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Human immortality is not necessarily one for all, all for one

By James Pinkerton - February 26, 2001 12:00 AM

"Individual immortalists" vs. "species perpetualists." That's the titanic struggle of the future. This debate is coming because not everyone will agree that the best interests of the human race, as opposed to individual humans, will be best served by spreading humanity into space -- so that some of our descendants, at least, will be free from the dead weight of an earthly gerontocracy.

We can see the outlines of this split today, as biomedicine extends human life beyond its traditional limits, confronting people with the question of their own fate, and the fate of society. Yet absent a larger vision of the human future, a world in which everyone strains toward immortality could be an oppressive and fragile place. And so space beckons as the ultimate refuge, as the place where mankind can rejuvenate itself, physically and politically.

Excitement over the human genome project has obscured a more prosaic reality -- that "ordinary" wonder drugs are radically improving the human prospect. A casual scan of medical news, just in the past few weeks shows how routinized the production of medical miracles has become. Tamoxifen, for example, long known to be effective against breast cancer, is now being studied for its efficacy against melanoma, uterine cancer, and leukemia. Simvastatin, proven effective against cholesterol, may also be effective against the larger problem of atherosclerosis. And enoxaparin seems to work as well as heparin in keeping the blood thin to avoid clots and strokes, and yet enoxaparin needs only to be injected a couple of times a day, unlike heparin, which requires a continuous IV drip.

So who can say where all this will end? In 1900, the average American had a life expectancy of 45. Just a century later, it's up to 78. Some say we are near the limit. In their new book, The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging, S. Jay Olshansky and Bruce A. Carnes maintain that human life expectancy won't get much beyond 85. But even that incremental increase in lifespan would spell enormous consequences: the number of seniors receiving Social Security, currently about 45 million, could triple in the coming century. That's a powerful argument for President Bush's partial-privatization Social Security plan -- and also for buying more pharmaceutical stocks.

But over the longer term, what if Olshansky and Carnes are wrong? What if, thanks to whatever scientific/therapeutic solutions, the lid blows off the limits to longevity? What if people start routinely living to be 100? 150? Or longer?

If the human mind is, in the words of Julian Simon, "the ultimate resource," then it's reasonable to project that the "economic question" of paying for everyone's longer life can be answered. Free marketers and libertarians are confident, for example, that technocapitalism can generate a near-infinite economic surplus. What are tougher are the political and cultural questions.

Consider first, for example, the political implications of "lifespan inequality." Suppose Bill Gates decides to avail himself of every conceivable life-extending treatment including, for the sake of argument, cloning. Could get expensive. Will everyone in America, let alone the world, get the same treatment? Of course not. Will they object if Gates gets to stay young, like a 21st century Dorian Gray while they merely get gray? Even if everyone is living longer, the fact that some are living a lot longer will have political repercussions, because politics is driven by relative envy as much as it is by absolute levels of well-being.

In such a situation, as everyone argues about what's "fair," politicians would no doubt step forward to "redistribute the wealth," as it were. Indeed, the politics of income inequality was one of the hottest issues of the 20th Century, played out from Washington to Moscow to Beijing, then the politics of lifespan inequality could be just as hot in this century. Conceivably, politicians could seek to "solve" the matter by limiting the life spans for the rich and powerful. But since that would presumably put a cap on their own life spans, too, it's far more likely that they will instead seek to spread life-extending techniques as far and wide as possible. As noted, the cost of this politics of longevity will surely be high, although not necessarily beyond reach.

But the second question, concerning the adverse cultural consequences of top-heavy demographics, is perhaps even more troublesome. The central theme of the historian Arnold Toynbee's six-volume Study of History was the idea of "challenge and response"; eventually, societies calcify and lose their ability to respond to challenge. Can we really expect a bunch of 100-year-olds -- or 200-year-olds -- who think anew and act anew?

So what is to be done? What's the dynamic response we can think of to the challenge of an aging, graying, menacing society?

One answer is to establish a new society. That's a big-picture application of Peter Drucker's wisdom -- "don't solve problems, pursue opportunities." If the earth is destined to be filled up with old people, then the adventurous and ambitious young might wish to blaze a new trail to somewhere else, to some other celestial body, such as the moon, or Mars. Just as young people today want to get away from the stuffiness of home life with their parents, so the young of the future will want to get away from the stifling home environment -- especially if home includes not just parents, but grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, etc.

Moreover, over time, the earth will inevitably become a more dangerous place. One needn't subscribe to the ideas of Green doomsayers to conclude that a crowded world, in which people have access to weapons of mass destruction, is a more dangerous world. And that's a point that the old, as well as the young, should bear in mind. What's the point of being immortal if the earth is mortal? If risk-diversification is a good idea for one's money, it's surely a good idea for one's body.

But in the final analysis, what really matters is not the immortality of the individual, but rather the immortality of the species. Hence the future struggle, between those who seek their own personal perpetuation, and those who feel a duty to the future of the species. For that second group, the goal should be to secure an environment, on earth or elsewhere, in which future humans have a chance to achieve their fullest possible potential.

And this debate should not be deferred. Even if the cost concerns of super-longevity are addressed -- and that's a huge "if" -- those of us alive today must realize the injustice of a future world in which an aged population could crush the young under the psychic weight of its prides and prejudices. Just as parents make a plan for their children to leave the nest, even if the kids don't necessarily want to go, so today we should be thinking about how best to get our progeny, some of them anyway, off this planet. Of course, if such a wing-spreading plan is not enacted, a violent reaction of the young is another possibility -- once again undercutting elders' plan for living endless earthly life.

Thus the outlines of the coming debate, between those who think of themselves -- the individual immortalists -- and those who think about the whole -- the species perpetualists.

Surely, by using that ultimate resource, the human intellect, we can figure out a way to have our cake and eat it, too. That is, we can give everyone a long life here on earth, but also give everyone the option of a different life, on a different place. We can give ourselves personal hyper-longevity, and we also give our species true immortality.

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