Living to be 1,000 Years Old Is Nonsense
This blog post's primary focus is on a TED Talk wherein the topic was about extending human lifespan to 1,000 years.
For years I've wanted to write about the myth that human life spans are getting longer. The widespread belief is that prehistoric, and ancient historic peoples had significantly shorter life spans than people living today. This simply isn't true. Yet the myth continues to perpetuate on the internet and elsewhere, and in no small order. It has become such an accepted idea that pseudoscientists are now touting the possibilities that human lifespans will reach hundreds, and even thousands of years old.
This blog post is unique, in that it will largely paraphrase work written by a good friend of mine (Craig Meyer) who is a professor of geology, oceanography, and environmental science. He and I see eye to eye on this topic, and while discussing it recently, he mentioned he had written on it and that I was welcome to use his work to write this blog post.
One thing we can be certain of; normal aging is not a disease. Malaria, like other diseases, has a single understood cause. It is caused by six species of Plasmodium, which is a protozoan that parasitizes red blood cells. The vector of this disease is the anopheles mosquito. Since the cause of this disease and its lifecycle is well understood, it is possible to take advantage of this knowledge to design a cure and treatment for this disease.
Even if a cure for a disease has not yet been developed, it doesn't change the fact that the mechanism of the disease is understood and there is a distinct cause, there remains a reasonable expectation that a cure can be developed. Professor Meyer proposes that a disease is then characterized by having a recognized cause that can be attacked through some weak link in its lifecycle or correction of its physiologic cause.
Death by aging does not have a single cause; it can have multiple contributing causes. One person can have cardiac disease that is exacerbated by smoking, another may be diabetic and obese. There is no single cause of death by aging. Every person is unique as to the combination of factors that affect their health; factors which may reinforce each other to cause death. There simply is no single cause upon which to focus a cure.
English author, biomedical gerontologist, and mathematician, Aubrey de Grey believes there is a cure for aging. He has been featured on CBS 60 Minutes, the BBC, the New York Times, Popular Science, TED, The Washington Post, The Colbert Report, and elsewhere. His views are believed by millions. Belief is often what one has in lack of understanding. For Mr. de Grey's idea of curing aging to work, he would have to cure every pathogenic and degenerative disease to ensure that all combinations of factors will be addressed.
Since aging is really a biophysosocial process, he would also have to mitigate the environmental, personal, and social pressures that contribute to the aging process. Death by aging then is a syncytium of diseases and causative factors without a single integrated cure.
In his TED talk, de Grey suggests we have not cured all diseases because we are unwilling to do so. He refers to cures for diseases without specifying what diseases or what cures. He further intimates that where cures for diseases do not exist, that there is nothing to worry about, because these cures are just around the metaphorical corner. And still he presents no evidence to support his claims.
There are diseases that result from causes for which there is no cure. We can, for example, use modern brain scanning techniques to determine what is happening in migraines or autism. This descriptive understanding does not lead to a cure since it seems clear that these diseases are the result of neuro-circuitry that is hardwired by genetics. To cure these problems would require rewiring the brain.
Algebraic topology has shown neurologic wiring of the brain is constructed in up to 11 dimensions, with the spaces between 'wirings' having purpose as well (Reimann et al., 2017). I wrote about that paper on a Facebook post several months ago. I'm no expert, but I'd imagine rewiring in 3 dimensions might be difficult enough, but to operate in dimensions known to us only through complex mathematics may be a feat best left to the gods.
To cure these problems, one would have to rewire the brain, which is turning out to be far more complex than anyone had ever imagined. In fact, if indeed it is in several dimensions, than even our own brains can't imagine themselves because we have no experiences from which to draw such imagery. How's that for complicated irony? So the problems therefore represent a set of diseases that may be treated to reduce symptoms, but not cured. How does Aubrey de Grey plan to eliminate these?
His approach is an example of what philosophers of science call "blind technological optimism". This is the idea that technology (in this case medical treatment) can solve all problems facing the human species. This reflects a common misunderstanding of the difference between science and technology. Application of the scientific method will reveal the organization of nature. Technology takes what we know about how nature works, and applies it to solve specific problems.
Since technology uses the mechanisms of nature, it cannot apply these same mechanisms to change the way they work. Technology is, therefore, limited in what it can accomplish. Many of our problems are due to the way nature is organized, and therefore cannot be solved by a technical fix, no matter how it might seem to mitigate the inevitable.
One example is to look at aging from the perspective of the natural laws governing how energy-using systems work (thermodynamics). Aging can be viewed as an invevitable result of the second law of thermodynamics. Any energy system, be it civilization, a star, or a living organism in your home garden, becomes more disorganized through time.
Entropy is the physical term for the quantity of disorganization in a system. Though living systems are very organized, it takes a constant input of energy to build and maintain this organization. Unfortunately, the second law of thermodynamics shows that in any system, the use of energy to create organization in one part of the system, causes more disorganization (entropy) in another part.
