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Institutional Longevity

(I'm back — been away for a weekend at local SF convention Satellite 2 in Glasgow.)

Over on Hacker News, GraffitiTim points out something interesting: "The first civilization started in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE (more or less), which is 7,000 years ago. If you live until age 80, that's more than 1% of the history of civilization." So you can expect to live for more than 1% of the life span of human civilization to this date.

Of course, human permanent settlements have existed for at least 9,500 years. Evidence for human cultural activities appears around 75,000 to 80,000 years ago in the archaeological record; our species of hominid appears to have originated around 200,000 years ago. So the "1% of the history of civilization" idea depends intimately on the assumption that civilization is the only interesting thing about humanity.

But it has me thinking about permanence. We are very bad at building institutions that outlive us. A few have lasted for over a millenium — the Catholic church, Japanese royal family, Roman empire, Pharaonic system in Egypt ... probably a handful of banks, businesses, and universities. But I feel reasonably confident in saying that there's no direct continuity between early Mesopotamian civilization and our contemporary cultures, other than the most abstract idea of a rule of law, hierarchical authority structures, society based on class divisions, and government abstracted from the individual by bureacratic institutions.

Now: what happens if, in the next 50 years, we learn how to control the human aging process so that we can live long, healthy lives? What sort of institutions are required for a society with indefinite prolongation of physical (possibly also mental) youth?

Senescence is a ghastly illness which, even in the absence of secondary ailments (such as coronary heart disease or cancer) amounts to a sentence of death by torture over a 30-50 year period. Interestingly, it doesn't appear to have one single cause; rather, it's the emergent consequence of a bunch of metabolic malfunctions that emerge slowly, only after the carrier has passed reproductive age (and presumably passed the faulty genes on down the line to subsequent generations).

I'll note in passing that control of the bunch of biological malfunctions collectively known as "aging" doesn't imply immortality; accidents, violence, and suicide suggest that a median life expectancy of around 600 years would emerge, and that presupposes that other processes don't kill us first. (For example, we have no idea how human cognitive processes would change if life was prolonged beyond the current extreme of around 125 years.)

But consider this: democratic societies are made tolerable by the generational change of political incumbents — even without term limits, sooner or later the old guard bows out, to be replaced by fresh blood. So too are unelected institutions; public intellectuals, tenured professors, and judges all eventually retire from the public sphere.

Some people believe (or appear to believe) that the abolition of ageing would be an unalloyed blight on the human condition; I disagree strongly. However, it's very clear that our social and political structures aren't suited to life on a longer time-span.Try to imagine any cultural activity you are indifferent or hostile to but which is unaccountably popular, persisting deathless down the centuries because its supporters are also long-lived.

What is to be done?

Obligatory background reading: Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw.



Charlie, the "around 200,000 years ago" isn't right.


Chris: in that case, why don't you provide a source and a revised figure?

(I trust you're not a young earth creationist ...?)


Oops, pardon me. I mean to say:

Charlie, the "around 200,000 years ago" link isn't right.


I doubt that organisational commitment of individuals will last as long as their prolonged life. The trend to work on project basis, a youtube attention span, the emergence of cross-individual consciousness and the neccessity of rejuvenation of the brain for it's function (wich requires a second puberty - state of the hypothetical art) will counter the trend to conserve memes in old people.

But yes, many of our organisations are not ready for the nonetheless enormous changes. Anybodes surprised? The inherent question is of quantitative nature: which effect dominates / where is the equillibrium point?


I'm about as far from being a young earth creationist as ou are :)

I'm a slightly sleep deprived techie pointing out that you have a broken link.


Link fixed. Thanks, Chris.


"Try to imagine any cultural activity you are indifferent or hostile to but which is unaccountably popular, persisting deathless down the centuries because its supporters are also long-lived."

This implies that said supporters wouldn't change their options in the course of their lives (and hence become non-supporters). Considering how much our opinions are (thankfully) malleable even within current life spans, being a monolithic supporter of anything across centuries doesn't seem likely!

PS: Somehow I'm almost relieved when I spot a mistake in Charlie's faultless prose of thousands and thousands of words: It's "millennium".


What sort of institutions are required for a society with indefinite prolongation of physical (possibly also mental) youth?

I think the answer depends upon how readily available/affordable the treatment is. A very long-lived powerful and wealthy elite with sole access would naturally tend to maintain the status-quo to benefit themselves and their heirs. This would likely be very bad for the have-nots.

If easily available, the obvious one that strikes me is some way of enforcing controls on population size. Wanting children is a very deep-seated desire. A longevity treatment that renders you infertile might provide a balance.



Yes, we haven't even thought through the consequences in the short term very well.

Faced with the 'pensions crisis', the immediate solution appears to readjust the pension age from 65, as it doesn't make sense given people living to 80-100 healthily these days. But what does that mean for 'stable' institutions like the civil service where promotion mostly happens on seniority, when someone retires ? If senescence is cured, the phrase "permanent undersecretary to the minister" looks like a sick joke for whoevers next in line ...


This would likely be very bad for the have-nots.

It would also be very bad, in the long term, for the elites, who would wake up one morning to hear Madame Guillotine moving into position beneath their windows.


Looking at the rate if turnover of fads and fashions I doubt that'll be a major problem for popular culture, indeed my gut tells me turnover might increase (10,000 years of Big Brother - the mind boggles).

It's the institutions that will really have an impact. Prison terms for instance - 10 years is a big chunk of your life right now, but out of a 600 year lifespan?


Two words: Henry Kissinger.


Charlie, I'm just glad you ARE thinking about it ... in my day job, I find it amusing to hear people talk about "long-term planning" and they mean 5-10 years; my long term planning is in the range of 100-500 years...


