Saturday, February 9, 2013

Do We Really Want Physical Immortality? Part I

There are many theories that try to describe the biological cause of aging. They include the antagonistic pleiotropy hypothesis, the astrocytic hypothesis, DNA damage theory, evolutionary theory, free-radical theory, network theory, reliability theory, reproductive cell cycle theory, stem cell theory and others. But to quote David Rollo, “In any field of science, the true degree of understanding is inversely proportional to the number of explanatory theories that prevail.”

Programmed to die.
Whatever the details, the fundamental basis for aging has to reside in our DNA. Each species has its own particular average lifespan (excluding a few that seem to be “immortal” by regressing to an earlier stage). DNA is a code—a very complicated code, but a code nonetheless. With our computational abilities increasing at an exponential rate, it is clear that one day—maybe in 50, maybe in 100 years—we will break that code and find a “cure” for aging.

There is also another possibility. In his book, The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil predicts that nanotechnology will be combined with the human body to create a human/machine cyborg which will have incredible abilities, among them immortality. Before we plunge ahead and create a race of near-immortal beings, however, we need to examine some of the consequences to us as individuals and to society.

How about Twenty Something...?
In my musings, I will assume that we will be able to stop the aging process at our prime, say somewhere between the biological age of twenty and thirty. I will also assume that we will have discovered how to keep our brains young physiologically, along with the rest of our bodies, even though that may be more difficult since cell turnover and stem cell preservation is much less. In addition, I will also imagine that the cure will be able to reverse aging, so that even the old will be brought to prime life.

But even if we do away with age-related diseases, there will still be other causes of death: infectious, non-infectious diseases not related to aging, accidents, natural disasters, homicide and suicide. Death will be much rarer but certainly not non-existent.

I will deal with some of the social consequences of aging in this posting and the psychological ones in the next.

Social Consequences

· Inequality. As with any new major discovery, as soon as a cure for aging is found, the wealthy will be the first to take advantage of it. But as the cost of treatment comes down, the middle class will also be able to obtain it. The poor of our society will be the last to become “immortal.” One question is how patient will society be? In America alone, thousands of people die every day from age-related diseases. They may demand immediate treatment and not stand calmly by when told their turn will come in a couple of years, by which time it will be too late. No one wants to be the last person to die of old age before they release the cure.

· Overpopulation. The most obvious social problem will be over-population. A new social order will need to be developed in which reproduction is controlled to a rate to match the death rate from causes unrelated to aging. This may mean severe economic incentives or outright governmental control over who can have children and how many.

· Power Structure. In a democracy, power can be controlled by term limits. But most companies are monarchies. Will you want to have the same boss for 100 years? 500? Will term limits be instituted in companies or will the stockholders periodically demand new CEOs?

· Concentration of wealth. Today, 1% of the American population controls 40%- 60% of the wealth, depending on how you count it. As this 1% dies, inheritance taxes are supposed to spread some of that wealth to the general population. Without death, there will be little inheritance and a great deal more concentration of wealth unless the system is changed. In addition, the offspring, if there are any in a society without many children, would have to wait thousands of years to inherit. But this may all be moot because capitalism may not survive.

· Capitalism, which depends on a young, entrepreneurial generation, a growing population and an ever-growing economy, may no longer be the economic system since none of the above assumptions will hold. A controlled, steady state economy may need to be instituted.

· Retirement. Everyone will be young so they will be able to work indefinitely. There will be no retirement. But the amount of work each person does may be small compared to today since many more tasks will be mechanized and the population will be in a steady state. People may only work a couple of hours a week. There will be a great deal of free time.

· Social stagnation. As the society grows older will it become more conservative? Will new ideas and innovation, which seem to emerge in childhood and early adulthood, no longer be a prominent part of societal advancement? Will modernization slow down and the entrepreneurial spirit suffer?

· Boredom. People will get bored with their professions and will need to get periodically retrained in other fields. The type of profession will be limited by available “slots” and the intellectual abilities of the individual. At any one time, a significant portion of the population will be in college learning a new profession.

· Experience. In some scientific professions, keeping the same people in positions of leadership may be extremely beneficial since they would have a deep understanding of their subject and have hundreds, even thousands, of years of experience. But will too much experience hinder them from thinking outside the box?

· Cross-training. There will be more cross-pollination in all areas of science since researchers will have the time to be trained in may scientific fields. All of which may make scientific advancement even more rapid.

· Brain capacity. Will there be enough brain capacity to store not only all this new knowledge, but the memories and experiences accumulated over thousands of years? Will we have other ways of storing memory by then, perhaps using nanotechnology to greatly increase our data storing capacity?

· Risk-taking. Since death will be much rarer, the willingness to take risks with one’s own life will be severely decreased. If life is indefinitely long, risking it means you may lose thousands of years of life. It may be difficult to find anyone willing to take on such tasks as police work, fire fighting, space travel, or any job with even a small amount of risk. Since thousands of people die in car accidents every year, people may even decide not to drive or travel.

· Marriage. “Till death do us part” will have a very different meaning in a near immortal society. Marriage may no longer be the model, especially in a society with few new children. A new paradigm for social relationships will be needed.

· Family. The nuclear family as we know it will no longer exist since few children will be born. The parents, who may be hundreds of years old, will look to be the same age as their twenty-year-old child.

· Entitlements. There will be no entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security or Welfare since everyone will supposedly be young and fit to work.

· Homicide will be viewed even more harshly than it is today. Murdering someone today deprives them of the remainder of a 90-year-old maximum lifespan, but murdering a near-immortal would deprive them of thousands of years of life. What would the punishment be for homicide? A life sentence would mean keeping someone in prison for thousands of years, perhaps indefinitely. Would the death penalty be the standard?

· War. Will war become outlawed because the killing of near-immortals will become unacceptable? Will any people even be willing to risk their near-immortal lives to fight?

· Evolution. Since we will have few offspring, will our species no longer evolve? Will our technology progress so much faster that we will become cyborg entities with abilities that far outpace anything evolution could develop?

This list is far from complete but space and time are limitations. In the next posting, I will examine some of the psychological aspects of becoming immortal.