27 March 2007

On the "argument from stagnation"

Mendip e-mails:

I’ve enjoyed very much your discussions and comments on life extension. But I keep wondering what the possible effects would be from having professors/researchers, politicians, judges, generals, business leaders, etc., who are left in place year after year, decade after decade. Would that type of control put a brake on innovation and intellectual evolution? And then there’s the thought of having to deal with decades and centuries of “news” stories about Britney Spears and others of her ilk. I don’t want to live in a world like that…;)

My response to this concern would be twofold.

First, if it is really true that older people are inherently more prone to stodgy, ossified thinking than younger people are (something I am not entirely ready to concede as a given), is the reason for this something innate in the mere fact of having existed for a longer rather than a shorter time? Or is it something to do with the structural and functional deterioration of the brain associated with old age -- one of the very phenomena which anti-aging technology would be designed to combat? We can't know yet, but the latter explanation seems more plausible to me. If so, then those whose lives are extended by such technologies will not have old, decrepit brains, but rather youthful, innovative brains which have merely been in existence for a longer period of time and thus accumulated all the more experience to work with. It is probably true that the influx of new individuals into positions of institutional influence would be slowed if aging and death no longer removed the existing occupants of those positions; but that would most likely just prompt the rising generation to establish rival institutions of its own, which would eventually displace those of their predecessors which became too timid and conservative. And would it really be so terrible to have many positions of authority occupied by people who remained biologically and mentally youthful and vigorous, while at the same time having centuries of experience in their fields?

Second, an observation from history. The twentieth century saw a far greater increase in average human lifespan than all of previous history had seen. But this did not make it a century of intellectual, cultural, or technological stagnation. On the contrary, it was a time of unprecedented innovation in every field.

On the Britney Spears issue, I can offer only this: if life and death go on as they always have, there will always be a new generation of vapid celebrities. If Britney Spears becomes immortal, the wisdom bred of accumulated experience may eventually make her less vapid.:-> Take your pick.

Others have also addressed this issue. Here is Aubrey de Grey's view, and here is a posting on "Superlongevity, Stagnation, and Posthuman Potential" (found via Fight Aging).

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