Thoughts on the end of aging
Today at age 65, the Dutch can expect to live another 20 years. In the year 2060, Dutch 65 year olds can expect to live another 25 years, according to predictions by the Dutch government. Those predictions made by the Dutch government however, have a history of being too conversative. Here’s a graph that might surprise you:
The graph comes from the Dutch Rabobank and depicts the Dutch government´s statistics office´s life expectancy projection made every two year. As you can tell, the predictions were too conservative and are now constantly revised up. Why are they so pessimistic? I think it might be that their pessimism is meant to avoid the impression our Dutch pension schemes are unsustainable.
On the other side of the spectrum, are the futurologists. The futurologists insist we’re all far too conservative. Aging itself is a disease that we fail to recognize and treat as a disease. Governments don’t recognize aging as a disease, so companies can’t sell products that treat aging. Instead they sell products that treat the symptoms of aging, which also happens to be more profitable. This is illustrated by the fact that many of the recent discoveries in regards to life extension were made by accident. We notice old people have disease of old age X. We give them medicine Y, despite not knowing entirely how it works. We then find they live longer and healthier. However, eventually someone notices they live much longer and healthier than healthy people not given medicine Y. We now realize we accidentally stumbled upon medicine that treats aging. Let me emphasize this: Current progress in curing aging is largely accomplished by accident.
At some point however, the futurologists expect that we will start to book significant progress in treating aging itself. Young people today, might end up still alive a thousand years from now. You won’t look like Yoda however, because the symptoms of aging will come to an end. The cells that decay will be removed from your body and replenished with new cells, your bones won’t shrink and your skin will remain thick and strong.
At some point, the expectation is that the rate at which we increase our life expectancy every year will start to increase. At some point, we would increase the life expectancy by more than a year, per year. Once this applies, you have reached longevity escape velocity. Once this happens, you’re immortal for all practical purposes, in the sense that aging won´t end your life anymore, only unanticipated dramatic events would. Longevity escape velocity will be reached by 2030, according to David Gobel.
You might be skeptical of this idea, but I will tell you that I’m not very skeptical of the idea myself. So far, our society hasn’t made a serious attempt yet to treat aging like a disease in its own right. I’m skeptical of renewable energy, because we’ve made serious attempts at transitioning to it and so far the results are disappointing. I’m skeptical of artificial intelligence and nuclear fusion, for similar reasons.
When it comes to aging on the other hand, not a whole lot of scientific research hasn’t been done. We’ve recently seen the first attempts at actually addressing the root cause of aging. As an example, a lot of research focuses on removing senescent cells, which are cells that have grown old and start secreting all sorts of inflammatory signals. Studies in lab animals show amazing results, when animals are given substances that remove some of these senescent cells, while leaving healthy cels unaffected. Life expectancy is significantly increased in such studies, but more importantly, the animals are visibly rejuvenated.
Back in the 1980’s, when the first treatments for AIDS emerged, no proper studies could be done, because those who were treated with medicine improved so much they decided to violate the rules and began sharing the medicine with other sick people. Sometimes scientific research leads to findings that are so revolutionary that people don’t feel like waiting until the results are confirmed beyong any possible doubt.
And when we witness the discovery of medicine that increases life expectancy of mice by old otherwise health mice by 36%, we encounter something similar. Around the world, groups of people have started cooperating to buy these drugs and experiment on their own bodies, without bothering to wait for the red tape to be cut through. Does it work as well in humans as it does in mice? It´s too early to tell for the most impressive accomplishments. For others however, we now know pretty sure it´s working.
Here´s an example I´m referring to. If you take old people suffering Rheumatoid Arthritis and give them Methotrexate for multiple years, which suppresses inflammation, you end up with elderly people aged between 80 and 101, who perform cognitively at a level of people three decades younger than them. Out of 88 of these people, just three of them needed hearing aids. The rest had no such need. These are findings that are revolutionary. We have available, right at this moment, medication that effectively disrupts the normal aging process and prevents dementia. What we don´t have, are the right societal prerequisites that allow us to rapidly make use of such discoveries.
