What Would Humanity Be Like Without Aging?

By Kyle Munkittrick | September 9, 2011 9:50 am

The cover of The Postmortal is one of the coolest images I’ve seen in a long time. Death impaled by his own scythe – be not proud, indeed.

The idea behind Drew Magary’s great new book is simple: aging, as it turns out, is caused by one gene. Shut that gene off and you stop aging; accidents and disease are still a problem, but you’ve cured death by natural causes. Now compound that discovery with the fact that any person who gets the Cure simply stops aging. People don’t become younger, they just don’t get older, frozen at their “Cure age.” What happens next?

In an effort to find out, Magary takes us through the life of John Farrell, a New York lawyer who gets the Cure for aging at the age of 29 in the year 2019. From that point on, things go rather poorly for John and the rest of humanity. As one might expect, curing aging doesn’t cure social ills, over-population, ennui, or a host of other human hangups. Mark Frauenfelder has an excellent synopsis of the book over at boingboing.net, and I share his opinions about the book’s bleak tone and high quality.

Magary’s argument through the text is essentially this: death creates meaning. Not mortality, but guaranteed natural death due to aging. The idea that no matter what you do, how you live your life, the concept that you will be born, mature, grow old, and die creates human meaning. Magary has a point: from the riddle of the Sphinx to Tyler Durden to the final books of Harry Potter, aging and death seem to be at the epicenter of human thought. I don’t deny him that at any moment any one of us could meet a tragic end. Life is precious in part because it is not meant to last.

But here is where I struggle. The Postmortal is not about a post-mortal society, it is about a post-aging society. Lots and lots and lots of people die in Magary’s vision. In fact, he seems to argue that in the absence of death, people will not only seek death but will create circumstances that create death and thereby, create meaning. It is only when Farrell’s life is most in peril that he finds purpose in existence. But Farrell is never immortal, no one is. So my question is: is the process of aging as meaningful as the condition of being mortal?

This question vexed me, because I know a great many people who have aged with grace. They wear wizened white beards or crinkled smiles that highlight eyes behind inch-thick spectacles. Some people are just awesome at being old. They have custom canes and smoke ivory pipes and say saucy things that only they can get away with. To reference Harry Potter again, Voldemort, Mr.Flees-From-Death himself, is contrasted with Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall, both of whom are walking idealizations of what the aging process should look like.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? They are idealizations.

Reality presents a grimmer picture. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a laundry list of other late-onset diseases savage the body just enough that modern medicine can step in to keep the heart beating and the organs limping along while the mind deteriorates to the point of nothingness. Aging in the modern era is about slow unstoppable loss – of hearing, of memory, of mobility, of continence, of dignity. What part of that process creates meaning in our lives? Or is it that to get the benefits of death, we must past through the fires of desperate and futile attempts to prevent it?

Magary’s vision is encapsulated by a character who appears at the end of the book. She is a prostitute who wants to die. She had her age frozen at 18 and, as a result, is seen as a perpetual teen mentally. That is, her additional decades on the planet have done nothing to shape her perspective, beyond making her more cynical. And so it is with everyone else on post-Cure Earth. In Magary’s mind, the stop of physical aging is the stop of maturation.

In this sense, I suspect Magary’s indictment is not of those like Aubrey de Grey who seek the end of aging, but of those who resist maturation. Magary’s values are essentially conservative. It isn’t until the main character is about to die that he realizes what matters: namely, his son (out of wedlock), getting married, and protecting an unborn life. Life in the post-aging world is plagued by those who devalue marriage, childbearing, and religion. Yup, even the secular “Church of Man” is shown to be the “right” answer by the end of the novel. While I don’t deny that these are all valuable pursuits (substituting religion for the broader philosophy of the examined life) I do deny that they would be annihilated by agelessness.

Human beings do not settle down because they age anymore than people have quarter-life or midlife or three-quarter life crises because they age. People are content or discontent based on the life they are currently living. I find it fascinating that Dumbledore and Ms. McGonagall are both single as they approach the sunset of life. Both are examples of doing precisely what Magary critiques, pursuing one’s passions while putting commitment and reproduction on hold. As it so happens, one can live a life of value to humanity, one can, in fact, contribute to the greater good, without maturing and aging as he prescribes. Only if Dumbledore and McGonagall didn’t have to age, one could argue they could have become master magicians and raised a family, had they so chosen. Why aging creates more options in Magary’s mind, I’m not quite sure.

