With our focus on the defeat of degenerative aging here at Methuselah Foundation, we receive all sorts of email from all sorts of people, as you might imagine. Michael Rae, Aubrey de Grey’s research assistant, answers much of the mailbag, but all the volunteers chime in from time to time. Here is an email from al young fellow and the response from our CEO and co-founder Dave Gobel that we felt was worth sharing:
Hello, my name is Chris, age 12, and I’ve decided to send you an email about how you guys want to extend life to an unnatural degree. I’ve recently read the novel Tuck Everlasting, which discusses the concept of immortality and it got me interested in your work. My teacher believes that you guys will discover the ‘cure’ to death within my lifetime, so I’m going to lay out my opinion for you guys to read. I think that the concept of immortality isn’t as farfetched as some might think, and I think you guys could very well accomplish what you want, but really, the concequences of immortality are far greater than it’s benefits. First of all, overpopulation crisis. Whatever medication you give to end death must be strictly controlled, because it seems as if it would be a continious medication rather than a one hit wonder and you’re set to live to whenever, so you might have to control it so you don’t send the world into an overpopulated dystopia. Second of all – Who wants to live to that age anyway? I mean, really? You’d eventually get very, very tired no matter if you appeared to be only twenty. It would be a real pain being trapped into life for eternity, I think. People need to be allowed to die. Third, and my final point, is it defies nature. People get old and die. People don’t get old, look young and live forever. It’s creepy.
However the benefits would be far too tempting for me. If I alone was offered this, rather than the whole world, I would take it for me and give some to my family, and probably my future wife and children. My main concern is however that the entire world will fall to it’s temptations and no one will die, leaving the population to sky-rocket. That would effectively put the whole world into poverty. More mouths to feed.
Thanks for reading,
Dave Gobel responds:
Hi Chris – Thanks for taking the time to write. You raise some excellent points, but at bottom you highlight the real crux of the issue. We want to save our families, but many people believe that doing so will bring overpopulation or otherwise detrimentally affect nature. Before continuing, I do want to correct an important misconception, however: our goal at the Methuselah Foundation is to prevent and reverse the biochemical damage caused by aging, and in doing so extend healthy life. This is very different from trying to deliver immortality – immortality in the sense of never dying is an impossibility, and achieving immortality is not something we are trying to do!
Regarding overpopulation and the concept of “natural” versus “unnatural,” I think it is useful to define things with precision and lay out some hard numbers. For instance, from 2,000 BC through to 1800 AD, nature dictated that the equilibrium upper population limit was somewhere between 100 million to 450 million people planet-wide. This natural limit existed because the natural state of humankind was to experience very frequent and severe famines. It was “natural.” This is why when you look at old paintings of men and women, many of them look obese to our modern eyes – but they were desirable in the eyes of society at that time. Obesity meant you were rich and thus able to fatten up to have the best chance to survive the next inevitable famine.
This situation changed when food preservation was invented between 1808 thru 1840, first as a military technology to feed armies on the march, and then gradually becoming available to the public at large. Almost immediately the population of the planet began to grow – first at a linear rate and very quickly at an exponential rate. In this way the inevitability of famine was invented out of existence. Population rose above “natural” limits, and poor people – not just the wealthy – could survive famines. Diseases of malnutrition and resulting lower IQ, feebleness, and misery for the masses also fell away to become mere memories in the so-called developed world.
Now that we have good food preservation, the “natural” limit to population has been repealed. The key question for you is “Is it better to allow people to starve to death by preventing food preservation on the basis that it is unnatural, or would that actually be an immoral act that denied people the choice regarding how much they should be able to eat?”
As an aside, it is useful to note that in countries that have excellent food preservation, distribution systems, health and longevity such as Japan, Northern Europe and others, the current population trends are all down, not up as one might guess. It may very well be that the best way to reduce the rate of population growth is to increase healthy life – which allows people the knowledge that they can have children much later in life. Interestingly, this is the decision my wife and I made when we were younger. We waited 11 years after we were married to have our first child, and had only two children. In the early 1900′s it was commonplace for families to have more then 10 children in the US and most other countries – leading of course to tremendous population growth, which has been slowing down in the developed world ever since.
As to what medications and treatments for degenerative aging might be, we will just have to wait and see. No doubt they will start out to be expensive, but then will fall in price as such things always do with time – and that’s the point. More healthy time to allow more opportunity and choices for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
I really appreciate that you took the time to contact us Chris. I hope you will let us know what you think of these thoughts, and feel free to share them with your teacher.
Food for thought.