On the one hand it’s a sure thing, aging leads to death. And for those of us listening who haven’t yet committed suicide, this is a problem. Unless aging presents for oneself some kind of an advantage greater even than knowing that one has no expiry date.
Hi everyone and thank you for joining me in this second episode about the oh so joyful subject of death. We’ve seen previously that death is not an evil in itself but rather that it is an obstacle to avoid. It is indeed an evil, but indirectly and subjectively so. We’re not gonna come go back to that and if you haven’t listened to the episode yet, I suggest you do that before getting on with this one.
So if death is an obstacle to avoid, it is logical to also want to avoid everything that inescapably leads to it. Unless of course what leads us there is somehow something more desirable than survival itself. True, it’s perfectly possible to, for example, prefer living less time knowing that we did something noble, than living longer maybe, but burdened with remorse. Once again it all depends on people and circumstances but it is quite plausible and perfectly logical.
And aging precisely asks those kinds of questions. On the one hand it’s a sure thing, aging leads to death. And for those of us listening who haven’t yet committed suicide, this is a problem. Unless aging presents for oneself some kind of an advantage greater even than knowing that one has no expiry date.
So, why do we age? Obviously to get to the answer we will be looking toward biology and particularly evolution. There are many theories on the origins of aging and its quasi-universality but in my opinion the only one that makes sense, or at least the only convincing one is that of “the need for evolving” (which that being said is not its official name). It seems a bit tautological like that but actually not quite, it’s actually not stupid thinking about it.
The idea is that the individual will most likely die. Even without aging, statistically the odds of kicking the bucket go up with time, from a certain point onward. Too young and we’re too vulnerable and inexperienced. But too old and we quickly become maladapted to changes in the environment. And for someone who doesn’t age, it means spending way more time being too old than too young. Well actually no, because of course, aging or not, becoming too old means eventually becoming maggot food.
So evolution, blind and mean as it is, or rather blind and indifferent as it is, mechanically favors species that do age one way or another. And so rather quickly we are left with only species that do degenerate more or less fast.
Ok, imagine an environment that changes and two species. One which reproduces little and does not age, and the other which does reproduce a lot and ages quickly. The first species, the one which doesn’t age, is confronted with two problems: those who have been here since the dawn of time are no longer adapted, and the few youngs are competing with them for the remaining resources. Hmm. I’m sure you see where this one is going. The second species has neither the first nor the second problem. Those who would have been too old and maladapted are already dead of aging and left hordes of youngs, many of which will by chance be better adapted, free to feast unimpeded. Mechanically so, the species that ages wins. And so those that do not progressively disappear.
When the environment is stable, species which age slowly and reproduce little have a fighting chance.. when the environment changes fast, those that do age quickly and pop out kids on a conveyor belt rise to the top. So species that do not age at all have virtually zero chance. Unless they are super flexible. Or maybe so resistant that they do not suffer from environmental changes. Or maybe if they are so impossibly lucky as to inhabit a really stable place.
And precisely this is rather what we do observe in nature. It’s not just theory. For example, and just to talk about complex organisms.. crocodiles, lobsters, some sea turtles and a few other species seem not to age. Wow, it seems crazy but yes, nature seems not to have had a need to stamp an expiration date on some of our animal friends. That’s annoying. Clearly we visibly rot.
Well, let’s not feel so slighted after all because it isn’t that simple. Crocs may not age but they progressively break and do not replace their teeth, and not knowing dentistry they eventually just die of simple hunger. Ouch. Turtles end up eaten or catch some random disease and for lobsters things are even more ridiculous, they die of exhaustion when they become too big. Which always ends up happening since nature being treacherous, or at least not particularly benevolent, spared them aging to better force them to keep growing all the time, until death. Ok, why not. Mother nature sure has a sense of humor.
Right, so for the moment there is to my knowledge no complex organism capable of not aging and maintaining itself without limit. And this is where man makes his entrance on the stage. I will be discussing this further in another episode of this series but for now, let’s imagine that we can control our biology to stay young and beautiful with no time limit. Wouldn’t it go contrary to the needs of evolution?
