Saturday, March 19, 2016

Human Longevity: How Long Would We Be Living If Our Lifespans Matched Our Mental Capacity?

It's long been lamented that our lifespans do not match our intellectual potential. You've probably jokingly found yourself wishing you had a few lifetimes in order to do everything you've wanted to do; different careers, multiple degrees, travel for decades and a myriad number of other pursuits on life's to do list.

We are born, we learn and evolve into adult humans til around the age of 18-20, then we have approximately 40-50 years before age starts to make its claim on us. We often spend the last decade or so of our lives in less than ideal physical and mental conditions, before finally succumbing to the inevitable mortality suffered by all known living creatures.

To me this lifespan seems like such an inadequate amount of time for something so complex as the human mind to exist and evolve to its potential in.  I'd hazard a guess and say it's probably the reason behind some of our shortcomings as individuals and as a species. What could motivate a human individual in terms of hundreds or even thousands of years if our lifespans are measured in mere decades? Could you imagine the difference it would make to our stewardship of the planet if those that made the decisions regarding long term projects were around to reap the consequences of them? Would we evolve into more thoughtful, compassionate beings if, after decades of cramming as much personal experience into our first 50-100 years of our adulthood, we calmed down and 'grew up' so to speak?

I've thought long and hard about this topic, it saddens me that I will most likely not get to do all the things I want to do in life, considering some projects are decades long, or outside our current technological capacity.

Given that a mere 50-70 years of fully functioning adulthood is inadequate, how much time would be enough? 200 years? 500? A thousand? Just how far has the evolution of our brains out paced our bodies?

I hypothesise that most humans would not want to go on living for an infinite number of years and would, at some point, choose to terminate their life experience. Would there be a predictable point in a lifespan at which most people would reach this stage, with a few outliers rounding out the bell curve either side of this age? How would a mind that evolved with a short terminal lifespan deal with the concept and the reality of a hugely elongated and possibly indefinite span of existence?

There is a science fiction trilogy close to my heart that deals with this very topic. It's called The Mars Trilogy, written by Kim Stanley Robinson. The story spans three novels (and a compilation of short stories set in the same universe) and includes the same characters over a thousand year time span. It's a captivating take on how we humans would adapt to an existence spanning millennia rather than decades. I was fascinated by the interplay between the main characters of 'The 100', the first explorers and the first generation to experience the extended lifespan. How would our close relationships hold up and evolve over such a time frame? How would interactions between generations differ? I highly recommend the Mars Trilogy to anyone interested in exploring possible scenarios involved in living longer, and also because it a fantastic read.

With so many new technologies seemingly on the cusp of making a tangible difference in how long we live, discussion on this issue begins to take on a practical leaning. Who will be the first 'immortal' generation?

Another (non fiction) book that captured my imagination on this very topic was a book by Damien Broderick called The Last Mortal Generation: How Science Will Alter Our Lives in the 21st Century. Published in 2000, life extending technology has come a long way since then, however it still captures the spirit of the many issues we will be facing, some exciting, some daunting. What amazing possibilities the future holds for us!

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