What if human life expectancy doubles over the next 50 years? Triples? Mark Zuckerberg and many others with money to spend, such as Peter Theil and Larry Ellison, want to accomplish that and more. For example, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged $3 billion over the next decade to “rid the world of disease”. The implications are fascinating to ponder. In developed countries, most of the life extension would come from reducing mortality in adulthood and late in life, simply because childhood mortality has already reached very low levels. Assuming that the additional years are healthful, the dynamics of population growth and the labor force would change. Family structure could take new directions, especially if extended fertility takes place along with life extension. The coexistence of six, nine, or more generations might make one’s descendants virtual strangers. And it might be possible for an individual to have children who are younger than the great-grandchildren of progeny conceived early in one’s adulthood. For love or money, your great-grandchild might couple with an individual a generation or more ahead of you. Scandalous!
Some pundits foresee dark implications for humanity. Alex Tabarrok comments on some musings in The Telegraph by Jemima Lewis, providing the following Lewis quote:
“We’d better hope they don’t succeed. What would it do to the human race if we were granted eternal health, and therefore life? Without any deaths to offset all the births, we would have to make room on earth for an extra 208,400 people a day, or 76,066,000 a year – and that’s before those babies grow old enough to reproduce themselves.
Within a month of Mr Zuckerberg curing mortality, the first wars over water resources would break out. Within a year, the World Health Organisation would be embarking on an emergency sterilisation programme. Give it a decade and we’d all be dead from starvation, apart from a handful of straggle-bearded tech billionaires, living in well-stocked bunkers under San Francisco.“
Of course, people will still die in accidents and from some illnesses that cannot be anticipated; some people will always engage in self-destructive behavior; and there will always be natural calamities that will take human life, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Nevertheless, life-extending technologies will increase the human population, all else equal. I say bring it on! But Lewis’ attitude is that increasing life expectancy is a bad thing, contrary to our almost uniformly positive experience with longer lives thus far, including improvements in the quality of life for aging seniors. More fundamentally, her view is that people are a liability, a collection of helpless gobblers, rather than valuable resources with the promise of providing themselves with an increasingly rich existence.
Lewis’ article demonstrates a special brand of ignorance, now common to many on the left, going back at least to the time of Robert Malthus, at about the turn of the 19th century. Malthus’ pessimism about the world’s ability to provide for the needs of an expanding population is well known, and wrong. The Club of Rome‘s report “The Limits To Growth“, published in 1972, pretty much continued in the Malthusian tradition. That report predicted increasing shortages and mass starvation. Of course, the Club erred both empirically and theoretically, as Julian Simon forcefully argued in the 1980s and 1990s. The crux of Simon’s argument was the existence of a renewable resource of vast promise: human ingenuity:
“Because of increases in knowledge, the earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ has been increasing throughout the decades and centuries and millennia to such an extent that the term ‘carrying capacity’ has by now no useful meaning. These trends strongly suggest a progressive improvement and enrichment of the earth’s natural resource base, and of mankind’s lot on earth.“
There are certain conditions that must be in place for the planet to provide for ongoing advances in human well-being. Markets must be operative in order for prices to provide accurate signals about the relative scarcity of different resources. When particular resources become more scarce, their prices provide an incentive to use existing substitutes and innovative alternatives. Competition facilitates and helps perfect this process, as new producers continuously seek to introduce innovations. Needless to say, the more restrictions imposed by government, and the more the state gets involved in picking favorites and protecting incumbents, the less effective this process becomes.
From a global perspective, the human race has done quite well in eliminating poverty during the industrial era. Impressive measures of progress across many dimensions are chronicled at the Human Progress blog, where Marian Tupy writes of “Looking Forward To the Future“. These improvements fly in the face of predictions from the environmental left, and they demonstrate that humanity is likely to find many ways in which extended lifespans can be both enjoyed and contribute to the world’s productive potential.
Extended lifespans will bring changes in the way we think about our working years and retirement. Both parts of our lives are likely to be extended. Job experience utilizing incumbent technologies will become less scarce, and will thus command a lower premium. Continuing education will increase in importance with new waves of technology. There will be changes in the time patterns of saving and investment and the design of retirement benefits offered by employers, but long periods of compounding might reduce the pressure to save aggressively. Bequest motives would almost surely change. Mechanisms like family endowments benefitting members of an extended family via education funding, medical technology and end-of-life care might become common.
There will have to be many changes in our physical makeup to ensure that life extension buys mostly “quality time”. For example, it’s probably not possible for many parts of the human body to function reliably after a century of use. The technologies of skeletal, organ and muscle replacement, or rejuvenation, will have to advance significantly to ensure a reasonable quality of life in an older population. The bodies of older humans will either be cyborgized or freshly regenerated as life extension becomes a reality.
As more radical life extension begins in earnest, it’s likely to begin as the exclusive province of the rich. However, like everything else, the technologies and benefits will eventually diffuse to the broader population as long as competitive pressures are present in the relevant markets. It will be a matter of choice, and perhaps the most unhappy among us will choose to forego these opportunities. However, such technologies, to the extent that they become a reality, would have the potential to improve the physical well- being of almost anyone.
Dramatically extending the human life span will bring dramatic change and many social challenges, but ending disease is a worthy goal, and one that most certainly will benefit mankind. Tabarrok casts Jenima Lewis as an Ayn Rand villain, though he must realize that she is simply ignorant of the forces that create growth and an improving existence. Unfortunately, she is one of many on the left enamored with a perspective that is “anti-mind, anti-man, anti-life” (to quote Tabarrok quoting Rand).
For additional reading on the left’s anti-human agenda, see this Fred Siegel piece in the City Journal, “Progressives Against Progress” (HT: Glenn Reynolds).