I’ve thought a lot about what might happen to our species if we could live, if not forever, but for a longer time than we currently live. I’m not the only person, of course — this question has likely been covered by serious philosophers (I don’t honestly know who) but certainly by writers I’ve read. Time Enough for Love, by Robert Heinlein, devotes about 1000 pages to it, in amalgamated short story form. And one could argue it’s a major theme of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings as well, where the entire elven race lives essentially without death from old age. Do note that Tolkien is very clear about death — he calls it the gift from God to Men, though chronically misinterpreted by those selfsame humans.
Time Enough for Love centers on the adventures of the main character, Lazarus Long, who is sent periodically into the rejuvenation machines of his time, while skittering about other places with time travel. Long also has as his various companions various sexually uninhibited women — that certainly might make a man want to live longer — but in the end, Long confronts the deep existential crisis of depressive boredom and has no desire to be rejuvenated. He has crossed between the poles, and there is no mystery. As apt a metaphor as the challenge of immortality as any. Having done everything, he lives in frustrating boredom with others that have not, and it wears. While not quite Lazarus Long’s age, there are many days I can relate.
Various stage theorists, though, might argue that if we just had a bit longer on the planet, we might further evolve and become truly wise, deep beings. But if I’m to judge on the old people I know, only a minuscule number even approach the bar. I was lucky enough to be friends with Stewart Brandborg, ED of the Wilderness Society, who helped lay the foundation for the Wilderness Act, as well as ANILCA, the Alaskan National Interest Land Conservation Act. Brandborg was as ebullient a human as has ever lived, and by the time he passed (his wife, another wonderful human, passed first) he was still a handful to his more normal children. I remember the last time I saw him, just a year before the end, and he still remembered me. He is one of the few people who have died that I honestly miss.
But age as a barometer of wisdom and empathy? Not so sure about that. I remember my earlier searches around that paradigm from my years as a lifeguard at 16. There was a family with visiting children from Jackson, Wyoming, living in a West that I could hardly dream of, with a grandmother who would bring her grandchildren to Dreamland Pool every day. I was tight with the little girl, Shannon, who at seven would hang off the back of the lifeguard chair (I had my own entourage of seven-year-olds at the time.) And I would sit with grandma on a bench at the shallow end of the pool. One day, I asked grandma a simple question. “With all the suffering in the world, what is the one thing we might do to help at least fix some of it?”
She responded “Kill all the N****,” she matter-of-factly said. “Those people cause nothing but problems.” So much for age bringing enlightenment.
I don’t really want to put words into the various stage theorists’ mouths (Kegan, Piaget and such) but even though I am a fan of much of their work — it is ALL crippled by the lack of social evolution inside the context of worldview — it’s also not quite clear that we walk up the various ladders into a larger space anyway. There’s no reason to think extending out the timeline would change that factor. So what would that mean?
Fellow traveler Ugo Bardi sent me a paper today on that topic. Titled Will Life Extension Affect Our Social Judgments? Evidence That the Possibility of Indefinite Life Extension Increases Harshness Toward Social Transgressors, , the paper posits that as we get older, we get meaner and more Legalistic/Absolutistic toward others inside our in-group. The methodology is profoundly suspect. The authors base their results on giving surveys to college students — standard Psych 101 fare — and then essentially reading chicken entrails to come to appropriate p-test conclusions.
But maybe I’m being too harsh, and it’s not as stupid as it seems. If you look around the world, the cultural code reinforcement contingent is inevitably grandmas. This was as true for the Taliban — grandmas are the foremost enforcers of the Taliban’s strictures on women– (read Anand Gopal’s AMAZING book) as it was on the last river trip I was on. And I’ve yet to find a culture where the majority of old people are more open-minded. In fact, if you are, the people you’re likely to memetically identify with are younger than you. And they have an entirely different set of cultural references than you do. You may match them, v-Meme-wise. But you’re still not likely to get the joke. Or know how to elegantly program the latest electronic device. And you just end up alone, isolated from your age-appropriate cohort as well as the younger people that really have to get on with their lives.
Ugo highlighted this section (putting aside methodological questions) and I think it is likely spot-on. ILE means ‘indefinite life extensions’…
” these findings suggest that a world approach-
ing ILE may be one in which individuals would be harsh toward those in their
social circle who violate social norms, and societies’ criminal justice systems
would become harsher toward those judged to be law-breakers in order to fulfill
the protective, deterrent, and retributive functions those systems serve. This may
be especially troubling consequence, given that people with greater power and
influence would likely be the first to have access to ILE technologies”
Now we can start getting into the memetics of such a circumstance. What the authors are saying is that rigidity would create behavioral narrowing, an increase in sophistication, and a loss of agency. And worse — you’d see a new, toxic form of what we’ve observed during COVID — Elite Risk Minimization — where policies are created to protect elites, and the messaging is then skewed, weaponized, and refined by psychopaths.
How humans might spend their time mentally evolving is really constrained to the two axis plot I’ve discussed before, charting Sophistication vs. Evolution of knowledge structures.
We might take that time to become more deeply wise — there’s no question about that. Time and experience are amazing teachers. But that also posits that by the time we’ve reach advanced age, we’re already started on the path of more powerful metacognition, recognizing what we don’t know, and being better listeners, and being more data-driven.
It’s also likely that we’d just become more self-centered. And the big problem with that is now the memetics of our elders might come into direct conflict with the small handful of people attempting to create change. I discuss this kind of memetic conflict in this piece. No one knows what might actually happen if we fix our telomeres. There’s no question that our diets full of sugar are quite literally rotting our brains. But maybe, damn the lengthy telomeres, the more reinforcement of relational patterns, if they weren’t already started down the path of enlightenment, would just make us a more crafty, sinister version of our younger selves. And likely just as fast as we were – because we fixed that neurophysical problem. There’s a reason behind David Mamet’s humorous old saw, “Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.” You haven’t really become more expansive. You just have more case studies on how to win.
I see this in my own progression in the Industrial Design Clinic as a professor/manager. When it’s game on, the students can’t even come close, and I work on mindful deference. They just can’t think of as many downstream paths as I can.
I like this quote from Seneca quite a lot:
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”
What might happen if the Ray Kurzweil’s of the world get their way? I can see some of the billionaires like Elon Musk thinking in terms of advances in trans humanism as some way to become an interstellar species. But there are fundamental problems in our neurobiology, with attachment, habituation/boredom, and so on that also set timescales in our lives. I loved raising my boys, but not quite sure I’d be up for it again.
There are some successful paradigms that we might follow if we all figure out how to live 120-140 years that would make us all much happier. I really like this interview by Morley Safer about the Abkhazians, who claim to be in that age range, and preach the virtues of sex, wine, red meat and smoking.
But the odds that we’d up with a truly Second Tier cohort of aged, sharp rulers, that would shepherd our society through whatever turmoil showed up? There’s just not much evidence for it. Even Max Planck, one of my personal heroes, said “Science advances one funeral at a time.” Would we make it to the point of wisdom where we would work on developing everyone for greater empathetic development? Or would we get stuck in a thousand year spell? It’s impossible to tell. But we haven’t done such a great job with the more evolutionary concepts in this blog up to this point.