Rejuvenation is good for society

Rejuvenation isn’t good just for individuals and the people close to them. It is good for society as a whole, for a number of reasons. These reasons—which I will now proceed to discuss—should be enough make rejuvenation research a top priority for humanity in its entirety.

Wiser people would be with us for longer

Ever heard anyone lamenting that the great minds of history are no longer with us? That we could certainly do with all the Einsteins, Montalcinis, Fermis, Curies, etc, living longer? And have you ever felt saddened when a great mind of our time died? You probably did, or at the very least know someone who did.

Just imagine how much faster would science and progress march if our greatest physicists, doctors, engineers, philantrophists, etc, could live an indefinitely long life. Remember that we’re not talking about a longer life spent in decrepitude and sickness: We’re talking about a 200-year-old Einstein with the experience of two centuries but the physical and mental agility of a 25-year-old. If he was still alive, maybe he could’ve figured out how to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics—something that has been eluding all efforts for decades. Every time a great person (or any person, for that matter) dies, their particular experience is lost forever. Never mind that there are other experts, or that similar knowledge is found in books; it’s not even remotely the same. Rejuvenation would allow us to benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of the best among us for centuries on end. (And, as a side note, scientists and researchers would no longer have to fear that they’ll die before the discovery or the breakthrough they’ve been dreaming of their whole lives is finally made.)

Of course, the wisdom and knowledge of common people, for lack of a better term, may be precious too. While significant portions of human knowledge eventually become obsolete (so that, for example, you’d hardly have to worry that a 200-year-old would have work experience from 100 years ago useful to find a job today and thus have an unfair edge over younger people), some life experiences never really become outdated. Imagine all the things that a 300-year-old grandfather could teach you! It would be amazing to discuss with him all he’s been through and what he thinks of the progression of history and civilisation over his lifetime. On top of that, consider that vastly longer lifespans would allow to have children much later in life. If your first child was born when you were, say, 80 years old, he or she would be able to benefit from your greater life experience. You’d have much more to teach to your children if you had them much later in life, probably making you a better parent than you otherwise would be. Even more so if the child you had in your 80s wasn’t your first, and thus you had a very long parenting experience.

Additionally, let’s not forget that rejuvenation would let us have live witnesses from the distant past. Our knowledge of history often relies on incomplete or imperfect sources, which for a reason or another fail to give us an accurate picture of historical times. People from 500 years earlier certainly wouldn’t remember everything down to the last detail, but would still be able to provide insights that are presently impossible to get.

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Kissing pensions goodbye

Why do we pay pensions to people who hit age 60 or so? Simple—because that’s about the age when they become unable to work efficiently. Elderly people don’t work, and thus don’t produce wealth; on top of that, they consume it in the form of pensions. As discussed here, this is a problem, especially now that the number of elderly people is steadily climbing.

This is the pension system in a nutshell: Part of the salary you get from your work today is put on a side as your ‘retirement fund’. That doesn’t really mean that the State keeps it in a box until you retire; rather, it is used to finance the pensions that need to be paid today. The pension system merely keeps track of how much it owes you when you retire, based on how much you worked and how long they expect you’ll live. Eventually, when you retire for real, your pension will be paid by the contributions of the current workforce. However, if the number of pensioners is high enough, and the number of workers is low enough (which is bound to happen in a few decades, given the increases in average life expectancy and lower birth rates), the system will break down. Economists and politicians worry all the time about how to find a way to save the pension system, tinkering with rates and policies, but they’d better forget all of that and use some good ol’ lateral thinking instead: If the problem is that we can’t support an aged population, make the aged population able to support itself again. I concede that it’s not so easy to come up with this idea, as most people probably don’t even think it could be possible. However, successful rejuvenation therapies would keep people able-bodied for an indefinitely long time, meaning that they could keep working regardless of their age. The result is that people would keep contributing wealth to society for much longer than they currently do, and they would not consume wealth in the form of pensions (or at least not as much as before—it is conceivable that one might like to retire for a couple of years after 30 years spent in a certain career before either continuing it or starting a new one.) Financing rejuvenation research (and paying for rejuvenation treatments) should thus be a top priority on the agenda of any State with a modicum of self-preservation instinct.

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Kissing geriatrics goodbye

How much does it cost to pay for the treatment of a disease that never manifests itself? It’s not a trick question, and the answer is indeed zero.

Geriatrics is a field of medicine that focuses on the care of elderly people. Unlike biogerontology, geriatrics does not focus on the causes of age-related diseases; it focuses on treating the disease itself, and thus it cannot hope to significantly improve the patient’s life, let alone save it past a certain point. Geriatrics can mitigate the symptoms and modestly postpone the inevitable, but that’s all. As the patients get older, geriatrics has a harder time helping them, because older people don’t respond to treatments as well as young people do. Long story short, geriatrics boils down to a series of treatments (and thus, expenses that individuals, States, or insurances will have to pay) that can’t save the patients, and can only make their lives a bit less miserable at best. The same thing goes for hospices and other services for the elderly—it’s good to have them because they’re better than nothing, but not much better than nothing. Geriatrics is not going to give you back your lost sight or allow you to get up from your wheelchair and jump around. Together with pensions, geriatrics exists only because we care for people who are not able to support, and take care of, themselves any more, but it’s otherwise pretty useless. It’s money thrown out of the window that will not come back, because elderly people consume wealth but produce none.