Outliving institutions might conceivably already have happened to some institutions.

Consider marriage. We have a vague idea what medieval age distributions were like; some years ago I played around with survivorship tables and got a mean life expectancy at marriage of around 20 years. But the joint survivorship is around 10 years, meaning that it's common for a marriage to end after a decade with one of the spouses dying.

Now, with adult life expectancy at marriage of around 50 years, you've got a joint survivorship around 25 years. Except that a lot of marriages don't make it that long.

What if (and I admit that this is speculation) the contractual and institution aspects of marriage work well enough to sustain a relationship for a decade or two, but tend to break down over a longer span, in such a way that the spouses find it difficult to go on working together productively? It might be relevant that legislatures started liberalizing access to divorce in the 19th century, including making it possible for women to initiate divorce proceedings . . . and this was done by male legislators elected by male voters. Perhaps there was increasing demand for a way out of intolerable marriages?

Not that all long-sustained relationships break down. I'm in one that has lasted since 1985, though without that "piece of paper from the city hall." But in that time, we've seen many of our friends, whether legally married or informally coupled, break up with their partners. In at least one case, we saw a divorced woman break up with her boyfriend, meet someone else, marry him, stay married to him for over a decade . . . and then the two of them split up, and a few years later she married the original boyfriend! I think I would say that it's not an easy feat to sustain a couple for a quarter century. Perhaps this is more than the natural lifespan of a human couple?


WHS @ 14 - I remember Hugh Thomas's Unfinished History of the World advanced a theory that marriages usually lasted for life in the past for the simple and practical reason that "life" was around another 20 years, just enough time for the next generation to come to adulthood; and so, life expectancy being different nowadays is driving new patterns of behaviour.

As an SF method of dealing with long life and the weighty encrustation of social connections and relationships, Greg Egan's Border Guards, available online from him, has the concept of "little deaths". People like John Stonehouse and Reginald Perrin already experimented with something like this, I guess.


It's one of the things that always puzzled me about Tolkien. Elvish societies comprised of immortal individuals... ruled over by a king. It's hard to know where to begin, other than to postulate that elven nature is just completely different than human nature.


Dennis @15, I have often wondered at that. I also think if you read carefully Galadriel and Celeborn "divorced" over Arwen and other things without formally announcing it. It is one of the points that I often think of when people think JRR was not subtle on gender and other points.


One possible solution would be to require a rejuvenated person to give up all assets. This does not remove the power of family and friends, but at least it removes some of his/her accumulated economic power.

Of course, since a law like this would have to be passed by the people who are currently in power (and who presumably want to keep that power), I see little chance of such a law ever passing. Sigh...


Woody Allen: "I don't want to be immortal through my work. I want to be immortal through not dying."

I've asked Nobel laureate Dr. David Baltimore about immortal organisms. He points out that one can have immortal cells (i.e. HeLa human cancer cells) in a mortal organism, and mortal cells in an organism whose upper age we don't know (i.e. sequoia). He says that we are closing in on knowing how to control "the immortalizing gene." The issue is that cells send each other 4 main messages, one of which is "die." Control the reception of that message, and cells become immortal.

Dr. Grgory Benford has first round VC on a genetic anti-mortality company, having purchased IP and continued research. Immortal science fiction authors! Good idea.

Genetically modern humans were around at least 120,000 years ago. "Civilization" markers are settled agriculture, cities, kings, money, war. We had begun domestication of plants earlier, but were interrupted by an ice age.

Do what happened between 120,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago (borth of "civilization in at least 5 parts of the world when climate settled down from chaos millennium after ice age).

IMHO, we had a software civilization. Language, myths, astronomy (lunar calendar to predict mentruation), and Mathematics (Ishango Bone). It doesn't fossilize. EXCEPT that the oldest myths and words might hint at the forgotten era. Tibetan Buddhist texts suggest naked eye astronomers deduced galactic rotation over 15,000-20,000 years with at least oral records. Newton tho9ught that he was rediscovering "secrets of the ancients." Oldest novel-length poem only 5,000-7,000 King Gilgamesh's search for immortality.


Some points:

  • I don't think the "everyone wants kids" factor is a major problem. Reason: demographic transition. About 80% of the population of developed countries are happy to have one or two kids; a small number want more, and a minority around the 20% mark want nothing to do with it. If anything, we're facing a deflationary population decline in many of the developing nations in the next half century; and this includes places like China and Iran. So: we're not going to descend into overpopulated hell if we fix senescence.

  • Rent-seeking behaviour becomes problematic. This ranges from pensions (okay when post-retirement life expectancy is 4 years; a bad idea when it's 30 years; impossible when it's 300) to intellectual propery squatting (the meaning of "life plus 70 years" is drastically different if "life" means 600 years rather than 60 years).

  • Authoritarian ideologies -- "daddy knows best" and "because I say so" may be okay for toddlers, but the idea of living under an authoritarian ideology for eternity is ... let's just say it's not appealing. (See also DJP's comment apropos Madame Guillotine.)

  • Family relationships -- William Stoddard calls it right, to some extent. I suspect if our lives are open-ended the reduction in pressure to "get it right" and find the One True Love that's so prevalent in many of our societies will diminish significantly. At the same time? Extended-family cultures with arranged marriages will be in a world of trouble.


One thing that passed unchanged from the Sumerians is the base-60 numbering system we use for hours, minutes and seconds, as well as the 7-day week.


Extended-family cultures with arranged marriages will be in a world of trouble.

Will they? I can think of a couple of SF novels where large extended corporate kin groups are the major social units at elite level. And arranged marriages remain a vital political tool of such families, or the patriarchs who control them.