Yes and no. Yes because we would still have in 3016 people born in 2016. And in 3016 the climate will have change, the fauna and flora will have changed and all manners of pathogens will have changed as well. But here’s the thing, if we come to that point where we are able to change our biology to stop the aging process, it also means that the challenges linked to various changes will be nothing compared to the problems of having hordes of elderly people threatening to overrun our already suffocating societies.
A civilization master of its own biology is also master of its environment, if not entirely at least enough to survive. After all we’re already talking of colonizing Mars. Talk about speedy and radical change.. can hardly do speedier or more radical. So I don’t think humanity needs natural selection to survive until 3016 from a biological standpoint. A combination of artificial evolution and environmental control will be plenty enough. It’s definitely easier for a human from our time, however maladapted, to live on earth in 3016 than on Mars in 2030. And yet theoretically we already know how.
Let’s not forget something though. Until now we’ve only talked about aging at the species scale. But species don’t exist. At least not per se. It’s an idea in the minds of people. The species does not want to survive. At the most, the people making up the species want it to survive. They want it individually. I want it, you want it, we want it. But the species itself, it doesn’t want anything. And so what matters in the end are the desires of individuals.
And you know what individuals want? Well they want to survive themselves, personally, way beyond the survival of an abstract idea. They want their loved ones to survive, their friends, their dogs and cats.. the species is a bonus but that’s it.
From an individual standpoint, the aging process brings way more pain and suffering that it brings pleasure and enjoyment. So of course we try to hide it, to rationalize it because it’s inevitable. We tell ourselves “ah but it’s nice to see one’s grandchildren, to retire, to get discounted movie tickets”. Hmm yes it’s nice except that intuitively we know it’s not nice.
Who’s looking forward to hitting 90? 90 years old probably is a guaranty of grandchildren, vegetables garden and seniors’ card. Yet oddly enough we all like to take our time to get to the big 90... because in the end nobody’s really fooled. Aging is ugly. It’s a frosting of joy on the thick cake of bitterness. And the more we progress the thinner the frosting.
On top of that most of the things we think of to pretend that aging is awesome are things we could have with or without aging anyway. Wisdom comes with time, not aging. A 15 year vacation can be taken at 60 whether we look 20 or 60. Grandkids will be here whether in a wheelchair or blowing one’s 70 candles on top of mount everest. Well here you’ll need some good lungs and using the oxygen bottle is cheating.. and I’m not quite sure it will have the desired effect anyway.
So, we’re all here revolting internally, maybe even some are doing so out loud listening to me.. “well aging is natural, society will collapse if people no longer age, what is life worth without death, immortality is a selfish dream, I want to age it’s a different stage in life with its peculiarities, a world full of old farts is a world which stagnates”.. and so on. And we’ll address all those objections. They are important, even if completely baseless, and each is a big chunk which deserves its own episode. Let’s stay on topic for today.
From a global point of view, that of the species, humanity taking charge of the evolutionary process no longer has a justification for biological aging. It’s already almost the case. Today we merely showed that biologically speaking aging no longer is evolutionarily justified. Man has become both too adaptive and too controlling of his environment, or at least he’s about to be.. et precisely so when he is finally able to eradicate the plague of aging. Natural evolution has had its run, it’s over. A blind force which couldn’t care less about us and which we are fortunately about to near completely get rid of. It was about time, and now, the aging process no longer has the luxury of this justification.
And we’ve also seen that from a personal point of view aging is instinctively rather a bad thing we would like to avoid but which we rationalize.. with or without good reason, this is what we will see next time.
Until then, thank you for having spent a few minutes of your existence thinking about this problem together.. you are now all a few minutes older, and also a little less certain that this is a good thing. No worries, spoiler, this series eventually ends on a positive note.
Don’t hesitate to subscribe to the podcast and the YouTube channel.. see you soon.
Published 2016-06-10. (death, aging, life extension, evolution, lifespan)