Now, if the reason pensions and geriatrics exist are that we care about the needs of people born a long time ago, and if we need to spend money in order to take care of these needs, why not go for a solution that kills two birds with one stone? Rejuvenation biotechnologies would prevent the diseases of old age from ever happening, thus taking care of the needs of elderly people in such a comprehensive and effective way that geriatrics could never even dream of. In fact, rejuvenation would eliminate the need for geriatrics altogether, making a whole lot of expenses simply disappear. The money saved in this way could be used for a lot of other good things—not to mention the wealth that rejuvenated people would still be able to contribute to society through their work.

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People’s attitude may change for the better

Sometimes, people use the perceived inevitability of death to justify bad habits and self-destructive behaviour. For example, smokers may keep on smoking—despite the well-known fact that smoking may seriously shorten your life—because, well, they would die anyway at some point, right?

In my humble opinion, this is a fool’s way of thinking. If your life is finite, it would be best not to make it any shorter than it has to be. Certainly a smoker might value the pleasure they get from smoking more than they value the years of life they may lose because of their habit; however, he or she should also take into account all the negative effects of smoking—on their teeth, finger nails, skin, and even their ability to climb a flight of stairs without feeling short of breath at step four—all occurring well before their premature death.

Regardless, this argument hinges on the fact that you have to die sooner or later, and thus it doesn’t really matter if the harmful behaviour you indulge in kills you a little earlier than you would have died anyway. Sure. But what if it killed you a lot earlier—like, ‘forever’ earlier? Is it worth sacrificing eternity for cigarettes? Probably not. Maybe the promise of living an indefinitely long time might keep people from persevering in bad habits and behaviours that, like smoking, are harmful to themselves and others. (I wouldn’t bank on it though.)

Another good example of how vastly extended lifespans might change people’s attitudes for the better is a renewed environmental awareness. If you only have 80-something years to live on this Earth, and your own anti-ecological behaviour is unlikely to have significant consequences within your lifetime, you might decide you don’t care enough about future generations to change your ways. ‘Let unsustainable farming, coal burning, environmental pollution, and resource wasting continue; bring it on, global warming! I’ll be dead long before any of these may concern me anyway.’ However, if your life was indefinitely long, sooner or later the consequences of your inconsiderate actions of today would likely have an impact on your life as well. If the consequences of global warming won’t be serious before 100 years, and you expect to be alive and well by then, you certainly have an interest in preventing those consequences from happening. Very long-lived people might become more respectful of the environment for their own good, making everyone better off in the process. (But, again, I wouldn’t bank on it.)[1]

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Next: Aubrey’s trump cards >>


[1] This argument might seem to be desperately at odds with the argument I made in another article, where I rebutted the claim that, if people could live ‘forever’, they would go paranoid over the smallest risks for fear of losing their otherwise eternal life. However, this contradiction is only apparent.

As I explained in that article, this matter boils down to potential benefits and risks of one’s own actions. The essence of the article was that we decide to take or leave a risk depending on how big the risk itself is, and how large is the expected payoff. In the case of a very small risk with a large payoff, it makes sense to take your chances, because they are very good indeed. For example, while there is a chance you might die in a plane crash on your way to your well-deserved holiday, this chance is very, very small; odds are you’ll enjoy your vacation and come back in one piece. In a post-ageing world, your leftover life is potentially infinite; thus, one would reasonably object, however small your chance of dying in a plane crash was, as long as the chance was not zero the expected loss for that trip would still be ridiculously high if not infinite, almost certainly larger than any benefits you may get from your holiday. This is mathematically true, but it doesn’t change the fact that the chances of you losing anything at all is hilariously small. In this case the expected loss may be huge, but the chances of actually losing anything are minuscule.

Things are different in the case of bad habits and anti-ecological behaviour, because unlike plane trips, their effects are cumulative. Whether you take ten or ten thousand planes, the odds of any given plane crashing don’t change. If you’ve taken a hundred thousand planes and then step on your hundred-thousand-oneth plane, you’re not making that plane any more likely to fall. The more planes you take, the more likely it is that an unlucky plane will be among all those you ever took; but regardless of how many planes you have taken before, the chances of the specific plane you’re sitting on right now falling do not change one bit. Similarly, your odds of dying while crossing the street aren’t any higher if you’ve already crossed it a million times than if you have already crossed it only a hundred times. This is because these events are independent of each other. They don’t have consequences that pile up and increase your chances of running into trouble.

The above is not true of cigarettes or environmental pollution. Any given cigarette stands a pitiful chance of causing you any serious harm on its own, but if you smoke a million of them, the minuscule amount of harm each of them has caused will pile up, effectively making the situation a little worse and slightly increasing your odds of serious illness with each puff you take. A little bit of CO2 won’t cause global warming on its own, but each CO2 molecule that sticks around will accumulate with the others, and eventually hell will break loose. In these cases, the risks you are taking are much more significant over the long term than plane-taking, street-crossing, and the likes, and the alleged short-term benefits of smoking or disregarding environmental safety are at the very least highly questionable. It makes sense to take very small risks that have large benefits, but not to take larger, cumulative risks with unclear or debatable benefits. This is true regardless of how long your potential total lifespan is.

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