When it comes down to it, we live in a society where millions of people are going to die needlessly, because scientific research moves slow, treatments shown to have potential need to go through a long bureaucratic process and the financial incentive structure is inefficient and misdirected. As an example of what I mean, we have numerous expensive drugs for cancer, that took years to develop, that are known to prolong our life expectancy by a few months at most. Simultaneously however, we now have an increasingly clear picture of the primary underlying cause of cancer: The decay and failure of the immune system. Numerous precancerous cells are continually removed by our white blood cells, when the immune system functions properly. When our thymus begins to shrink however, we become unable to maintain a properly functioning immune system and cancer cells encounter an opportunity to proliferate.
So the question you have to ask yourself, is how much money is spent on research to address thymic involution and how much money is spent on research to treat cancer once it enters an advanced stage and no genuine options to save your life are left. If our resources were spent more efficiently we would be much further ahead at treating aging by now. What I´m suggesting here is not a conspiracy to prevent us from living longer lives. What I´m suggesting is a bug in our societal operating system. We´re a bit like the Vikings in Greenland, who died of starvation because they refused to eat fish. We insist on treating the symptoms of aging, rather than treating aging itself as a disease. The problem is primarily a mental problem, in the sense that we take the phenomenon of aging itself for granted. Policy then flows out of this mentality, that essentially leads us to accept the fact that people die once they grow old.
The inevitability of aging has allowed us to make peace with death in our modern era. Your grandmother dies at age 88 of a nasty lung infection, but you’re content with this outcome because she was stuck in a wheelchair, hard-hearing, lost most of her teeth and starting to lose her mind. But now, as we’re starting to overcome aging, we will be faced with the difficult situation where death can’t be avoided and we genuinely will once again experience suffering the loss of people who could have had a long future ahead of them.
Perhaps most interesting is to consider this outcome, in the context of limits to growth. We’re probably not about to colonize outer space and we’re probably not going to feed 12 billion people with the resources we have at our disposal. So what does this mean, when intelligent people with sufficient wealth at their disposal can now dramatically lengthen their stay at our plane of existence? Or better yet, what does it mean when intelligent wealthy people can have children at age fifty or sixty, with no genuine impairment of their own or their children’s health?
The question is rarely pondered in this context, because people think of themselves as either cornucopians or neo-malthusians. Either everything falls apart soon because we ran out of resources or we’re going to spread across the galaxy like a metastasizing cancer. In practice, reality tends to lie somewhere in between, with both sides occasionally being shown right in what most of society considered excessive optimism or pessimism. It’s a huge mistake to assume any sort of “camp” is right all the time. In practice, there are issues on which it makes sense to agree with the far-right, the far-left, as well as issues where centrists and liberals are right. As a simple if somewhat cliche example: Nobody can dispute the Nazi’s had it right when it comes to smoking. In a similar manner, we’re going to find that the futurologists will be shown right in at least a few of their most radical predictions.
We can be quite sure we’re not going to figure out how to carry out nuclear fusion, terraform Mars and all that jazz. If we were capable of nuclear fusion, there would be no genuine limits left to our expansion. We know there are limits to our expansion, because we haven’t witnessed evidence of extraterrestrial life yet. Life that pursues perpetual growth destabilizes its own ecological niche, thereby causing collapse and its subsequent disappearance. If there are sustainable non-human civilizations out there, they live at a state of complexity that does not allow them to communicate with us. The kind of trajectory we are on, characterized by rapid changes in the environment and exponential growth in resource usage, last for a few centuries before falling apart. On a geological timescale, that’s a blip on the radar. If this happens on other planets, it happens too rarely, for very short periods of time, for us to notice. On the other hand, immortal elves living in trees on a rainforest planet with a global population density of Greenland who abolished Abrahamic religion and figured out how to overcome the Maximum Power Principle don’t signal evidence of their existence to us. If they’re out there, we’ll never find out about them.
