Opposing the Argument that Increased Longevity Will Slow Progress, and is Therefore Undesirable

Some opponents of increased human healthy longevity argue that if we begin to live for far longer than the present human life span then progress in technology will slow to a crawl. This is often presented as a variation on the stagnation argument: that long-lived people will cling to their ideas and their positions for decades or centuries, resisting all change. It is true that human nature comes with a strong conservative streak, and all change is opposed. But despite that fact change nonetheless happens on a timescale quite short in comparison to human life spans: leaders come and go, like fashions, and revolutions, and changes of opinion, and sweeping redefinitions in culture and society. Rare indeed are those that manage to last for a couple of decades, never mind longer. This pace of change in human affairs is essentially the same as that of the ancient world, despite our much greater adult life expectancy in comparison to the classical Greek period or Roman empire.

If we want to look at raw correlations on the other hand, it seems that the technologies needed to extend healthy life go hand in hand with an increased rate of technological progress. Longevity has made the human world become wealthier and run faster, opening doors of opportunity rather than closing them. The only way to increase the healthy human life span is through the creation of a broad pyramid of enabling technologies that in turn lead to faster progress in all fields, not just medicine. Computing is the present dominant enabler, for example, not just for biotechnology but also for almost all other fields of endeavor. If human nature to date has failed to hold back the tide of progress, I'd say it has little chance at doing so in the future: progress is only speeding up.

As is pointed out in the article excerpted below, people change throughout their lives. This also is the same as in the times of antiquity, despite much longer life spans. Human nature is human nature, and the caricature of inflexible, static old people is just that: a caricature. Minds change, and where the elderly are in fact forced into smaller and smaller circles it is largely through disability and frailty, not choice: the failing body and mind narrow the accessible vista, not the lack of will.

Combatting the "Longer Life Will Slow Progress" Criticism

We are all still children. As far as the Centenarian is concerned, the only people to have ever lived have been children - and we have all died before our coming of age. What if humans only lived to age 20? Consider how much less it would be possible to know, to experience, and to do. Most people would agree that a maximum lifespan of 20 years is extremely circumcising and limiting - a travesty. However, it is only because we ourselves have lived past such an age that we feel intuitively as though a maximum lifespan of 20 years would be a worse state of affairs than a maximum lifespan of 100. And it is only because we ourselves have not lived past the age of 100 that we fail to have similar feelings regarding death at the age of 100. This doesn't seem like such a tragedy to us - but it is a tragedy, and arguably one as extensive as death at age 20.

The current breadth and depth of the world and its past are far too gargantuan to be encompassed by a mere 100 years. If you really think that there are only so many things that can be done in a lifetime, you simply haven't lived long enough or broadly enough. There is more to the wide whorl of the world than the confines and extents of our own particular cultural narrative and native milieu.

Luckily, functional decline as a correlate of age is on the way out. We will live to 100 not in a period of decline upon hitting our mid-twenties, but in a continuing period of youthfulness. There are no longevity therapies on the table that offer to truly prolong life indefinitely without actually reversing aging. Thus, one of the impediments preventing us from seeing death at 100 as a tragedy, as dying before one's time, will be put to rest as well. When we see a 100 year old die in future, they will have the young face of someone who we feel today has died before their time. We won't be intuitively inclined to look back upon the gradual loss of function and physiological-robustness as leading to and foretelling this point, thereby making it seem inevitable or somehow natural. We will see a terribly sad 20 year old, wishing they had more time.

It seems to me a truism that we get smarter, more ethical and more deliberative as we age. To think otherwise is in many cases derivative of the notion that physiology and experience alike are on the decline once we "peak" in our mid-twenties, downhill into old age - which does undoubtedly happen, and which inarguably does cause functional decline. But longevity therapies are nothing more nor less than the maintenance of normative functionality; longevity therapies would thus not only negate the functional decline that comes with old age, [but also] the source of the problem arguably at the heart of the concern that longer life will slow progress.

