Have you ever heard people commenting on ageing in a casual conversation? It happens more often than not. According to my personal observations, ageing and money are two topics among the most likely ones to turn up in a casual conversation (if not the two most likely ones). They make a witty remark or two about the ill-health of old age (as if it was a laughing matter) and discuss for a while how damn hard it is to get a job or pay the bills, but nobody ever asks the right questions: Must we age? Do we really need money?
I’m not surprised if people don’t even think about questioning basic axioms. It’s much easier not to, especially since our brains have a sharp tendency to prefer what is known over what is not, no matter how sucky the known can be and how wonderful the new might be. Dismissing the new and reaffirming the betterness of the old provides comfort, appeases our fears, and reassures that there’s nothing we need to do about the old. The old is fine as it is. We can safely sit, do nothing about it, and let it happen.
If you have talked to people and read articles about ageing, you have probably noticed a nearly invariable pattern: The people you talk to, or the article’s author, make up excuses for ageing, trying to make it come across as a blessing rather than a curse. You know the story already—this is mostly just a coping mechanism: Ageing is a really bad thing which people think cannot be changed, so they tell themselves that it’s actually a good thing.
However, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment, just for the sake of seeing where this leads.
Assume for a moment ageists are right. Assume that not ageing would actually be as bad as ageists say.
Now imagine there’s a parallel universe out there where Mother Nature has played a really nasty trick on humans: She made them so that they don’t age biologically.
For clarity, let me reiterate: In the universe of our thought experiment, the human species has been biologically ageless since day 1. However, these, er, sadly unlucky humans are not immortal: They can still catch diseases and be hit by trucks and die, but their health does not decline as they get older. The probability such a human dies is the same at age 20 as it is at age 200.
Now, according to our assumptions, the ageless nature of our parallel-universe counterparts sucks. It is reasonable to expect that the counterparts of our own ageist people would be shouting from the rooftops that non-ageing is really bad and something should be done to fix it, right? I’d like you think for a moment and try to imagine how this would happen.
That’s a really good question, isn’t it? How would that happen? People in their 90’s complaining that they’re too healthy? Other people, afraid of overpopulation, asking people of a certain age to kill themselves? Bored people committing suicide because they’re bored, and perhaps suggesting others that suicide is the way to go when you are short of a hobby? Or—even better—some bloke called Augrey de Brey could come along and say we can solve the problem of boredom, excessive old-age health, overpopulation, tyrants living forever, and lack of generational change with a single shot: ageing biotechnologies that make you gradually sick as years go by, so that by the time you’re 100 you’re most likely dead.
Yep. That’s definitely how it would happen. We don’t even need to bother with parallel universes. I’m sure that if our species had been born biologically ageless, the very same ageist people of today would pressure scientists to invent a way of making people get sicker as time goes by.
That’s totally what would happen.