Then you've got that Arthur Clarke novel where the hero clones himself, to make sure his Titan mining colony stays in a safe pair of hands.


I vaguely remember a late Heinlein novel ("Friday", I think) that posited contractual marriages, mutually renewable every 10 years. Also, Peter Hamilton's Commonwealth books have some good ideas around social & economic implications of long-scale age extension, basically people living in 'generational cycles' following each rejuvination. Not sure how that maps across to permanent youth, though.

Charlie, your comment about cultures with arranged marriages/extended familes prompts me to think that the broader religious backlash to any such treatment could be fairly severe, at least amongst fundamentalists...


Try to imagine any cultural activity you are indifferent or hostile to but which is unaccountably popular, persisting deathless down the centuries because its supporters are also long-lived.

For a lot of the possible cases, this is already true. It's not at impossible that I will go to the grave still whining about - say - anodyne bedwetter bands or News Corporation, or at least think I've spent my life whining about them when in fact I've just lost interest. What matters here is the fraction of your life they survive for after you become conscious of them.


I don't think stasis will be as much of a problem - people will shift jobs. Say you start in banking at age 21, and by age 51 you're running the bank. Then what? With another 500 years of life ahead of you, surely you wouldn't want to go on doing the same job for half a millennium. You'd resign and go and become a sculptor, or a doctor, or a surf bum. Your pension wouldn't be so much of an issue because you'd have so much longer to earn one. You probably wouldn't need one, if you weren't going to age for centuries - you might save to fund a period of temporary retirement, then go back to work, a bit like the Australians who spend their twenties doing a few months' bar work and a few months' travelling, but on a multi-year scale. (Twenty years in the software business, then take a decade out to travel, then back to university when your savings run out?)


Term limits for quite a few things. Maybe you get to be an astro-physicist for a few decades and then go retrain, or pick an unrelated career for a little while and give new theories a chance to percolate.

And marriage, at least in the US, is starting to ebb even now. Realtors and mortgage brokers are already having to deal with a larger than ever number of "Cohabitating couples" who still want to buy homes.

You'd like the think that the extreme religious nutters would refuse the treatments based on scripture or some such, but the slightly more moderate nutters always find a way of having the best of everything (watch some of the hosts and ETWN and try to calculate how much the jewelry they're wearing is worth), and still being square with the big guy.


Richard Morgan's book Altered Carbon deals with a lot of these issues in well thought out ways. Good prose too.

Whta about jobs? With a few hundred years to play with most people will want to do a job they want to do, not a job their stuck with. Is there enough economy to allow everyone to do what they want to do? Seems unlikely to me. Imagine being stuck at the bottom of the employment ladder for 500 years! Not a nice society.


Story idea: Madoff on the day he gets out of prison, 150 years from now.

That ones free.


I wonder how a race of long-lived individuals would handle the subject of financial investments. Over a range of 600 years, it's a near certainty that you'll live through multiple financial meltdowns as longer durations make it more likely for you to encounter black swan events.

It seems that major meltdowns happen about once a century. In a world of immortals, investments would likely to become much more conservative, but even so, there are going to be periodic disruptions.

On the other hand, in this sort of world, people are unlikely to retire, so saving for retirement isn't an option. Perhaps people would be less concerned about amassing huge nest-eggs and would be capable of bouncing back from market melt-downs much more easily. After all, you're still young, right?

On a different subject, I wonder how often people would switch careers? Would the typical person find a career and then just continue to accumulate ever growing seniority for hundreds of years? In that sort of environment, it would be very difficult for your people to break into an industry? It seems likely that you'd be stuck at a junior grade for the better half of a millennia before you could move up to a senior role.

Maybe the government would strongly encourage people to only stay in a given career track for no longer than a century and that people would be given incentives to go back to school and take up another trade every hundred years or so (but how could you do that without being draconian).

Interesting questions, all.


Mr. Stross, your questions have been answered by Tolkein, assuming you would consider LOTR to be a thought experiment:

In Tolkien’s world, immortality and long life lead even the noblest creatures to a spiritual dead end, or to outright corruption....

The Hobbits are firmly enfleshed. They love gardening, visiting, eating and drinking—“six meals a day (when they could get them)”—and parties and pres-ents. Also, unlike the other lands we see, the Shire is full of children, for Tolkien tells us that Hobbits have very large families, Frodo and Bilbo being “as bachelors very exceptional.” This is true of no other people in Middle Earth. The immortal Elves, of course, need few children. Arwen seems to be spoken of as one of the youngest of her people; they call her their “Evenstar.” Legolas has apparently been his father’s heir for aeons. The Dwarves, though mortal, are very long-lived, and they have children so seldom that many believe they are not born, but grow from stones. They have few women, and even fewer children, as many women choose not to marry; likewise with the men, “very many also do not desire marriage, being engrossed in their crafts.” The Ents seem to live more or less forever, but even they are dying out. “There have been no Entings—no children, you would say, not for a terrible long count of years,” Treebeard tells the Hobbits. “The Ents gave their love to the things they met in the world, and the Entwives gave their thoughts to other things.” Finally the Entwives disappeared altogether.

Personal immortality, or the lure of it, seems to turn members of all these races in on themselves. The Elves dwell more in their memories than in the present; the long-lived mortal races turn to glorious deeds in an attempt at personal immortality. For the Elves and the Ents, the result is a kind of lethargy. For men it can be far more sinister: in Boromir and especially in Denethor, Tolkien shows the pride and despair that come from the pursuit of personal immortality through individual glory.

Individual immortality results in eventual physcial extinction of the species, or a pointless ennui laden existence.


andyet: I think you're forgetting that Tolkein was an English rural romantic, trying to construct a founding mythology for a nation that never quite existed the way he imagined it .... and a fantasist to boot.