Death, I don’t deny, creates meaning. Finitude and limits give us something against which to define our existence. But my meaning is not created by the knowledge that I will die at the ripe old age of 98 but simply by the knowledge that I will die. Maybe I’ll get lucky and live to be 500 only to be obliterated during an alien invasion. Or maybe I have a tumor right now and will be gone before this time next year. I don’t know. But knowing when we will die, be it young or old, has never been what created meaning. And gray hairs and crows feet have never been the cause of wisdom, merely the first signs of the very high cost of living long enough to acquire it.

Personally, I like the idea of having 100 years of wisdom and experience in the youthful body of a 29 year old. But maybe I’m not old enough to know better yet.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog, Pop Bioethics, and on facebook and twitter.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aging (or Not), Biology, Books, Philosophy

Comments (26)

  1. Paul R

    Many of these ideas are also explored in Robert Heinlein’s “Time Enough for Love” which is a collection of previous stories and new material to tie it all together.

  2. Cathy

    One of Terry Pratchett’s earlier works, pre-Discworld, has a future society in which extended life-years are used as a form of currency. The wealthiest and most successful people are several hundred years old. They are not immortal and without their extended life will at some point still die a death from old age, but people fight their hardest to put that off.

  3. H

    So basically vampires without the whole drinking blood thing. Daybreakers, anyone?

  4. Ryan

    Drew Magary is the next Hemmingway. NO ONE DENIES THIS

  5. Zathras

    Has anyone (specifically the authors of these kind of stories) considered what people/humanity could do with a highly extended lifespan or elimination of death by natural causes?
    Like….travel to the stars, anyone? Colonize the freaking GALAXY?????

  6. Dave in Calif

    Well written Kyle, food for thought for a 61 year old like me. As I am passing the various age markers like 29 and holding, 39 and holding, 49 and who am I kidding, the 1/2 century mark, kids graduating, kids having kids.

    I come to like my grandkids shriek and leap into my arms…totally cool dude :) Hey! I can say that, my generation coined the term. Anyway, the twilight years are just ahead for me Kyle and I want to keep dragging myself sags, leaks and all until the very end. Like you said it could be today or preferably 40 years from now.

    Dave

  7. Relativity

    I would love to see a movie adaptation of this book. The premise sounds intriguing and has so fascinated human beings since the beginning of “our” time on this world. I would not mind at all if I live to be 200 years and then programmed to die in some dignified way while still looking like a 30-year old. If we discover a way to “stop” the aging gene then we should be able to switch it back on.

  8. TerryEmberson

    Terry Pratchett provides a perfect example of what aging robs from people. He is living with early onset Alzheimer’s today and can no longer read. He’s lobbying for the right to commit suicide.

  9. Chris

    You need to watch Torchwood: Miracle Day

  10. S.J. Esposito

    I think that there’s a lot to be said about a cure for aging dismantling human meaning and purpose, but I think there’s even more to be said about that cure destroying growth and effectively robbing human beings of their natural maturation.

    If this cure were to stop aging biologically, then it would have to stop aging at all levels, thus stopping biological growth in the nervous system (including the brain), the skeleton, etc. We’d then have people who couldn’t reach the proper maturity level biologically, and in effect, mentally/psychologically.

    I think human beings have a desire for continuum, although we know that there has to be an end at some point. I think we wake everyday to move just a little bit forward with our lives in relation to time. And one can only assume that’s because we are bound by nature’s time-keeping. If you take away natural aging, then you remove all that.

    I guess it’s similar to The Surrogates, a graphic novel that takes this idea to even more extremes by removing danger — sort of — from the equation of life as well. There was a sort of crumby movie based off it also.

  11. Baramos

    Perhaps the physical aspects of aging do impact our maturation? I’m not saying that Magary makes a good explanation of why the woman frozen at 18 continues to be only as mature as an 18 year old (though you do point out that she DOES change, in that she becomes more cynical), but it could easily be argued that not having to deal with any of the physical constraints of aging would alter how people mature mentally and emotionally. Also, there are societal impacts to consider: if people can only see a person as 18 years old, they may act as if they are 18 years old mentally as well. In which case a person may not mature the same way as someone who appears older, because society treats them like a much younger person.

    Also I have the feeling that even though as you said the title is not TECHNICALLY correct, it simply sounded better, and I think points to the facet of mortality that is aging. You could live an extremely healthy life and avoid putting yourself into dangerous situations, but at some point you will die no matter what you do. That is the facet of mortality Magary is getting at.

  12. Hervé Musseau

    A post-aging society would adjust to having people frozen at 18, and would not treat them as naturally immature. A thorough examination of the premise would have required more changes to the resulting society than just “cosmetic”. It’s often a necessity in sci-fi to alter only one parameter and leave everything else unchanged so the world remains comprehensible, which of course end up in dystopia, but in reality a change doesn’t come alone, everything moves along with it.

