Three Clades

Amongst the folk who talk seriously about aging and longevity, you will find a number of quite different clades characterized by the ideas and ideals held by their members. For example, and drawing with broad strokes:

  • Optimistic Dynamists

    The optimists understand the promise of rejuvenation biotechnology - that we stand on the verge of being able to greatly extend the healthy human life span - while remaining aware of the challenges that lie ahead. It will require decades to get to where we're going, but the goal of human agelessness can be attained if we put our shoulders to the wheel.

  • Pessimistic Stasists

    A pessimist is dismissive of technological progress, either deliberately or through simply being one of those people who don't spend a lot of time in the consideration of change. Their thoughts on aging are locked to the here and now, caught in the moment. While rigorous in their examination of what is, their projections of what will be are unreliable - their view of aging tomorrow is that it looks much the same as aging today.

  • Optimistic Fools

    The optimistic fool believes some or all of the nonsense propagated by the "anti-aging" marketplace, or has deluded himself into thinking that a silver bullet lies just around the corner, some combination of lifestyle and ingested substance if it could just be found. In reality he is only spinning his wheels, just like all who came before him.

Nothing is ever clear cut, of course, and many folk in the community embody aspects of all three clades above, depending on the particular topic at hand. Here, however, is an example of someone firmly in the pessimism camp:

If old age isn't for sissies, then neither is Susan Jacoby's tough-minded, painful-to-read and important book, "Never Say Die," which demolishes popular myths that we can "cure" the "disease" of aging and knocks the "g" right out of the golden years. Forget about those dreams of dropping dead on the tennis court or in a lover's arms at age 95. Such happy endings could happen to us, but the odds are great that they won't, in spite of how frisky we currently feel and in spite of our dedication to a vegetable-eating, nonsmoking, moderate-drinking, daily-exercising lifestyle.

The book covers the ugly realities of degenerative aging in the here and now, but also, as you can see from the quote above, has little good to say about the present and future of medical science. This is a pity, as I think there is great value in puncturing the rosy, populist views of aging put out by the self-empowerment industry, as well as the bubbles most people build around themselves in their efforts not to think about the future of their own aging. Everyone should be afraid of what aging brings - fear is a perfectly rational response to the slow and painful failure of body and mind that lies ahead. If people were less successful at burying this very sensible fear, perhaps they would be more motivated to help advance the cause of longevity science.

People who concern themselves with looking deeply at the here and now often produce works like "Never Say Die" - but a correct analysis of the present only accomplishes half the job of education. It has to be followed up with a correct analysis of change, progress, and the ways in which we can solve the identified problems. Here, that means the engineering of medical technologies to repair the biological damage of aging, something that will happen far more rapidly, I think, if more people looked at the world we live in now with wide open eyes and no illusions.

Even the most widely recognized greatest disasters in human history pale in comparison to natural death. For example, the typhoon that struck Bangladesh in 1970 washed away a million lives. In 1232 AD, Genghis Khan burned the Persian city of Herat to the ground. It took his Mongol horde an entire week to slaughter the 1.6 million inhabitants. The Plague took 15 million per year, World War II, 9 million per year, for half a decade each. The worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918 exterminated less than 22 million people - not even half the annual casualties from natural death. But natural death took 52 million lives last year. We can only conclude that natural death is measurably the greatest catastrophe humankind has ever faced.

"Such happy endings could happen to us, but the odds are great that they won't".

Since most people will die very horribly whether due to old age or traumatic event, and so few will go peacefully, I think it is time to consider the possibility that death is not natural. It is inevitable only because the probability of a death-causing event becomes 1 over a sufficient time period.

Posted by: NGN at February 11th, 2011 9:56 PM

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