So, this leads us to the classical cyberpunk dystopian scenario, where Jeff Bezos and Vladimir Putin live to rule to world at age 180, while you and me die of hunger when prices for Soylent in the supermarket start to exceed our budget. I’m not convinced of this scenario either. To start with, it’s somewhat irrational to assume that once a technology like this is developed it will somehow remain accessible only to a small elite. The therapies that cause dramatic life extension are available for you to buy now. They’re untested in humans, but they’re affordable to you for the equivalent of a monthly salary.
In addition, the cost of these technologies goes down, because those who can afford to use them as well as those who can afford to produce them both benefit from broader use. If I sell life-extension pills, I want to sell more of them, as that allows me to keep my costs beneath those of my competitor. If I can afford life-extension pills, I don’t want to hoard them. I might not care enough about a friend to hand him half my fortune, but I don’t want him to drop dead of a preventable cause. And my friend doesn’t want his wife to suffer the same fate, and so forth.
In addition, keep in mind that aging also transforms productive human beings into costly burdens on our social safety net. If the government finds out it can save money on nursing homes or raise the retirement age by ten years by giving you this treatment, the government will make sure an evil greedy billionaire can’t hoard this technology for him and his cronies.
Finally, billionaires don’t want to be seen as evil billionaires. Even the genuinely corrupt selfish billionaires don’t want to be seen as evil billionaires. They want to be able to fuck Instagram models without having to worry they’ll slip cyanide into their drink. The only rich guy who genuinely seems to enjoy being seen as a selfish dick by people seems to be Martin Shkreli, but even he enjoys having teenage boys on 4chan look up to him.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean the whole world will have access to this kind of technology. We’re failing to provide billions of people with sufficient iodine, iron or vitamin A in their diet, despite knowing this will cause death or permanent brain damage to them. Rather, the most boring scenario is the most plausible one: People in industrialized first world nations will gain access to technology that will dramatically extend their life expectancy.
If I’m really honest, this is ultimately the best possible outcome, given the conditions we’re living in. In Somalia, 95% of girls are mutilated, with the consent of their own parents. In Egypt, 88% of Muslims believe people who leave Islam should receive the death penalty. In India, Hindu’s go onto the street, to protest in favor of a group of Hindu men who gang-raped an eight year old Muslim girl of a neighboring tribe, before killing her. In Gauteng Provence, South Africa, a quarter of men will say yes in surveys when asked whether they have ever raped a woman. In Bangladesh, criminal gangs take children to doctors to have their limbs amputated, to get more donations when forcing the children to beg on the streets.
That’s the state of the world today. I feel threatened by the prospect of people with such mentalities living to be multiple centuries old. They’re not ready for such a dramatic and radical transformation of their society. Even if we had the comic book cyberpunk scenario, in which billionaires live for centuries, I would consider that an improvement for the world. I am not under the impression that Peter Thiel, Bill Gates or Elon Musk want to use their money and power to hurt other people.
The most likely outcome, is the most desirable. Japan, South Korea, Europe, North America, are going to elongate the lives of their own citizens. Idiot drug dealers will continue to kill each other at age twenty, miserable impoverished people will continue to die of drug overdoses, but those who have managed to enter a state of existence they enjoy will generally live much longer lives than they do now.
For society, this is of tremendous benefit. It takes us thirty years to produce a surgeon. Eighteen years of general education, six years medical school, then six more years of training. That’s when the surgeon can start doing his job, when he has just forty productive years left. Imagine the surgeon had eighty productive years left instead. It’s easy to see how society would benefit. Intelligent and successful people, will live longer and more productive lives.
