The Roots of Progress

How curing aging could help progress

How would society change if we cured aging, and people could have as many healthy years of life as they wanted?

A common concern is that this would ossify our institutions. The old guard would never die off, and so would never be replaced by young bloods. This could threaten progress across the board, from governance to physics. If “science advances one funeral at a time,” what happens when the rate of funerals plummets?

It’s a real concern. But here are three reasons why curing aging could help progress:

  1. Population. One of the greatest threats to long-term progress may be a slowdown in global population growth. We need more brains to keep pushing science and technology forward. Yet right now, many wealthy nations have fertility rates below replacement levels. Curing aging would help temporarily by lowering the mortality rate. It could help permanently if people decide to have more children, on average. That might happen if longer lifespan means people feel they have time for both children and a career. (Remember that fully curing aging means maintaining reproductive health for all those years.)

  2. Burden of knowledge. There is a hypothesis that as knowledge grows, it takes longer to reach the frontier, and so individual researchers have less time to contribute advancements. They are also forced to specialize—but breakthroughs often come from making connections across far-flung disciplines. If individuals had much longer lifespans, it would be no problem for them to spend 30 or 40 years just learning, before making major contributions. And you could spend another 10 or 20 years picking up a couple more specialties in disparate areas.

  3. Long-term thinking. How would people’s thinking change if they felt they were going to live 150, 300, even 1,000 years or more? The very long-term becomes much more personal. Posterity is something you’re going to be around for.

I still think the “old guard” problem is real, and we’d have to come up with new mechanisms to address it. (Perhaps influential positions would institute a mandatory retirement age of 350.) But there are other factors to consider, and it’s not clear what the net impact would be.

(Not that this is an argument for or against curing aging! Ultimately, the knock-down argument for curing aging is that death is bad. In light of that, other considerations pale into insignificance.)

This essay was originally a Twitter thread, and was inspired by an online discussion about the Foresight Institute’s book-in-development, Gaming the Future.

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

Social media link image credit: Wikimedia / Julius Jääskeläinen

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