Thursday, June 6, 2019

Will we live 500 years?

James H. Schmitz

A few years ago, especially in 2015 and 2016, news began to appear in the mass media announcing the imminence that our life expectancy is going to rise in an accelerated way, so we’ll soon achieve immortality. At that time I wrote in this blog three posts (this, this and this) where I declared myself skeptical about these forecasts. In another post, also published in 2016, I distinguished between two very different concepts:
  • Life expectancy: the average duration of human life. Although it depends on the age of the person, the value usually given corresponds to the moment of birth. Life expectancy has been growing progressively in recent centuries, mainly due to advances in medicine, although recent data from the UN seem to indicate that this increase is decreasing.
  • Longevity: the maximum duration of human life. Its value seems to be around 120 years, and no significant increase is noted in recent decades. In fact, there are only two people who were thought to have exceeded that longevity, the Japanese Shigeziyo Izumi and the French Jeanne Calment, but both cases are currently in doubt. The first lost his title of the longest-lived man in the world when it was discovered that his date of birth could actually correspond to a brother of the same name, older than him, who died quite young. In the case of the French woman, there is a controversial Russian study that asserts that her daughter could have exchanged her identity for her mother’s when the latter died, supposedly in 1934.
Google has fueled the idea that we’ll soon be living 500 years at least, and even that we’ll be immortal. This is not strange, for Ray Kurzweil, one of the best-known defenders of that theory, works for Google. This figure (500 years) has stayed in the popular mind, and from time to time some more or less scientific person brings it up. Will it be possible? Probably not, but the issue provides appealing headlines, and that’s why the media offer them cheerfully. After all, the legend of the fountain of eternal youth, which would prolong life indefinitely, is very old; it goes back at least to Herodotus.
James H. Schmitz is a science fiction writer who, between 1943 and 1974, published many stories and a few novels in that literary genre. Many of his stories take place in the very distant future, in a galactic federation called The Hub. In particular, in his short novel The Tuvela, also known by another alternative title, The Demon Breed, raises the question of the longevity of the human species in the distant future. He says that, by then, a maximum longevity of about 200 years would have been reached, and wonders why no further progress has been made in this line of research. Apparently, the galactic government is not interested in prolonging the duration of human life:
...while the Federation doesn't discourage longevity research, it doesn't actively support it. You could say it tolerates it.
This is a possible answer:
...our instincts evidently aren't in favor of letting us go on indefinitely... A remarkable number of my earlier associates dropped out on treatments simply because they kept forgetting to do, or refused to do, the relatively simple things needed to stay alive. It was as though they'd decided it wasn't important enough and they couldn't be bothered... The instincts accept the life and death cycle even when we're consciously opposed to it. They work for the species. The individual has significance to the species only to the point of maturity. The instincts support him until he's had an opportunity to pass along his genetic contribution. Then they start pulling him down.
In other words, according to Schmitz we have no interest in living longer because our instincts are opposed, as it would be harmful for the species. This explanation is obviously quite debatable, but, as often happens with science fiction, it provides an interesting idea that moves to think things in depth.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic thread on Immortality: Preceding Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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