I would be very cautious about deriving existential truths from works of fantasy, if I were you.


IIRC, James Blish was accused of Fascist sympathies over his authoritarian solutions to social problems associated with anti-aging drugs in the Cities in Flight series.


What if people start living longer not because of some wonder drug or treatment, but because one by one we're annihilating all the little things that slowly bring us down. Maybe it could happen slowly enough that it would take quite a while to convince people it was even happening. It might just look like life expectancy was extending by about a year for each year that went by, and it might take a few decades to convince people that it wasn't going to stop.

It's not out of the question, especially since today the only people who really believe that it's very likely to happen soon are Mr. Kurzweil and people who listen to him. Also, he seems to be attempting to bring about the singularity rather than just predict it these days, and honestly, that's cheating.


Re: the idea of elites having access to life-prolongation techniques we penniless commoners do not... I found it somewhat suspicious that our late and dearly (not very) lamented Queen Mother made it over the century mark in moderately robust health (hip joints and other cybernetic enhancements permitting). HMTQ God Bless Her and All Who Sail In Her is now 80-plus and still hacking a quite energetic CEO role in the board room of UK PLC. Same for Phil the Greek, of course.


I'd be interested to see how longevity/immortality might affect family-owned companies. Nowadays, a company can only grow so big before they have to start looking outside the family for directors, but with a near-immortal family running the show, things would be very different. You could easily imagine the patriarch of the family being unwilling to release the reins of power when he's still physically fit after two or three hundred years, and the board consisting entirely of his descendants. With none of them dying off, there'd be no shortage of potential directors, even allowing for those that wanted to go off and do their own thing. And if someone's spent two hundred years building up a company, I'd be willing to bet that given the choice he wouldn't want to trust anyone who wasn't a blood relative to run any part of it. However, I imagine such a company would be incredibly monolithic and resistant to change, as the original founder would still be around and in charge.


I would be very cautious about deriving existential truths from works of fantasy, if I were you.

No more than, for example, deriving the existential truth that totalitarianism is bad from reading "1984".


Totally off topic side note:

Is Middle Earth really a dystopia?


Over the last century, we've roughly tripled median human lifespan. However, we've not moved procreative lifespan a whole lot - in broad statistical terms, by the time you hit 50 you're done. Part of the elongation of early life is already meaning that an awful lot of people in the first world are discovering that they've essentially 'aged out' of having children, because some slow degenerative disease has caught them before they've taken the time to breed.

If individuals become extremely long-lived relative to their procreative lifespan, there ought to be significant evolutionary pressure for the procreative lifespan to increase, but with the general fall in birth-rate per human, it's hard to see that pressure playing itself out very quickly. So we end up with societies which may behave in youthfully healthful ways, but who've still had their actual reproductive engines shut down first for decades and then for centuries.

Separately, on the economics - 'saving for retirement' doesn't go away, but it starts to look a whole lot more like the classical (prior to the industrial revolution) sort of saving, where being middle class meant that you had enough earning capability over time that you could earn enough to establish capital (relatively) early in life, and your ongoing standard-of-living was the result of how much income you could derive from the use of that capital. At multi-century lifespans, the underlying oscillation within free-market systems will mean that everyone lives through a number of crashes, but the limiting factor for financial stability is actually how far into the future the financial system will be capable of lending. The factors that significantly change people's ability to pay back long-term financial commitments that they've made are things like career changes, marriages, divorces, births, deaths in the family, and so on. The changes in the density of those life events is what controls how long financial firms can afford to make loans for. Since price levels will rise to meet the length of time that people are willing to finance their purchases for, which will be directly related to how long the financial system is able to...

Oh, and any system of rewarding Seniority with either position or compensation becomes more and more untenable over time.


IMHO Sterling's Fire did a good job with this. And, I do think Tolkien'd be right about the corruption - human corruption and arrogance go in only one direction, and this' already a huge problem right now. And, so far, it's still true that we do our best work while young, though neurogenesis research gives some hope of changing that - though arrogance and corruption'll always stand as barriers to doing much late in life.

Tolkien's societies are hopelessly unrealistic - and it's NOT just the kings forever. Real societies get better, easier on their people, more powerful, and get better technology. In Tolkien, it's all running in reverse, because all the best things are particular special people that start knowing everything and have limited creation energy, esp elves and quasi-angels like Gandalf, Sauron, and dragons that slowly die off and make the world a lesser place. I realized that while failing to make a War of the Ring Civilization mod work for longer periods. The First Age was truly Middle-Earth's greatest age, while our ancient period was horrid insecurity, starvation, and hovels compared to today. Middle-Earth's more like a game of chess, where you start with a fixed number of pieces, and they slowly die on behalf of their king.


Sterling's "Holy Fire," of course - whoopsie. I actually had it right in the preview, but then deleted the "Holy" part while checking I had it right on amazon, sigh.


With regard to family firms where the CEO is the 350 year old head of the family, and the board of directors is composed entirely of his descendants. . .

Would his descendants really be interested in serving on the board? Would they even acknowledge and obey the ruling patriarch?

Or might they feel themselves so remote from the ruling patriarch that they would take little or no interest in having anything to do with the family firm?


D. J. @41 This sort of came up in Accelerando, though they weren't descendants.


Jonathan Vos Post @ 19:

Tibetan Buddhist texts suggest naked eye astronomers deduced galactic rotation over 15,000-20,000 years with at least oral records

Um, no. Precession of the equinoxes, perhaps (and I'd be interested in a citation for that). Galactic rotation is not even close to naked-eye visible over those timescales, and deducing it would involve deducing a whole lot of cosmology (e.g. existence of / scale of / relative location of the galaxy) which was almost certainly not known to any ancient. We do know, fairly reliably, some things about oral ancient astronomy. For instance, AIUI we can deduce the era and place in which the constellations acquired their names (later known to the Greeks).


