The Overpopulation Objection to Living Forever


[This column is dedicated to my mother, Mary Jane Hurley Messerly (1919-2005). Today would have been her 95th birthday. Death is indeed a tragedy.]

I have been engaged in a dialogue with a scientist who is doing anti-aging research. He worries that anti-aging technologies, including the possibility of physical immortality, will lead to overpopulation and ecological destruction. In other words, while it may be best for individuals to live forever, it might be collectively disastrous. Readers may recognize this situation as an instance of the “tragedy of the commons.” Acting in their apparent self-interest, individuals destroy a common good. It may be convenient for individuals to pollute the air, earth, and water, but eventually, this is catastrophic for all.

His research suggests:

that aging is controlled by biochemical signals. If we wish to be younger, we don’t have to repair everything that goes wrong with the body, one by one, with a bio-engineering approach.  All we have to do is to tamper with the body’s signaling chemistry … But … the increase in human life span from ~40 years 200 years ago to ~80 in advanced countries today has been accompanied by devastating global overpopulation … The rate of extinctions is far higher than during the great extinction events of the past … Never before has a single species adapted to every climate and habitat.  Never before has a single species systematically mined the biosphere as if it were a disposable trifle.

While I am unqualified to assess the worthiness of these scientific conclusions, I do not believe that overpopulation and its attendant problems should give researchers in this area pause. Here are some reasons why.

If we have conquered death we may already be transhumans or post-humans living after a technological singularity. Such beings may not want to propagate, since achieving a kind of immortality is a major motivation for having children. Such beings may be relatively independent of the physical environment too—their bodies may be impervious to environmental stressors or they may not have bodies at all. In such cases, concerns about overpopulation would be irrelevant. I am not saying that they will be irrelevant, but that the tragedy of 150,000 people dying each and every day—100,000 of them from age-related causes—is a huge price to pay for speculative hypotheses about the future. We should not assume that our concerns as biological beings today will be relevant in the future.

Of course, I don’t know how the future will unfold. But preserving the minds that now exist may be a better survival strategy than educating new ones. In the future, we will probably need educated and mature minds—their invaluable knowledge and wisdom. So I argue that we should try to eliminate death, dealing with overpopulation—assuming we even have to—when the time comes. (Remember predictions are for global population to start to stabilize around 2050.) My suggestions may be considered reckless, but remember there is no risk-free way to proceed into the future. Whatever we do, or don’t do, has risks. If we cease developing technology, we will not be able to prevent the inevitable asteroid strike that will decimate our planet; if we continue to die young we may not develop the intelligence necessary to design better technology. Given these considerations, I wouldn’t let hypotheticals about the future deter my research into defeating death.

Note too that this objection to life-extending research could have been leveled at work on the germ theory of disease or other life-extending research and technology in the past. Don’t cure diseases because that will lead to overpopulation! Don’t treat sick children because they might survive and have more children! I think most of us are glad we have a germ theory of disease and treat sick children. Our responsibility is to help people live long, healthy lives, not worry that by doing so other negative consequence might ensue. We are glad that some of our ancestors decided that a twenty-five-year life span was insufficient, instead of worrying that curing diseases and extending life might have negative consequences. 

Most importantly, I believe it is immoral for us to reject anti-aging research and the technologies it will produce, thereby forcing future generations to die involuntarily. After anti-aging technologies are developed, the living should be free to choose to live longer, live forever, or even die young if they want to. But it would be immoral for us not to try to make death optional for them. If we made decisions for them, we would be imposing our values on them. (At the moment we tolerate a high death rate to compensate for a high birth rate, but our descendants may not share this value.)

Moreover, as I have argued previously, death is like a bomb strapped to our chest waiting to go off. The bomb is with us from birth. If it is in our power to remove that bomb for future generations, then we should. We should not let hypothetical concerns about negative consequences deter removing those explosives. I’d bet future generations will thank us for removing such bombs. And even if our descendants do decide that a hundred years of consciousness is enough, they will probably be thankful that we gave them the option to live longer. But I’d guess that higher forms of being and consciousness will want to preserve to their being. (For more watch this Ted talk by Aubrey de Grey.)

(For a more detailed discussion about these issues and a plethora of arguments for life-extending therapies see Max More’s: “Superlongevity Without Overpopulation.”)

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3 thoughts on “The Overpopulation Objection to Living Forever

  1. I love and miss Nana. It would be cool if we lived forever and had another planet to live on or if we created something in space

  2. I understand why people are concerned with overpopulation. However, I agree with you in that we have no concept of what future generations will deem standard for procreation. For example, King Louis the 14th had 18 children but there lifespans were so stinted most of them did not make it into adulthood. Infant and early childhood death was seen as sort of a normal part of life. What if in the future the world’s priorities are not on procreation but on life extension? That might actually be more sustainable than this current haphazard method of procreation and then subsequent neglect of child and adult health and safety that ends in illness, disease, and death. Also, hi Dr. Messerly!

  3. Thanks for your insightful comments. I think your comments reflect an open mind, an ability to imagine. As Robert Kennedy loved to say “some men see things as they are and ask why, I dream thing that never were and ask why not?”

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