Rejuvenation would cause cultural stagnation

As you probably have noticed, in my articles I answer objections by presenting facts that disprove, or question the validity of, the thesis of objections themselves. Normally, I don’t start off questioning the objection right away, but this time I really can’t help it.

Are we sure that rejuvenation would cause cultural stagnation? Based on what do we make this claim? Guesses? Are we really so certain that all those who hit age 80 are such incredibly stubborn, ignorant, presumptuous pains in the butt that it’d be best for everyone if they just died? I’m asking because, you know, if it wasn’t 100% certain, I’d tend to side with who’s about to give up the ghost.

I’m not joking. This objection (like many others) is based on preconceptions and cliches, namely that all old people are supposedly nothing but ballast holding back scientific, cultural, and social progress. This idea suffers from a number of flaws, so we’re going to pass it through a fine-tooth comb and root them all out.

The first of the flaws I was talking about is indeed that of making unproved assumptions: ‘Old people hinder progress.’ This kind of statement might be passable if one’s talking about this and that with friends at the pub down the road; however, when we’re talking whether or not lifesaving treatments should be developed, there’s no room for tittle-tattle, only for facts.

The second flaw is that this cliché overlooks counterexamples. Perhaps Albert Einstein and Rita-Levi Montalcini were just two old farts who thankfully cashed in their chips before they could hinder progress too much? What about all other scientists, philosophers, thinkers, luminaries of medicine, and so on? Did they all turn into hardheaded fossils once they hit old age? What is the critical mass of old reactionaries necessary to cause cultural stagnation? Are we sure that rejuvenation will make us reach it? If we didn’t develop rejuvenation for the sake of getting rid of those who hinder progress, wouldn’t we be also shooting ourselves in the foot, since old people who are open-minded innovators despite their age would be dying of ageing as well? These are not rhetorical questions; they are extremely serious questions. Claiming that rejuvenation must not be created, lest it causing cultural stagnation, equals saying that old people must keep getting sick and dying for the greater good; asking for incontrovertible proof of this claim is therefore absolutely legitimate, and whoever upholds the claim must provide such proof.

Thirdly, assuming it was true that most people turned into reactionaries once they reached age 60 or so, denying medical treatment to people whose mentality does not conform to our standards or preferences is unheard of. Can you imagine that? ‘I’m sorry, madam. You’re seventy years old: I cannot cure your heart disease; what if you went on living too long, and ended up hindering social progress?’ When you put it like that, it sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it? But it is actually worse than that. We’re not talking about denying treatment to someone; we’re talking about opposing the creation of treatments, based on the groundless assumption that their beneficiaries might slow down progress if they lived too long.

Besides, who has never met a twenty-year-old who was a perfect reactionary despite their young age? It seems apparent that age is not such an important factor as it is the environment one lives in. As far as I am aware, children who grow up in extremely conservative environments—such as places where we witness a stubborn opposition to homosexual rights—don’t turn out to be liberal thinkers just because they’re young. Before they can embrace new ideas and ways of thinking, they must be exposed to them; if they grow accustomed to open-mindedness and tolerance from a young age, there’s no reason to think they won’t stick to them sixty years later. Closed-mindedness is not a problem we will solve, or even contain, by letting old people die; we will solve it only if we attack it at its roots and teach everyone to think for themselves without clinging on preconceptions. Since I mentioned homosexual rights, think about them and the Gay Pride. The whole point of the event is that of spreading awareness about the LGBT cause among the people and changing society for the better through dialogue. (Some might not like the Pride per se although they support the cause, but that’s a different matter and we don’t care.) Without initiatives that aim to spread new ideas, new ways of thinking, culture and knowledge, and make people aware of global issues, progress will come to a grinding halt whether or not old people die. I probably don’t need to emphasise once more the dubious morality of letting people die of old age, even though it could be avoided, just to rid ourselves of those whose mindset we don’t like.