Heinlein tackled some of this from a personal point of view with Lazarus Long in "Time Enough for Love." Here the protagonist is approx. 2k years old and has had enough. He is looking for a place to die comfortably before being kidnapped by his own relatives to gain access to his memories. Physical rejuvination, in this case, cures his ennui and he apparently chooses to continue living while exploring something he "hasn't done before."

The Howard Families is Heinlein's method of producing longer-lived humans and providing for the historical continutity of their far-flung offspring. In this case longer-lived is purely a breeding experiment by inducing individuals with longer-than-normal-lived parents and grand-parents to procreate by offering financial incentives derived by Howard Families investing. Even this institution has problems gathering this information because the individual members are busy leading their own lives rather than feeding information back to the Families.

He also explores contractual marriage, and other consensual, long-term/short-term, arrangements in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."


D.J.@41 - That happens with any family firm now - not everyone wants to go into the family business. But I guess with near-immortality you could spend 20 years working for the family business while you decided what you really wanted to do. Many of us don't have a clue what we want to do for a living in our teens or early twenties, or even later, and wind up coasting in a dull office job. And you'd probably get a better position than you would elsewhere, so you might as well do that. I guess it depends on how remotely descended they are - his immediate family might well have been groomed for the role from an early age, so you'd see them in the most senior positions, with the grandchildren forming a second tier and so on. But it wouldn't be clear cut since you can bet individuals will want to move on at some point, or the favourite son will go off and become a hippy, leaving a space for an ambitious grandchild.


I looked into this once and it really isn't that big of a problem. Even if we were able to halt the aging process at the mid 20s and you were in that form for all eternity, actuarial tables and accident rates suggest that it would be very very rare for someone to make it past 120 years old. Walking around downtown isn't that bad, but over the course of 120 years your odds of meeting an angry chav with a knife go way up. So it would end up about 1/3rd again what our current limit is. There would be some changes, but nothing really radical I think.

Of course, if we get to the point where we can, say, backup minds and download them into freshly cloned bodies all bets are off.


When everyone lives for hundreds of years, most of the world economy is going to have to run in steady-state, rather than in the constant inflation mode that's been typical†. This should reduce the intensity (and probably the number and frequency) of bubbles and consequent depressions.

The last 50 years in the West have seen a fracturing of the consensus cultures into loosely-cooperating subcultures (what the consumer economy has turned into markets). I'd guess that trend will continue and maybe accelerate with increased lifespan, as people get bored with the old shibboleths*, so I don't expect a long-lasting monoculture.

The consolidation of power and capital into a small group is a greater concern, but if you look around, you'll see that the power elite have already developed techniques for doing this over generations; I wouldn't expect their abilities will be very different when they can do it personally. In fact, I would bet that extended life will tilt the balance more towards the have-nots, as long as the longevity treatment itself is available to them**. They'll be able to improve their financial situations even if they have to accumulate capital very slowly

As for jobs, Charlie has had three careers so far, correct? And I've had 2 and will likely have to go for 3 as a result of the Current Financial Unpleasantness. While that's not the norm at the moment, it's sure to become more common, especially given the churn in the skill set required for a given job over time, as technology and economic requirements change.

† In the past, largely because we could always depend on population increase to drive wealth, more recently al so because of the exponential increase in technology. * Does anyone really think that a fad for boy bands, for instance, can last for centuries? ** And imagine the class war that will occur if they can't get the treatment. It will make the French and Russian revolutions look like company picnics.


Before contemplating institutions, there is the question of whether the premise is even possible. and if it is, what are the biological consequences.

It is unlikely that humans have "faulty genes" - as David Brin has pointed out, humans live much longer than any other mammal (or bird) based on size. We may already be fully optimized for longevity. Unlike immortal cell lines, we have to maintain a complex body and organ system. OK, so maybe we can do little with gene engineering per se, but can keep repairing the body with new parts. That might work except for the the brain. How does that get fixed as the relationship of mind structure to brain structure is unknown. Well we have several obvious possible options. We could "fix" the brain structure with a fully functioning immortal replacement, but then the mind could be stuff in an unchanging prison. We could do the singularity thing and maybe upload minds in some way that they could be downloaded into different bodies on demand. Of course immortality could be explored by long periods of hibernation or time (relatistic velocity) travel. We could also just let go the idea that a specific mind is important and allow the mind to change with each renewal - which might even be an option even if we didn't need to, in order to keep the universe as a fresh environment.

The institutions we need would depend on the technologies and way of life we want to lead. If we have immortality without technology, then I would guess institutions and culture could freely change around us without much of a problem, the rate determined by how well individuals can keep adapting. Arguably we already have exceeded that adaptive limit. OTOH, if we need lots of technology to stay immortal, then institutions and technology that are needed for this process and their supporting ones must be preserved too. (I'm sorry Mr. Stross, but we warned you not to keep your mind scan as an encrypted binary using that old code, we no longer have the old technology to decrypt it for your next instantiation).

I'm not sure that we actually want most institutions to have life spans greater than ourselves. Change can be very good, constantly creating new patterns that individuals have to adapt to rather than consolidating the gains and losses for the winners and losers. Perhaps the only "institution" we need is one that guarantees constant change and cannot fix patterns for very long periods.


Daniel @ 46:

Even if we were able to halt the aging process at the mid 20s and you were in that form for all eternity, actuarial tables and accident rates suggest that it would be very very rare for someone to make it past 120 years old.