In more physical terms, entropy increases through time. Death can be considered the ultimate result of the entropy accumulated through life. DNA degrades as mistakes are made in copying and telomeres shorten. Telomeres are like the hard "cap" of your shoelaces that keep them from fraying.
Connective tissues in the skin thins, and loses elasticity as it stretches continously through life. The heart muscle wears out, etc. Finally, when all the little disorganizations accumulate to a point where they cannot coordinate in the orgainzed fashion required to support life, the organism dies.
Ultimately it dies of entropy. Yet Mr. de Grey views all disease simplistically as a mechanic views fixing a car. How is he going to find a technical fix for the invevitable disorganization of an energy-using system (a human) when all technolgoy operates according to the laws of thermodynamics that cause this to happen?
His belief that it is feasible to develop therapies that will allow humans to live for 1,000 years is barren. He makes the statement that the development of medical technology has resulted in constantly-increasing lifespan. He expects that this trend can continue into the future as new technologies conquer the myriad of medical problems yet uncured.
This is, of course, a reflection of his blind technological optimism. More critically, Mr. de Grey confuses the concepts of lifespan and life expectancy. Lifespan is the maximum number of years that a particular species can attain in life. The oldest recorded human reached an age of just over 122 year before dying.
This is then considered the maximum lifespan for the human species. Most people, free of disease or accident, do not live to this maximum, so we can get a better evaluation of the human lifespan by averaging the ages of those who die free of disease or accident.
This yields an age of about 85 years or so. Life expectancy is the actual average length of life for members of a population. This includes deaths by disease and accident, as well as old age. What medical technology has accomplished, is it has increased life expectancy to become closer to the maximum lifespan for the human species.
This fact seems to continue to elude most, despite the fact we can look at ancient history and find individuals who lived to ages greater than the majority of today's population. Ramses II lived to be 90 years old in Egypt, when the life expectancy for the average Egyptian was about 30 years. Pepi II of Egypt may have lived to nearly 100.
What these examples (of which there are plenty more) point out, is that 5,000 years ago, a healthy person free of disease, and who avoids accidents, could expect to live as long as one with similar circumstances today. This alone undermines the popular (but wrong) notion that humans today somehow have longer lifespans than the ancients. The human lifespan hasn't changed.
What has changed over time, is that life is physically safer today than it was in ancient times. At least for the Western world. Such cannot be said for areas of the world that continue to suffer war, famine, and the hegemonic dictatorships of overgrown school-yard-bully-elitists. This does not mean, as many people believe, that modern medicine is causing the human lifespan to get longer, but instead that people are living closer to the maximum lifespan in greater numbers.
If, as Mr. de Grey suggests, we were to find cures or preventions for all disease, this would not address the march of entropy through time as discussed above. In culture, human cells will survive about 50 generations before dying out. Some propose that this limited number of generations is genetically programmed in human cells. But it could simply reflect that a hugely complex system like an organism, cannot maintain the levels of organization required for life, and has an inherent limit to lifespan.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that de Grey's ideas are correct, and medical technology could eliminate all disease, and repair all degeneration of tissues and organs. To do this, would require constant repair of the errors made when DNA is copied during cellular replication.
Cells have the ability to repair DNA damage to a degree, but this mechanism is not perfect. Some mutations slip through at each cellular generation. As a consequence, under normal conditions, mutuations that occur are passed on to subsequent generations, and will accumulate through time.
This would be considered part of the entropy increase discussed above. This leaves two possibilties to allow people to live (ahem) to a thousand years: 1) Either we would have to correct the genetic damage in each cell each time it replicates, or 2) we would have to find ways to keep the cells going while accomodating these accumulating genetic changes.
Considering that the average human adult has 200 TRILLION cells, the former approach if possible, is not logistically practical. This leaves our thousand-year-old human with continuing medical adjustments to the effects of their changing gene pool. After 1,000 years, the individual would have lived 33 generations, and each generation would experience approximately 30 cellular generations before the end of their reproductive life.
Therefore, the cells of our 1,000-year-old friend would be the 990th generation of the original cells at birth. The mutations that will have accumulated during that time would in all likelihood, have modified this individual's gene pool to the point that they would have become a new species.
There doesn't seem to be any mechanism or future technology that would accomplish Mr. de Grey's claims. In his TED talk, he presented no information or evidence that there is a method to accomplish his goals. As far as Craig Meyer and myself are concerned, it's all hollow rhetoric (as are a growing number of TED talks).
At least de Grey acknowledges that longer lifespans would lead to overpopulation, but he thinks the problems such an event would produce would be minor considerations when compared to the benefits of eliminating death. This glib statement is made without any supporting analysis or evidence either.
No analysis of the benefits of eliminating death are presented in his talk, nor are the negative aspects examined. Yet he ridicules those who have presented arguments against his idea by simply suggesting that any problem caused by overpopulation is trivial when compared to the benefits of living forever.