Ultimately, what we would expect to see happen is that intelligent, successful and happy people, will start to crowd out those who inflict misery upon others. Here’s something to consider: Janet Jackson gave birth to a child at age fifty. This is what modern technology allows, modern rejuvenation techniques will further enable this. Imagine having children at age thirty, who are independent adults by the time you’re fifty. Why not just have more children, if biological and economic limits are not stopping you?
If you’re the kind of person who is able to have a positive impact on his society, you’re doing the world a favor by having children. There’s a man out there somewhere, who figured out coral grows ten times faster if you deliver an electric impulse to the coral. With the right effort, this allows us to rebuild coral reefs as they die out in other places. What do you think this man’s children might accomplish? What could his grandchildren accomplish? What do you think they would accomplish, if they maintain a properly functioning mind for twice as long?
The problem we face is not so much that the world is overpopulated. That’s the problem of being unable to distinguish between quality and quantity. Our real problem is that the world is overpopulated with the wrong kind of people. There are women out there who have children, find a new husband and allow the husband to sexually abuse their children. Consider a guy like DaddyOFive, who films himself bullying his children. There are also people in some parts of the world, who have children and figure out they can’t take care of those children, so the children are given up for adoption to religious leaders who teach the children to memorize the Quran and beg on the street.
Those people have too many children. They live miserable dysfunctional lives and raise their children in an environment that ensures the children will live miserable and dysfunctional lives too. My own great-grandfather sent his children to an orphanage, when his wife died. My grandfather refused to speak to him for the rest of his life. It’s clear the great-grandfather had too many children. By sending his children to an orphanage, he set them up for a lifetime of misery and dysfunction. Children should be born to intelligent and kind-hearted people, who will take good care of them and deliver them the best chances for success and happiness in life.
Radical life extension is the first step in a process that would lead to a fundamental upheaval of life on Earth. Besides protecting Western nations against a looming demographic catastrophe, it leads to a dramatic change in our mentality towards life. As an example, if we will live to see the impact of climate change in our own lives, we have a motive to work harder to preserve the habitability of our planet. If we live for centuries, we can devote our lives to projects that may take centuries to fulfill. How long would it take to resurrect extinct species and bring their population to self-sustaining levels? How long does it take to grow a redwood forest? These are projects a man today can’t fulfill in his own lifetime.
Perhaps most promising, is the reality that biotechnology’s impact on life is not fundamentally limited to our own lives. We know with reasonable certainty today, that we can take a mouse and transfer certain human genes to the mouse, to produce a smarter mouse. We’ve proven this for multiple genes independently. What happens, when we transfer all those genes to a single mouse? What happens, when we transfer all those genes to a dog?
Humanism is the biggest intellectual failure of our era. We pretend that a man who abuses and mistreats others is somehow endowed with the same fundamental rights as anyone else. Simultaneously, we pretend that a non-human animal has no genuine rights whatsoever. In Africa, elephants today live as a post-apocalyptic society. The elephant males misbehave, because they grew up without father figures. This is the consequence of our anthropocentric mentality, as we can’t imagine elephants have societies with needs equivalent to our own.
Billions of people around the world adhere to absurd religions, that proclaim “human” life is sacred. You can kill an adult pig and eat it, but you can’t abort a fetus the size of a peanut from a womb, even if the pregnant mother is addicted to drugs that will ensure brain damage in the potential child. This stupidity is one of the primary causes of misery in the world today.
What happens, when you’re faced with animals as smart as humans? Will you kill a pig who asks you not to kill it? Or, what happens when you’re faced with humans who have merged with animals? A woman could soon choose to give birth to a child, with plainly visible animal features. Where do you draw the line? Does Jesus want you to preach the faith to nomadic tribes of man-pig hybrids traversing the Texas countryside? Could they even go to heaven, or are they per definition excluded? When do you find yourself forced to let go of your dogmatic worldview?
This is what leaves me most excited, the prospect that biotechnology will ultimately force an end to anthropocentrism.