Thursday, 2 January 2014

The benefits of extending the human life-span

Student SGH's blog post from last month about longevity has stayed with me for a while, I've been mulling over the concept in my mind... With current advances in medical science, it is not impossible that a child born today could attain the age of 300. Towards the end of this century, medical knowledge would be such that the human lifespan could stretch to 150, and by the middle of the 22nd Century this could be extended well beyond that.

Science is unravelling the genetics of aging; one experiment (on a small group of subject admittedly) has shown that it is actually possible to reverse the aging process (meditation has a part to play as well as diet and exercise). We now know the role of telomeres in aging (did you know lobsters don't die of old age?) The possibility of engineering or bioengineering human organs as replacement parts is also getting tantalisingly closer. Obviously, the brain needs to be in good shape - there's little point of artificially extending the life of a person with irreversible senile dementia.

But let's assume then, that in the year 2314, a child born this very day will be celebrating their three hundredth birthday.

What will have been the point?

We tend to be born - and then raised - as either generalists or specialists. As young people, they will tend to scorn one another. "Jack of all trades, master of none" says the specialist of the generalist. "Restricted and boring" says the generalist of the specialist.

But with age, the knowledge of the generalist deepens, while the knowledge of the specialist widens. Specialists learns how to place their area of focused expertise into a broader context - social, historical, artistic, while generalists gains deeper insights across the spectrum of their interests. And respect for Truth in its truest sense. As I get older, I find I'm always trying to nuance what I'm saying, to move away from bold generalisation to a statement with more finesse, more accuracy, on the way to a truer synthesis, based on experience and wisdom. I reject inflammatory statements, the idea of winning an argument for the its own sake.

Genius often manifests itself in youth - from Mozart to Orson Welles, while wisdom required from a great political or legal mind takes many decades of scrupulous observation of mankind.

Critical to the growth of both types of mind is self-awareness, being able to think, to reason on the meta-level - to think about how you think, what you think and why you think it. An active mind, constantly thinking things over yet not obsessively so, is forming new neural connections, new ideas flowing along newly created pathways...

I often found as a young man that I could perfectly assess a given situation, though I found great difficulty in articulating my assessment to anywhere outside my brain. I lacked the tools of expression, verbal or written, to synthesise my thoughts. Over the years, these skills have grown within me, mainly because I wanted them to grow within me. And practice.

Now - assuming the human brain can continue to function properly into extreme old age with the help of advances in medical science - imagine how wiser mankind could become if healthy super-centenarians became the norm. The key thing obviously is extending the healthy portion of human life, when one can function unaided and still enjoy life fully. Which is why healthy life expectancy is a more important indicator than life expectancy.

Imagine Albert Einstein - born 1879 - still alive today, aged 134, his mind as sharp as it was at his peak, getting to grips with Higgs bosons and baryonic dark matter, contributing to modern cosmology and - maybe - coming up with a unified field theory that held together.

I believe the greatest benefit of extending human lifespan is the incremental knowledge and wisdom that could be within the grasp of mankind. It is worth noting that aging populations are less prone to war; older people less inclined towards criminality or reckless behaviour that puts others at risk.

It's easier sending a 20 year-old to war if, on the basis of his observation, he can only expect another 20 years of healthy life ahead him, than if he could envisage, say, another 100 years of healthy (and happy) life in the future.

Living longer would also give humans a greater stake in environmental protection. The thought that one's great-grandchildren could still be alive towards the middle of this millennium - makes one pause and think before burning fossil fuel.

Humans used to live 40-50 years. Today life expectancy at birth is nudging 80-90 years in advanced societies. The benefits are clear. As our technology advances, so our lifespan extends, so our technology will advance - not because I expect super-centenarians to dream up new inventions, but because innovators will have a greater personal stake in the improved society their inventions will bring.

This time three years ago:
New Year's stocktaking

This time last four years ago:
A walk in the wild winter woods

This time five years ago:
Now that's what I call winter vol. 12

This time six years ago:
When the day starts getting longer

1 comment:

Alexander said...

Some time ago I read in an American magazine a prediction that in 20 years time more then 50 % of the medium level jobs will be gone due to efficiency increases and automation.
I think this could be very well be the case with people /customers using the internet.
Will there be jobs come from if people live this long and have to work a lot longer then until 65 – 68 years old now.
Maybe you can share your thoughts about this, what I see as a big problem in the future, in a blog post ?

Best regards, Alexander