Vision and Efforts Made to Live Longer

The thesis in a post from last month at Overcoming Bias is that futurists, at least those with the vision to see the golden future ahead better than most folk, don't really do that much more to live longer.

A significant share of the broader 'singularitarian' community believes that they have a chance to live for hundreds of years, if they can survive until the arrival of an AI singularity, whole brain emulation, or just the point at which medical technology is advancing fast enough to keep extending our health-span by at least a year each year (meaning we hit 'escape velocity' and can live indefinitely). Some are sufficiently hopeful about this to have invested in cryonics plans, hoping to be revived in the future, including Robin Hanson. Many others plan to do this, or think they should.

But there are much more mundane ways of increasing the chance of making it to this glorious future: exercise regularly, eat a nutritious diet low in refined carbohydrates, don't smoke or hang around those who do, drink in moderation, avoid some illegal drugs, develop strong social supports to lower suicide and other mental health threats, have a secure high-status job, don't live in an urban area, don't ride a motorbike, get married (probably), and so on. While the futurist community isn't full of seriously unhealthy or reckless people, nor does it seem much better in these regards than non-futurists with the same education and social class. A minority enjoy nutritional number crunching, but I haven't observed diets being much better overall. None of the other behaviours are noticeably better.

Which sounds about right from what I've seen. Do people, even those with vision, really care all that much about living longer? Sometimes it looks like the answer is, on average, not so much. At least not enough to make immediate sacrifices in money and time or hard left turns in the course of life.

One might argue that increasing nihilism with age is something fundamental to the human condition. In order to be successful in our evolutionary role, we have to, on balance, manage to be good worker ants even as the day of our demise looms closer. Whatever benefits we are providing to the propagation of our genes when old, benefits that caused human life span to evolve to be much longer than similarly sized mammals, we can only provide them if staying the course. When young, time preference is on your side: the psychology of discounting the future applies just as much to horrible, terrible things as it does to beneficial events. But later in life something has to take its place, some growing sense of acceptance, one of the many long-standing delusions regarding personal immortality, or disinclination to care one way or another.

People don't tend to break down and run around screaming in later life even though, to my mind at least, it seems that there is every justification for it. I don't think that this is a cultural thing per se, though its exact manifestation might be. Somewhere around the time that most people hit their stride in life, they have every incentive and the evolved wherewithall to stop caring about the fact that life is being stolen from them.

Which is something of a problem. You can only help people who want to help themselves, and those folk serious about building biotechnology and new medicine to intervene in the aging process are a tiny minority. Their entire aggregate yearly funding wouldn't stretch to a large building project in a small city. The world turns, and its population, by their actions, just doesn't seem to care all that greatly about aging to death.

It is a puzzle of our time, given that the very same people would already be taking advantage of these technologies were they in common use, the same way as they go to their annual checkups and brush their teeth.


Once again, as I commented on another recent posting, I don't credit these evolutionary explanations of human thought patterns in absence of any concrete evidence.

As for myself, I watch my weight, don't smoke and avoid acutely dangerous situations. In my judgement, all those other listed practices provide extremely marginal benefit or their causal role for lifespan is unproven. Correlations are not actionable. If I'm spending my time trying to achieve longevity escape (and even the most committed advocates have other priorities in their lives) then that time would be better spent on advocacy, or on working overtime to drum up more cash for the crucial, early-stage research.

Posted by: José at January 3rd, 2013 4:07 PM
Comment Submission

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.