I do agree that some people get worse with age. I’ve met some of them, but we can’t generalise our personal experience of a couple of old farts and conclude that everyone would become like them if they lived much longer. Just like we all met this kind of old people, we also met old people who were more progressive and open-minded than young people: Why do we summarily dismiss these positive examples as exceptions to the rule readily generalised from the negative examples?

We need to take into account that this time in history is quite exceptional in terms of generational gap. My father was born in 1941, and his generation wasn’t all too different from his dad’s generation, especially when you consider how different my generation (1984) is from my dad’s generation. Elderly people of today come from a dramatically different generation than the current one, so it’s no surprise that they’re on average less well educated and more conservative. This might be the reason why we can’t imagine old people as anything else but an obstacle to human progress. Unlike their grandparents, elderly people of 2050 (us) will be people with higher education, used to a rapidly changing world. The idea that in forty years you might be a scared and confused elderly who can’t make sense of the world any more is pure nonsense. You’ll be used to technology and the unstoppable march of progress; to a constant stream of innovations; to the fact morality and customs change all the time. I concede that maybe (maybe) many elderly people today are more conservative than the rest of us, but one shouldn’t expect this to be an ironclad rule applying to each and every generation.

Anyway, it would be wrong of me to assume that a good education and familiarity with science and technology would be enough to make everyone open-minded and tolerant. One of the most important scientists of the last century, Max Plank, is told to have said that ‘science advances funeral by funeral’; what he meant, rather bluntly, was that usually scientists are very fond of their own theories and they tend to oppose any new ones contradicting their own. Only the death of old scientists entrenched in their views could let new theories catch on. Quite frankly, this isn’t automatically true just because Plank said it. Granted, Einstein hated quantum mechanics because it introduced chance into physics; he even wrote a paper to attack quantum mechanics. He was wrong, and he was probably not the only luminary to ever hold wrong convictions. However, the good thing about science is that, if a theory is incorrect, sooner or later it will blow up in your face, proving you were wrong in a rather spectacular way. Social change may be hindered if too many conservative people are around, because social issues aren’t about objective facts that can be proved right or wrong; but science is not an opinion, and if a theory is wrong, sooner or later a new experiment or more accurate calculations will prove it beyond doubt. There surely are many ways an influential scientist who was too fond of their theory could still prevent other theories to become popular and thus hinder human progress; however, the whole point of progress is to improve our lives. It is out of the question that the elimination of age-related diseases would be an unprecedented improvement, possibly the most spectacular in history. Rather paradoxically, those who oppose rejuvenation fearing that people with obsolete views might stand between humanity and a better life could be part of the very problem they’re trying to prevent, precisely because of their obsolete views.

Maybe not all older scientists wouldn’t be ready to give up on their pet theories if new evidence questioned them; however, it is true that older people tend to be more conservative than younger ones. Once we account for social factors and education, is there anything left? Likely so: biology. The reason why younger people have an easier time learning new things and accepting change than older people do isn’t just that young people don’t have as many preconceptions as old people; one must also take into account that younger brains are generally more plastic than older ones. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new neural connections, which allows us to learn and change. Both this ability and that of forming new neurons (the so called neurogenesis) tend to decrease with age, even though they don’t disappear entirely. Thus, if open-mindedness is at least partly rooted in our biology as it seems to be the case, it’s not far-fetched to think rejuvenation might be able to restore it in older people. This isn’t just a stab in the dark; there is some evidence for it. A study on senescent cell clearance has shown that mice whose senescent cells have been regularly removed exhibit a more ‘juvenile’ behaviour than control mice. While ‘normal’ elderly mice tend to stick to the sides of their cage and don’t move around too much, mice who undergo senolytic treatment spend more time in the centre of the cage and like to explore their environment. It’s too soon to say if senolytics (or other rejuvenation therapies) will give us back the mental agility of youth, but the data are encouraging.

I’ll close this article with a last, simple question for you. If we endorsed the idea that people should die of old age to prevent cultural stagnation, just like we consider old people of today as possible obstacles to progress, one day someone else will consider us in the same way. Do you think that, when you’ll be past 90, you’ll be so conservative and reactionary that everyone would be better off if you died?

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