Increasing longevity will not bring with it prolonged old-age, a frozen decay and decrepit delay, but will instead prolong our youthful lives and make us continually growing beings, getting smarter and more ethical all the time.

Lastly, this thought: so what if increased life spans did slow progress? Even in the hypothetical world in which that did look even remotely plausible, it is still the case that for so long as the pace of longevity is greater than the slowdown, everyone still comes out ahead. Being alive and in good health is the important thing: given that, the only thing that matters with regard to further technological progress is whether it is happening fast enough to keep you alive and in good health. Everything else in life is what you make of it.


The argument that life extension will impede technological progress is a non-starter - anti-aging treatment will itself be the most profound technological development in human history.

Posted by: Therapsid at August 4th, 2013 11:28 AM

I actually think that progress might begin to slow *because* we aren't living longer. In some fields, and especially in cases where cross-disciplanary knowledge is required, it simply takes a huge amount of time to learn everything required, and become proficient with it. Only at that peak of knowledge in a field can one then do work to progress the field and take it forward. As our technology in all fields becomes more and more complex and requires more and more cross-disciplinary knowledge, making new progress will become more difficult within a lifetime. It's like groundhog day, and always having to start over, just when you got someone trained up to where they could really make a difference.

Posted by: Sandra Watt at January 1st, 2016 11:31 AM

Aging doesn't just effect the body, but it effects our brain. As our brains ages past it's peak, it's capacity to learn and adapt also slows. I think conquering aging won't lead to stagnation, as we will be able to remain in our peak indefinitely.

Anyways, MILE Movement for Indefinite Life Extension wrote an article on this:

It is not difficult to come across those who like to say that uniting the world to work to reach the goal of indefinitely long healthy lifespans is bad because stagnant institutions will reign.
How do we know that institutions would go on endlessly in stagnation, with people unwilling or incapable of changing their minds or advancing their lines of reasoning? Also, why wouldn’t we be equally prone to consider the reality that it is these new generations that have to continuously learn things over and over again who are propagating stagnancy? New generations barely have enough time to get a basic grip on what is going on with the conventions of their times before they are wiped out and replaced with new crops. Who is more likely to go through meaningful change, people with more understanding and time, or less?
People like to react to the movement for indefinite life extension with reasoning typically along the lines of “but I know people can definitely never change! The same outdated organizational doctrines would reign forever and therefore we obviously all need to die!!!!”
People adapt all the time, it’s a signature of our species, of all species. I am constantly reading where people talk about how they used to think various things that they no longer do.

