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(June 2002) [Printed in "Reality Module No.28" as part of "Freeform Futurology VI."]

(A casual series of articles exploring various aspects of our evolving society)

The Implications of Immortality

The Science
Looking Further Ahead
Immediate Changes
The Consequences of Having More Time
The Psychology of Immortality
Is It Unnatural?
Final Thoughts

Related Articles

The Science

The last episode of the TV series "How to Build a Human" (BBC 2002) was entitled "Forever Young" and was about the process of aging.

I learnt about discoveries that may allow the process of aging to be slowed down or reversed:

[1]. Injections of human growth hormone into middle- aged adults can increase muscle mass and decrease fat levels, and with exercise the metabolic rate and fitness levels can return to that of a person in their 20s or 30s. (But an increase in metabolic rate brings with it an increased chance of developing tumours.)

[2]. Diet restrictions. Rats on a restricted 'starvation' diet can live up to twice as long as rats on a normal diet. But to follow this path to a longer life you'd have to restrict your food intake for the rest of your life. Not an appealing prospect. (There is also a very real danger that you may be receiving too little of an essential nutrient - e.g. too little calcium leading to a thinning of the bones.)

[3]. Toxic O2! Oxygen is a highly reactive gas, and reacts to produce free radicals which can damage DNA, and interfere with the cell's energy generating organelles - the mitochondria. Every breath you take is doing you harm. The body produces anti-oxidants (like vitamins A, C and E) to inactivate free radicals & prevent them from doing harm. (Fortunately we have mechanisms for repairing DNA as well.) It is a constant battle between free radicals and anti-oxidants, and in time the free radicals will win and our cells will 'rust up' and stop working properly.

Creatures like bats and budgerigars are remarkable. They use a lot of oxygen and energy for flight, but still manage to live a long time (30 years). (It has been discovered that they metabolise lots of very powerful anti-oxidants which prevent their cells 'rusting.')

These are the scientific insights. In the future you might be taking a drug cocktail to counteract aging, and in time these drugs will become cheaper and cheaper until the food we eat everyday will have been genetically engineered to provide them all.

This will give us long life, but not yet immortality.

Looking Further Ahead

In 50 to 100 years every disease of the body and every injury (except the most traumatic) should be curable. We might have new limbs and organs (when we need them) grown in a vat or in situ, and might have a body biochemically-treated for extreme longevity.

At first this new technology will be very expensive and only the very rich will have longevity treatments. There would seem to be a danger of creating an elite group of the extremely-rich and extremely-longlived, but this will probably be only a short-term problem.

A few decades further on and the technology (as technologies do) will be available for all. More and more of us will be living for longer and longer. It is this situation I will consider now.

Immediate Changes

There will be an effect on population levels. Less people will die, but there will be less people born. (Pregnancy may be delayed, perhaps for centuries.)

The Consequences of Having More Time

[1]. People will be able to explore more options in life. They may learn many things and follow a rich succession of occupations. This is perhaps the greatest boon of extreme longevity - the continuing opportunities to explore all life's dimensions.

[2]. People will consider the long term consequences of their actions - because they will be there to suffer those consequences. (Problems of generations hence will suddenly become your problems.) People will take the longer view.

[3]. There will also be, paradoxically, less sense of urgency. People will feel that they "have all the time in the world" - and what is not important in the short term may never get done. Care must be takn not to sink into stagnation. We now consider:

The Psychology of Immortality

The fate of civilisations or extremely long-lived individuals is patterns of Stagnation or Continuous Rebirth.

Which pattern we follow (as individuals or as a civilisation) depends on one very important question: Do we have the psychology to cope with immortality?

It is not an easy question to answer. Sure some of us are bursting with energy and enthusiasm and a zest to explore - but will we still feel that way in 50 years or a 100 years time? We have no way of knowing. Do we all grow tired and bored with life eventually, or can we remain vibrant and excited with life for hundreds and hundreds of years?

Some people among us are already tired with life. Do we devise strategies to try and thaw out the stagnation, or do we let people gracefully say farewell to this life when they've had enough?

Do we treat a desire to end your life as a mental disease which needs to be treated - or do we allow a kind of no-fault euthanasia?

In a society where everyone is extremely long-lived and death is a rarity - what will be our attitude to death?

My intuition is that we are born with the psychological makeup for immortality - but that this is bled out of us. (Mortality is everywhere in our world, there is nowhere it doesn't reach. We take in a little of the world's death every day, and this internal pain is what helps us to accept our own death when it comes. We accept it because it is inevitable, it is ubiquitous, and it is inside us!)

It may be easier to adjust to immortality, than it is to adjust to mortality. One final query:

Is It Unnatural?

Natalie Babbitt's book "Tuck Everlasting" tells the story of a family who have gained immortality. The book describes how they feel cut off from the cycle of nature (the passing seasons, birth and death), and how since they are never changing they can never pass through all life's stages, and nothing they do gets completed. There is no progress for them. It is an ironic tragedy.

If the human race becomes immortal are we to follow the same fate? Will extreme age fossilise our minds so much that we will fear change and cling limpet-like to the familiar? Will our lives be smothered in the repetition of rituals? (These are problems for some of us in our 3 score years and 10 - the consequences of extreme longevity will be to exacerbate all these life problems.)

(Immortality is unnatural, but then all of culture and technology is unnatural.)

The good thing about immortality is that it happens one day at a time. We don't have to worry about the problems of being 200, just get to be 100 first. Perhaps as we get older we will develop some wisdom, some perspective to help us on the next stage in our journey to the future.

Final Thoughts?

I have asked more questions than I have answered. (That is okay. When before I had one path, I now have a dozen paths.) There are some questions for the here- and-now, this world where we are all mortal. How do we retain an enthusiasm for life - even into old age? How do we encourage each other to have a concern for long term consequences?

My final concern regarding immortality is a personal one. I believe in other realities and I may believe in reincarnation. And I can imagine worlds much richer and more beautiful than this, and another self touched with enchantments. (If the only way I can go to these other wonderful worlds is to die and be reborn, would I choose an immortal life here instead?)

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Related Works

- In This Series -
(1) What Can & Cannot Be Done - The Limits of Futurology (April 2000)
(2) The $20 Computer (April 2000)
(3) Smashing Windows(TM) - The Ascent of Non-linear Thinking (August 2000)
(4) Nu Plastic Yu! (February 2001)
(5) Nu Plastic Yu Tu! (April 2001)
(6) Artificial Minds? (AI Revisited) (August 2001)
(7) Video-On-Demand (June 2002)
(8) Changes (June 2002)
(9) The Implications of Immortality (June 2002)
(10) Cheating in Education (April 2003)


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Copyright © 2002 by Michael F. Green. All rights reserved.


Last Updated: 18 July 2011