"Every Story is the Story of the Fall"

"Every story is the story of the Fall" - except the one that matters, the one we're all writing together with quills of science, will and toil in the real world. That story is a grand arc of irresistible rise, of the defeat of obstacles and surpassing of limitations to our true potential. But you wouldn't know it from the myths that we find most comforting, as illustrated by their widespread nature.

I forget where I first heard the quote above: "story" in that context means "myth." Myths are not a remote line item from our history; they are the resonances in the conversation of ten thousand winding threads that takes place across a culture; common, retold and reinvented stories we tell ourselves to describe who we are, where we've come from, where we are going and what it is we want. Modern myth directly impacts any sort of large-scale activities, any project that requires the support and understanding of millions. Go against a mythic viewpoint and you'll have a tougher time of it.

So it is that advocating and working towards healthy life extension is greatly affected by the stories we tell to one another about aging and its place in the world. I have briefly discussed this in the past:

Given a technology that allows us to do something new, we will turn that capacity to build our world a little closer to the world of myth that makes us comfortable. In the process, some feedback or change to the human condition slowly - very slowly - introduces changes into our mythic structure.

Myth drives the application of technological capabilities, which then in turn change the myth - but in the short term, myth is in the driving seat, all other things being equal. For our near-term future, the myths of longevity and immortality - and the myths used to make us feel better about lacking both - are important considerations when it comes to raising support for research to greatly extend the healthy human life span.


The common thread running through our earliest mythological tales of immortality is that death, while not necessarily desirable, is unavoidable and a fundamental part of being human. In spite of his best efforts, Gilgamesh could not achieve immortality. Given a choice, Tithonus likely would have chosen death over eternal decrepitude. While there is no suggestion in these stories that death gives value to life, they both certainly leave the impression that we should grow accustomed to the idea of dying, because there can be no desirable alternatives to it.

The story of the Fall is an old and simple one; the world is one of shortages, pain, suffering and death, yet we humans can conceive of a world absent these troubles. Nostalgia is a part of the human condition also - we see earlier times in our own lives as better than they were, and it's a short leap from there to draw a line of decay from an imagined golden age to the imperfect present. The Fall is an alignment of the mythic world - a better, imaginary world - with the arrow of time; for a variety of reasons, we have come to put that mythic world in the past rather than the future.

A great deal of modern myth extends this imaginary Fall to continue into our own future. This is odd, since the golden age of our imagination might actually come to exist in the future - see the above quoted text on what we tend to do with our increasing technological prowess.

If you look for the Fall in subtexts far and wide, you'll see it everywhere. Malthusians, luddites and many environmentalists immediately spring to mind as those who most obviously buy into and support the myths of the Fall in the most modern way. To their view, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and the myths of that Fall - for whatever reason - resonate most in their currents of the cultural river. But for every outright Malthusian you'll find a hundred young people who will claim they'd rather age and die than live to see the hand-me-down, grey future they imagine for themselves. They're not up for helping meaningful progress: why should they? That isn't the place for themselves they have defined, nor even meaningful in their view of the world. Such is the power of myth.

Sadly, one result of the comparative wealth and prosperity brought by modern technology is that ever more people are insulated from the consequences of being absolutely wrong about the way in which the world works for long enough for great damage to be done. Myths that, if followed, will lead to proverty and suffering can thrive for long enough to do just that.

We need better myths if we are to gather support for a major effort to extend healthy life span, analagous to the quest to cure cancer - these myths do in fact exist, but, unfortunately, are not widespread to the degree required. Speaking from my experience, we most definitely need better myths when it comes to aging, longevity, health, the economic organization of medicine and our ability to enact change in these areas. So long as the vast mass of people are entirely comfortable to describe a world in which aging is inevitable - and the role of the elderly is to suffer, become frail and die on schedule - then progress towards healthy life extension will remain frustratingly slow.

If people choose to reject healthy life extension, then so be it: but you have to first hear the myth in order to turn your back on it. Insofar as advocacy goes, we're still at the point today of telling our stories more loudly, and broadening the audience. Strive to live healthily and live long - we think you'll find it's a better class of myth for the real world than those in which the hero dies young.

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