Assuming people could live forever, where would change come from? Those who grab power would not relinquish it, and there would be little opportunity for new ideas to gain traction and change society. And by power, I'm not necessarily referring to political positions. What happens when billionaires monopolize markets and own media outlets and start making 'reality' the way they see fit for the billions of blind and critically-lazy followers to mold to without realizing it? I could be wrong, but it seems we're seeing this trend already, and that's among a population that (thankfully) dies before reaching 1,000 years old.
Stagnant leadership (in whatever official form it takes), would create a climate for constant social unrest and conflict (As my friend Craig writes, it sounds Marxian yes?).
People who live to 1,000 years of age would still require regular medical care to implement the medical technologies that de Grey anticipates will be developed. The exponential growth of population would then require an exponential growth in health care costs (whether it's "free through the government; aka your taxes, or out-of-pocket). On a planet with limited resources, where would such revenue come from?
If we look at present rates of population growth where the life expectancy varies from 40 to 85 years from one coutnry to another, we see limits to the size a population can attain. Extrapolating the present rate of propulation growth for 150 years, results in a population where there is only a single square foot of land available for each person. I suppose we can build up, but I for one, really enjoy having a garden on the surface of the planet upon which my species has evolved.
No one can live comfortably on a square foot of land, much less get from it the food, water, and other materials necessary to support life. Not to mention, where would all the millions of species in nature live and thrive? Their existence is intrinsically linked to our own. Something many futurists seem to forget when discussing space colonies and such. What about our waste? And I'm not just talking about garbage.
Consequently, the population will not attain this size. Instead, the size of the population will be regulated by some mechanism. We have two choices here: 1) We can gracefully control population size by implementing what some might think are morally-debatable social programs to control its growth, or 2) nature will do it for us.
Social programs to control population will have to do so by limiting the birth rate. Nature controls population very ungracefully by increasing the death rate, using such tools as disease, famine, and the invevitable intra-species aggression that will arise when resources necessary for survival become evermore sparse.
The more crowding, the easier it is for disease to spread. If the ebola virus had evolved 10,000 years ago when the global population was a sparse million or so people, it would have infected a small hunter/gatherer band, killed most if not all of them (such bands were 30 to 100 people according to antrhopologists), and then the virus would have died out due to lack of hosts. Today, there are plenty of hosts conveniently spaced a few feet apart in most instances. Pandemics can occur because existing crowding allows a pathogen to spread often before symptoms show up in the carriers.
Also worth considering is the likelihood that food supply would be limited due to reduced land availability and increased demand for agriculture. We can expect famine would become a constant worry as population continues its exponential rise.
Disease and famine go hand-in-hand, since malnourished people have compromised immune systems and seldom die from starvation. Instead, a disease (ie. influenza, measles, etc.) that a healthy person would normally shrug off, is lethal to malnourished people. We might reasonably expect, therefore, that lethal global pandemics would become more frequent and eventually continuous in the world of Aubrey de Grey.
Even healthy people can become targets. Cytokine storms can wipe out the healthiest populations with great ease. Such syndromes actually prefer healthy immune systems. With the expected frequency of pandemics, it isn't impossible to imagine a scenario where pandemics targeting both weak and strong immune systems might spread in tandem. A truly nightmarish scenario and one I would like to someday write a fictional story about... of course, now that I've put it out there, someone will beat me to it... dammit.
We might expect the standard of living to degrade to subsistence level in a world with 1,000-year-olds, because nature's population control mechanism will cause the populations to equilibrate at the carrying capacity of the evironment. This means each individual has only enough food, water, and material resources to stay alive.
I could be wrong, but this seems to be a rather meager way to live. Today, if the existing population (~7.4 billion people at the time of this writing) were to live at the materail level of the average American (we in Souther California, btw, live far above this average), it would take 13 Earths-worth of resrouces to support them.
This means that we can expect people would have to live at a material standard that the average American would consider unacceptable. What would life be like with the population de Grey is willing to accept? At the carrying capacity, the competition for resources would be incomprehensibly intense. Crowding invariably creates competition.
Ecologists report that competition produces aggression in all species. Examine two colonies of sea anemones on a rock on our coast (here in So. Cal.), and you will see that when they come in contact, a slow-motion war is declared. The individual polyps attack each other along the colony margins, and over a period of days to weeks, one colony will push the other off the rock and dominate.
It was 2,000 years after the first villages were established in southwest Eurasia before walled settlements came into existence. This reflects that as population density in that region increased, the competition for space led to conflict. Warfare to secure land and resources has been the social norm ever since. Mr. de Grey's world would therefore be one of continuous armed conflict.
A world of constant conflict, pandemics, and marginalized subsistence living doesn't seem all that attractive to me. But I'm not too worried that kind of world is coming; not now, and not in future, because as the first half of this blog post explains, such a future is throroughly undermined by thermodynamics.
With that, I leave you with this screen capture of a comment left on the popular science YouTube Channel, Kurgestagt, by an equally popular science YouTube channel, Cody's Lab... reminder, these channels have about 7.5 million subscribers between the two of them. See the part circled in red:
As always, thanks for reading..