  13. Matthew Saunders

    TV has some real SF going on right now in the thread’s topic: Torchwood: Miracle Day. Check it out.

  14. True Immortal

    I don’t believe that you would stop maturing if you stopped aging, in fact I’m pretty certain I’ve actually stopped aging myself, but that’s not going to stop me from leaning and maturing by any means.

  15. Melvin Backstrom

    You’re “pretty certain” that you’ve stopped aging, “True Immortal”? (Have to put it in scare quotes since you’re most definitely not truly immortal.) Well, though I don’t know you, I’m pretty damn certain that you haven’t; in fact, your belief that you have is surely a sign of your own aging since only someone with waning cognitive abilities could believe something so ridiculous.

  16. The film Zardoz explores this idea from a different direction.

  17. ed

    *off topic* fyi cutting off RSS is going to cost you readers (already is)

  18. Abelard Lindsey

    I disagree completely. I derive no meaning from death, nor do I define myself by any limitations or by living within a fixed boundary. For me, openness and the unlimited personal future is what gives meaning to me. My self-image and identity is based on openness.

  19. yogi-one

    It’s quaint idea that aging is simply caused by one gene. Great for a book or movie. The reality is of course, more complex. I don’t doubt that humans, with added technological and mental evolution, could live much longer (like two centuries or so). This would drastically alter human society.

    But in genetics, as in other sciences, the devil is in the details. Stopping aging completely may not be possible at all, as aging may turn out to be more of an inter-relatedness of very many complex processes going on in the body, instead of a single binary switch mechanism.

    And the meaning derived from death is, I think, colossal. If you have been around half-a-century or more, you have seen your own viewpoint on both life and death change quite a bit. When I was younger death seemed very far away. I was willing to do far more dangerous things than I would now, simply because it didn’t occur to me that I could die by such risk-taking. Stuff like holding your breath until you pass out – driving a curvy mountain road as fast as you can just for the hell of it, seeing how much beer you can really actually drink in one night – all that kind of thrill seeking stuff that appeals to youth.

    Death has given great meaning to my life.

    At my age I can say this: death no longer seems like a negative to me. Existentially it is negative: death is the ultimate ‘”NOT”. But in terms of how it affects me emotionally, I will say that now it gives me great energy, it increases my appreciation of life, increases my compassion, my tolerance of others and of society in general (with all it’s problems).

    Whatever wisdom I have, I cannot say for sure (not even close to certainty) that without death I would have acquired the same wisdom.

    If death is truly the flipside of life, then a real question is whether, even genetically/biologically, it is possible to have life without death.

    You could say that some single-celled organisms, since they just divide, then technically, they have life without death. I’d argue that the bifurcation is itself a death of the one that existed before the split.

    As for not aging, a civilization that always looks 18, or whatever age is considered the most desirable, I think would soon transform into a civilization quite unlike anything we have ever had before. Since only suicide and accidents would cause death, you’d have people everywhere – the population explosion would dwarf even what we are seeing now in Africa and India.

    Perhaps disease plagues would occasionally wipe out large swaths of people, but still, you’d see population expansion rates far beyond anything we have today.

    I think that civilization is pretty much unimaginable to most of us.

  20. Tulegit Taquit

    Maybe you’ll die before you can write another horrible review.

  21. wally

    Putting philosophical ‘meanings’ on death completely misses the reason for the necessity of death. Without death of its individual members, no species could survive.

  22. AHodge

    if something like this comes at 2019
    it will likely cost $ 2 million a year or whatever
    but somewhat like great wealth
    i think could also handle life extension gracefully.. so i am open, yes i am.
    all the other problems mainly happen if “everyone” does it

  23. @Chris — spot on. Torchwood: Miracle Day is exactly what I was going to say. Not a pretty picture.

  24. Brian Too

    One of the themes in Against the Fall of Night was the consequences of immortality. Birth rates fell to zero, or nearly so, rates of social change greatly decreased, and children nearly disappeared from society.

    The net effect was great stability but also great stagnation.

  25. Brian Too

    Recently finished reading Robots and Empire. There again it dealt with greatly extended lifespans and the social & geopolitical consequences of long life.

    Of course all this assumes that we will alter our behaviour in order to deal with the population issues. Rather than letting nature take it’s course. It’s a reasonable supposition, but people have sometimes done unreasonable things too.

  26. Abelard Lindsey

    The best SF depiction of greatly extended lifespans is Peter Hamilton’s “Commonwealth” novels (Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained). These present a society not much different than our own, except for greatly expanded opportunities and choices for individuals. Its a society I would gladly live in.

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