No. Current actuarial tables say that the odds of dying in your 20s are a little under 1 in a thousand per year. The life expectancy at that rate is about 700 years (log(0.5)/log(0.999)). That's in the US; other countries can be substantially different (I believe mostly because of road deaths) - I found a UK table but think I must be interpreting it incorrectly, as it is different by a factor of 3.


Nick, the UK road traffic accident death rate per capita is about 30% lower than the US figure -- we've got nearly the safest roads in Europe. Meanwhile, in the other direction, RTA deaths in the developing world are as much as an order of magnitude higher. Again: we have a higher crime level, and higher violent crime, but much lower murder rate than the US (violent crime is more likely to be fists and feet than knives or guns -- not invariably so, but in general it's a normative assumption that J. Random Mugger in the UK isn't carrying a gun).

I figure accidents and violence and suicide are the key determinants of longevity if you abolish disease and old age. (I class famine and war as accidents and violence respectively, albeit on a mass scale.) And they vary dramatically between even developed societies -- although they don't currently affect overall longevity because, combined, they only account for around 5% of us over an 80 year period, with disease and old age taking the other 95%.


Anybody here recall the neuroplasticity wars of the 1990s? (New Yorker annals of science: "Rethinking the Brain - How the Songs of Canaries Upset a Fundamental Principle of Science.)

Or, for that matter, does anyone remember "The End of Summer" by Algis Budrys, a melancholic little SF tale from the middle 1950s? The story has certain period-based infelicities -- though some are just charming, like the tape players attached to the wrists of everybody in the story that say 'Play Me' so people can plug in and order their recent memories every morning. Nevertheless, Budrys gets to the heart of the issue.

Memory is a kind of wounding. Human brains, as currently constituted, have limited storage capacities -- maybe about 125 years worth, maybe a little more. Yes, we can generate new neurons -- and do this to a far greater extent that the neuroscience establishment once believed. But while we can almost certainly amp up the production of new neurons -- 'Ampakines and the threefold path to cognitive enhancement' by G. Lynch & C. Gall

--the more you do this the more you run the risk of losing previous memories, including hard-wired vital functions (with the biotech we have now, at least, we can't localize the effects within the brain of drugs that amp up neuroplasticity).


A fair amount of human activity is currently devoted to concern for things that will outlive us. I spend a lot of energy raising my kids, who I fervently hope will outlive me. I support the schools I attended, one of which is approaching 200 years old and the other 400. I am working on building a business that I joined about 10 years ago, a business which is now approaching its 70th year in the trade. Friends of mine write books and academic papers. If we expected that we might well outlive all those things, would we really devote some much time and energy to them?


There's no question that immortality coupled to several centuries of senescence, à la Tithonus, is unbearable to contemplate... let alone enemies or rivals forever ensconced in positions of dominance. People who think this is desirable assume they'll be among the Chosen who wield power as well as the availability of infinite resources.

Here's my quasi-optimistic suggestion as a partial solution to this dilemma, written from the viewpoint of a working biologist: Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!


alkali@51: "A fair amount of human activity is currently devoted to concern for things that will outlive us."

In the hot house of Silicon Valley, an extraordinary amount of time is devoted to things that are ephemeral but may create large rewards, like most companies. The mind set is very different. Support for schools is much more transient, typically for the duration the kids attend them. With that counter-factual, I don't think that "monument building" is a human activity constant.


Charlie @ 50: I expect war would become less significant than it is now as a cause of death if physical immortality existed without something like uploading to prevent actual physical death. When life is cheap you have people eager to become soldiers, but if one bullet means you're dead at a young age when you could go on for hundreds of years, then you're far less likely to risk it. So barring warfare becoming more heavily automated, to the point of not actually using human troops in the field at all and fighting using weapons controlled by AI or telepresence, it's unlikely we'd see a culture of near-immortals very willing to wage war at all. Of course I could be wrong - considering the odd things people do in search of thrills, it's not entirely inconceivable that people who were old and jaded might turn to small-scale battles as a means of entertainment.


Even if Charlie's entry is more about institutional than personal long-evity (or the link between), the discussion drifted to the personal point of view. A problem not mentioned until now - and brushed away in most long-evity novels I know - is the lack of a shortening of subjective time. At least I guess that "10 years" or "20 years" still will feel as relatively long periode of time, even if you get not only 5 or 6 fruitful 10-year-periodes, but 50. Humans are (not yet?) patient enough to wait 10 years for something, be it interstellar travel or the accumulation of finanical wealth.


Another interesting data-point is Ken MacLeods "Engines of Light"-Trilogy, where there are only a few humans who got the immortality-treatment (the other races are different anyway). At least the viewpoint-character gets by by faking his own death every few decades. Must get tedious after a while.

Doesn't this also occur in the Highlander movies?


If you read Elizabeth Moon's Heris Serrano/Esmay Suiza novels with close attention to the backstory and the social infrastructure . . . that is, the Heinleinian/Campbellian indirect exposition parts . . . you'll find that they have a fairly intelligent look at the problems of a society making the transition to heightened longevity. For one thing, her navy is badly topheavy with both admirals and master chief petty officers who have served for fifty or sixty years and won't be retiring any time soon, blocking the path to promotion for everyone below them.


I am very impressed with this thread. For the most part it's been thoughtful and highly informative.

So, please allow me to introduce myself.....

I'm 65. I have been dealing with the issues of deterioration for nearly 20 years. They are real, painful but, not critical. It probably hurts me to get up in the morning far more than it does most of you. On the other hand, after bring confronted with major medical problems, I have learned. Learning the right lessens has put me in better physical shape than I was 30 years ago.

I think it was mentioned above (I apologize for not citing those of you who made these contributions) that one important thing in all this immortality stuff is how to keep society from stagnating. The single most decisive factor will probably be economic. To wit, persuading immortals to be less risk averse in their investments.