The other day I was reading about a guy who wrote one of his first books on the value in round houses. He showed some of his later works on the issue and noted that at one point he was unhappy to have to go in front of his audience who had started a round house trend because of his earlier book and tell them why he was wrong. In this last week I was also reading about famous battles and I stumbled upon another example of changing ones mind – an Emperor of India, Ashoka the Great, killed a bunch of his family members and the people around him, then in his biggest event, executed a great massacre in his first major battle. He then ceased to do battle afterward and began advocating peaceful and diplomatic measures. Blaise Pascal was known for having changed his mind. Mikhail Gorbachev was a staunch communist who later saw the flaws in its system and began change that led to the end of communism in the east. F. W. De Klerk was a President of South Africa and supporter of Apartheid who later relinquished his support for it and even let Nelson Mandela go free. Scientists are in large part defined by changing their minds. I have met more atheists than I can count who had spent decades being religious. People come back from living in different geographical locations or things like the military and are often fundamentally different from their former selves. Sales people, propagandists, marketers, conspiracy theorists, teachers, politicians and all kinds of people change minds for a living, and do it often with breathtaking effects.
Not only that, but even if it were less common for people to change their minds than it is, it wouldn’t mean that we couldn’t figure out ingenuous programs for facilitating it. If getting people with indefinitely long healthy lives to advance their ideologies with time becomes slow going, we will find solutions other than devastating years of debilitation ending in the carnage of billions of people. We can already list many ways we already do and can fill many more pages with other potential solutions we could put together.
Another core part of this matter is that people have short lives and aging brains. By the time people get done shuffling through, sorting out and half strongly, half tentatively start settling in with a smaller subset of things they decide to stand for the most, they are already middle aged and facing death. There’s not a lot of time to think everything through again or reestablish your identity. More time allows more change. Of course people will adapt. People do and will continue to do it.
Still, even then, older people are routinely changing their minds too.
Many of our grandparents were raised by people who grew up living like the Amish - they didn’t have television, phones and so forth when they were younger. Their children grew up to rail against the impractical, destructive qualities of things like cell phones and DVD players and now they have advanced versions of them both. I’m sure they said the same sorts of things about rotary phones and color televisions before that (in fact I vaguely remember mine talking smack about color television when I was a kid, and VHS). Before that they complained about Model Ts replacing the more reliable and sensible horse, and wasting money and time on letter writing, envelopes and stamps in the same way that some older people complain about email today. Radio used to be the ‘hippies newspaper’ so to speak, but they didn’t die while cursing the radio - over time, hundreds of thousands of them went out and bought the first ones.
Long ago people used to complain that the spread of writing was taking away the better world of oral story telling. Then didn’t die of grief or go through perpetual war over it, people alive at the same time during changes like those got over it. There is usually some turbulence and clash in any change, but people argue, it happens. You argue it out and you move on. What you don’t do is say “oh no, there is going to be some disagreement in transition and so we obviously all need to die to prevent that.”
When the only tool you and your ancestors have had for coping with death for thousands of years has been acceptance and religion - a hammer - then you tend to see every challenge related to it as a nail.
The inevitable death that stops us all that we know of as aging, and other diseases, is a set of sophisticated biological mechanisms. The solution is not a single row iron plow with a mule, its not a hammer, and its not religion, excuses or acceptance. The 21st Century here is a whole new ballgame of technological and scientific gold. The solution, the hammer, is 3D bio-printing, viral vectors, stem cell technologies, bio-engineering, CRISPR gene editing, Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscopes, and the rest of the vast array of growing tools. Lets use those instead.
Set down the atlatl, walk in to town and get with the program. We need your help - we want to continue on with our tradition of waking up each morning. If we don’t do this then we give up burgeoning potentials in a massively dynamic universe of never ending wonders and experiences. That means something big, stop taking that lightly. No more knee-jerk, flippant excuses to die.
We don’t need everybody to do research either. General promotion, the philosophy of it, commercial and industrial support and much more is required to fill in all task slots needed to make sure we have the best chance of reaching the goal of indefinite healthy life extension within the lifespans of us and as many of the people we know as possible.
Subscribe to the movement for indefinite life extension page for action opportunities, to learn more and stay up to date.

Posted by: Ekaterinya Vladinakova at March 28th, 2016 7:27 PM

Even WITH our current aging brains, we still vastly underestimate our capacity to change our minds. If we were able to sustain the flexibility, health and capacity of our brains, combined with accumulation of our knowledge and wisdom, ending aging may actually lead to great acceleration of progress.

Posted by: Ekaterinya Vladinakova at March 28th, 2016 7:37 PM

While I personally am enthusiastic about life extension, and doing what I can and my part, Im also dismayed by the cynicism. Age seems to inhibits adopting new ideas or paradigms, but not always, in many if not all fields. See Planck's principle, "Science progresses one funeral at a time" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck%27s_principle

Sadly, one 2019 empirical analysis supports this: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/08/190829150642.htm

It may be interesting to note what it will take to change the medical profession views on aging (that its not a disease) that arguably is the biggest block toward longevity progress.. Each year, John Brockman, publisher of Edge.org-"The world's smartest website" (The Guardian)-challenges some of the world's greatest scientists, artists, and philosophers to answer a provocative question crucial to our time. In 2014 he asked 175 of the most brilliant minds to ponder: What scientific idea needs to be put aside in order to make room for new ideas to advance? Its in his book, "This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (Edge Question Series) by John Brockman - February 17, 2015.

Posted by: tml at July 19th, 2020 5:22 PM
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