It sounds preposterous: life as we know it is a slave to time and one of the key conditions of living is that a grave awaits us. But is this really a fact, or simply how it normally works? If we could stop aging, should we even? These were my thoughts when I first saw Aubrey de Grey’s 2005 TED talk.
First, let’s discuss the “can” part of the equation. Aging is an incredibly complex process constituting millions of different changes in metabolism and is associated with a decrease in physical health and mental prowess. If projects attempting to simulate the human brain (with its >10^11 neurons and >10^14 synapses) can be viewed as possible and worth investing millions into, why is research into halting the effects of aging often laughed off without a second thought?
The idea of reducing the physical and mental costs of aging faces little opposition: no one is in favor of people suffering and becoming completely dependent during their later years. Recent advances reducing alpha-synuclein aggregation, connected with reductions in motor function and cognitive ability, show great promise. They are also doing wider-reaching work into helping rejuvenate the human brain following injury or degeneration.
This is, almost assuredly, possible and is the center of several research efforts (including Aubrey de Grey’s SENS program). But as his TED talk above hints: Aubrey’s program also reaches into the more controversial part and is also attempting to vastly extend human life.
The debate on whether extending human life is a good idea centers more around whether increasing the human lifespan would worsen or improve our environmental and social problems. Will people be more responsible when they can expect to live longer, or will they simply end up making more children and worsening our overconsumption/overpopulation problem?
Available evidence holds some contradictory predictions: increases in standard of living appear to be connected to lower birth rates, but the countries with the highest standards of living and longest lifetimes also have the largest environmental footprints. There has thus far been little evidence a longer life lead to more responsible behavior, and the reason may be all too simple: the fact that a meteor can fall on your head tomorrow doesn’t change even if you aren’t aging.
Will this be different if humans can live 1000 years, instead of simply 110? The answer is, obviously, unclear since humans have never lived to be 1000 years old at all. But this brings up a different point: could a shift in the length of life really make a difference in human behavior, if human behavior is largely the result of evolution consisting of relatively short lifetimes? Will knowing that you could live 1000 years alter people’s’ urge to reproduce, or to simply take one marshmallow now instead of 2 at an unknown future point?
At a time when animal populations have declined 52% in 40 years, and the extinction rate is roughly 1000x the background rate, it is questionable if helping humans live longer is really the answer to these problems. Although I think we can all agree that we all benefit by making aging less painful and rehabilitating, an important question about publicly funding more wide-reaching research is whether you or I would change how we live if we could live to be 1000 years old.