifespan of 125 to 130 years on a regular basis. If we want to go beyond that, we’re going to have to slow down the entire process of age and maturity. During the last drastic improvement in our overall life expectancy, the pace of life drastically slowed down. Thanks to industrialization, better infrastructure and a working understanding of germ theory which gave us antibiotics, vaccination and much of modern medicine, families became smaller and the pace of reproduction slowed down. In the 19th century, it wasn’t uncommon for teenagers to be married parents. Today, it’s a societal abnormality in developed nations.

By the same measure, if humans start aging into their third century, it will have to happen over time, with ever improving treatments spanning generations. Education could be extended into the late 20s, early 30s and the average time for starting a family could be in the mid 40s to early 50s. In experiments which prolong the lives of organisms like fruit flies, this is exactly what we see. The entire cycle of life slows down to accommodate a new life expectancy. Rather than unleashing a barrage of seemingly immortal people who obstruct the entire flow of society, we’ll most likely be facing a general slowdown of life as we know it over several generations. It would also come with an interesting side effect. The population of Earth would actually start to decline. Why? Any life extension technology is going to be expensive and available to either developed nations, or those with the money to afford it. Just like today there’s a huge difference in life expectancy between those living in Japan and those who live in Sub-Saharan Africa, the disparities in income and access to medicine would limit how many residents of developing nations would be surviving longer and longer.

It’s grossly unfair and it seems to be very cold and merciless to consider them as being left behind as citizens of wealthy nations grow older than ever, but unfortunately it’s a sad fact of life that those with more resources always lived longer then those with few. Over several hundred years, billions could vanish by what amounts to a form of attrition. Hopefully, through charitable interventions, the numbers could be lowered and the result of the shift would be a healthier, longer living population. However, it still seems all too likely that there would be disparities in lifespan as long as there are disparities in wealth and access to technology and medicine. But of course, we need to note that all this musing relies on our ability to combat aging. Until we have a real way to reliably extend our lifespans, this is all just speculation and only existing technology could dictate what would happen and how in a world where humans could live longer than ever.

[ illustration from a work by Ryan Quackenbush ]

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  • http://intepid.com/ intepid

    It’s worth pointing out that if every single person was granted immortality with the caveat that they could only be the biological parent of a single child, the population would never even reach double that of now.

  • Alex

    intepid, I don’t think many people want to live with a “One child” policy like Chinese people did.

    Anyway, I should point out that people who oppose medical efforts that move closer and closer towards “immortality”, have forgotten one important thing: namely, that this is all that the medical community have ever done. What is the point in having a polio vaccine if not to postpone death? What is the point of trying to find a cure for cancer if not to postpone death? Etc.