Some people, myself included, tend to be willing to take more risks as they age. Most people are not. I am still surprised (and depressed) when a contemporary claims to avoid all use of computers and the internet. I'm sure all of you have or had relatives who behaved this way. Now, imagine that all those people were in the majority and controlling the world's economy.

I am not a cynic, but I have lived long enough to be quite skeptical about the projected advantages of immortality to individuals and society. (Myself excluded, of course! I need another 100 years just to learn about the things I missed learning in the last 65.)

To quote an appropriate cliche', be careful what you wish for.


Rick: yes. I turn 45 this autumn, and I can feel the cold wind of age blowing down my neck already. Bits of me don't work as well as they used to -- eyeballs and cardiovascular system, mostly. And I hear you about the risk aversion. Part of it is quite simply down to loss of flexibility -- but when you're past halfway through your life expectancy, do you want to start out all over again as a novice in some new field? Some do -- but the recent received wisdom that it takes 10,000 hours of application to become really proficient at any advanced skill looms ever higher as those 10,000 hour sandgrains trickle out of your hourglass.


Rick York @ 58:

I'm roughly in the same position as your are: I'll be 63 in a few days, I've had considerable in the way of medical treatments recently to repair chronic damage (and the outcome has been to improve my body's operation, at least until the next component failure), and I'm less risk-averse than most people I know, including people much younger than me.

Investments aren't the only kind of risk that immortals will be tempted to beware of. Most people find any sort of major change to be a risk they're not willing to accept, hence the real danger of stagnation in an immortal society. What I think will prevent that stagnation is that over the long-term, those who reject change too much will tend to become bored, and either suicide, opt out of longevity treatments, or just withdraw into a stagnating subculture with no effect on the rest of society. The ones who can keep their interest in life, and so remain alive, will be those with at least some ability to accept risk and change. We might achieve a steady-state society where some fraction of the population works at tasks that interest them, and another fraction withdraws from responsibility for society into hedonism or hermetic lifestyles such as full-time LARPing.


Following on from @57, and if you're given to believing Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"*, then scientific advance mainly happens when bright young things with new ideas succeed their elders. When those elders, the wizzened and crusty old professors who last had a new idea thirty years ago and now refuse to admit any new ideas, continue to hang around on tenure for a milleniua then that bodes rather badly for the rate of scientific progress.

In the field I work in, there's certain professors who are stubborn enough to be derided as cranks, but they're still professors until they pop their clogs. So longer life will have to mean changes to academic career structures, whether through administrative reform or through a Discworld-style approach, whereby professors frequently seem to accidentally brutally stab themselves in the stomach while shaving.

(* - of course, this is a big "if")


The logical risk strategy is to take more risks as you grow older, in proportion to you risk of dying each subsequent year. This is around the one in 300 mark as you pass 50 with current life expectancies (as a male). However if you expect to only die by non-natural causes then that risk factor goes down significantly and your logical risk aversion should rise accordingly.


William@57, Jez@61. I cannot think of a better reason to want to create deinstitutionalizing forces. Think what happens in industry which is much more flexible. Old farts getting in the way ? - end run around them by starting a new business. Academia, OTOH, preserves its status as an institution and makes the business strategy virtually impossible.

Unless people will tolerate centuries of being in a pyramid that does not change, then we need to provide far more outlets for people to do their own thing in life so that the system does not become rigid. It wouldn't hurt today with our 70+ year lives either. All this suggests to me that societies that are flexible and provide more fulfilling opportunities will handle longevity far better than those that do not, further enhancing their performance over more rigid structures.


Rick@58: There's also the problem of cultural shift. I'm in my sixtieth year, and live in San Diego, California. I was quite disappointed to see my state vote to ban same-sex marriage late last year; it's the first time I've felt personal shame at a political decision I was involved in. But it's quite clear that most people my age and older were in favor of Proposition 8. In fact, my two oldest friends, the two who are actually around my age (most of my social circle is from 10 to 30 years younger), are both strongly opposed to same-sex marriage . . . which leaves me thinking, "Did I actually know you people?"

Well, I expect to see the law change within the next decade, as the old conservatives die off, and the next generation of voters bring different attitudes to the polls. But what if all the older voters would stay in the electorate forever?

A very long-lived society is also likely to have really big problems with rent-seeking behavior, I think.


Jez@61: I wonder how much of that kind of fixed mindset is a product of physical aging in the brain? If your brain was physically 27, would you keep on having new ideas and being interested in other people's new ideas?

On a related note: Charile, I think this has been discussed here before, but how would you feel about age without senescence? A month's decline at age 90 that ends with you dead, after a lifetime of looking and acting about 30. There are animals that age like that, particularly some insects, but also things like salmon. Not only are genes that affect the bearer past reproductive age irrelevant in an evolutionary context (although menopause in humans is very interesting, in the context of culture and inclusive fitness), but in the wild most animals never get to die of old age, so they're utterly invisible.


This line from the summary of the Shaw plays:

“She, however, will live until she has a fatal accident, which, by the laws of chance, is inevitable for everyone.”

got me thinking that this type of life might result in a very different way of thinking about death.

I think a number of people have focused on only the estimated mean when people would die (300 or 600 years??) If people die from “fatal accidents” death might seem much more random (whereas today, most of us think of the time of death as in some way predictable).

The actuarial tables for the long-lived might be simply a cumulative uniform random variable – when you get unlucky – which could happen at 15 or 1500. For the long-lived, you make your saving throw every day. We may do something similar – but most of us think there are other more important things that will determine our death than fatal accidents, and so, don’t worry about our daily saving throw.

A world where one of the main aspects of life (when it ends) is governed by a “god” who truly does play dice (again, esp. if it’s uniformly random) would probably result in different moral (or religious, if they survive, and likely they will) institutions. Perhaps facilitating, more risk seeking beyond the mean (as some suggested immediately above) and less risk seeking before the mean.


Re: 43 critique of myself at @ 19:

I'm not confusing a multiple of 10^8 years with a multiple of 10^4 years, after 20 years in the space program and being an ex-Astronomy professor. Your request for citations is reasonable, but my discussions on this were with Carl Sagan, who cannot be cross examined.

The Tibetan text, in Sanskrit, which he and I discussed allegedly translates as: "Just as the Earth circles the Sun in one year, so does the Sun circle the Great Sun in 200,000,000 years."

They had the ability to express very small and very large numbers. That comes up often in Hindu (and Buddhist) cosmology.

I do believe that naked eye astronomy, record keeping (even oral), and 20,000 years baseline would allow for deduction of galactic rotation.

But, without citation (any Sanskrit-reading astronomers here?) I can't give more than this hearsay. He and I discussed this because, once the Dogon/extra-solar planets tale was debunked [Carl Sagan, in Broca's Brain, writes that Dogon society in fact did have contacts with an advanced civilization: Western Europe. Sirius B was discovered, described, studied and explained during the second half of 19th century and the first third of 20th century], the question was what remained to be skeptical about -- with a small chance that it might be so.


Oh... that is unclear at 66. The assumption is that the probability distribution of death (the actuarial table) is a cumulative uniform random variable. Death itself is just a uniform random variable. On the actuarial table the probability of death at 15 is very low relative to the probability of death at 1500. But, the probability of death on year 15 is the same as the probability of death on year 1500 (if you make it that far).


Chris L@65 - See "The Wine of India", a tv play.


Haldeman's The long Habit of Living had an interesting Immortality setup. Interesting to see in action.

And I've just thought about an institution the sumerians gave us, a very nifty one called writing. Ah! and storytelling! Great ways to try and cheat mortality. Even today. :)


ChrisL@65: A related thing I've wondered about is this: Suppose we could physically de-age a 65-year-old's body and brain to 20. Would they retain the learned prudence and judgment of a 65-year-old, or would it turn out that those are just products of the blood and brain chemistry altering with age, and would altering them back produce someone who acted like a 20-year-old again?


WHS@69: I think there is evidence that "judgement" as a brain function doesn't fully develop until your mid twenties. How on earth you'd separate that from the effects of experience, I don't know.


Chris L@70: Well, that's the interesting question, isn't it? How much is learning from experience, and how much is emergent brain functions?


Something else you've forgotten from Mesopotamia, Charlie - astrology. Depressing isn't it?


Julia @74: I'm willing to forgive the Sumerians astrology -- to a subsistence peasant culture the stars must seem pretty important, to such an extent that astrology is merely the correlation != causation error writ large.

(Folks living in the age of telescope-assisted astronomy have less of an excuse.)

ChrisL @65: while being physically healthy and fit right up until the end would be an improvement, frankly I'd rather that the end was so indefinitely postponed as to be an emergent property of accident or suicide. Knowing I was going to suddenly go downhill and die at an approximate age would be ... we're the time-binding species: we do our suffering in advance.


Robert@34: Re. the Royal Family's apparent longevity; consider the benefits of a team of personal physicians and the possibility that a breeding program from a small pool may have other effects than producing haemophiliacs.

In the Queen Mother's case, I'd also consider the preservative effects of alcohol, but not very seriously.



Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" trilogy hasn't been mentioned (?) - which could not work as a series of books without extended lives.

I', 63, and REALLY WANT to live to be 263 - there's a lot to do - I might even learn to play musical instuments, and see an FTL drive invented ....

@ 34 - Phil the Greek isn't going to last long. Whether HMQ carries on, or we get a Regency is another matter, then.

I've mentioned this before, but there is always the possibility of RELOADING, particularly given this interesting development nie?

In the meantime, PROVIDED one can avoid the total horrors of Alzheimers', and similar brain-degenerations, making one into a STRULDBRUG then current developments seem to be extending healthy lives quite a bit - at present it's a Red Queen's race, but it looks like we (humanity) is slowly gaining on mortality.


Immortals bunging up the senior ranks for everyone else won't be a problem in most institutions, because most institutions don't last that long. What difference would it have made, for example, if the CEO of Bear Stearns had been immortal? The bank would still have gone under. Companies fail all the time. And vacancies would be created by people moving from one job to another - if you're head of your company, there's still the option to leave and become head of another larger company, or even just a division of an even bigger one. The exceptions would be churches, civil services and armed services... especially churches. Who's going to tell the Ayatollah that he's had the job for long enough now?


my discussions on this were with Carl Sagan, who cannot be cross examined.

Well, he can be, but you're unlikely to get much in the way of response.


brian lawson @66 - I don't know if it's entirely due to the increase in life expectancy, but we have a different view of death than earlier societies. If someone dies under the age of sixty, we're always looking for a reason. Friends and relatives sometimes get angry and look for someone to blame or measures to prevent it happening again. Young deaths are tragedies.

A few hundred years ago, people felt grief, but young people (and especially children) dieing was just something that happened. If hardly anyone dies, then death is going to seem even more divorced from normal life; the exception, rather than the rule*.

I'm ambivalent on this. On the one hand, people shouldn't die and we're right to get upset about it. On the other hand, people do just die randomly, and sometimes we just have to somehow get on with our lives, knowing there's nothing we can do about it.

I wonder how this would fit in with Matthew's thoughts on war @54; if (say) a terrorist attack didn't just cut short someone's life, but cheated them of their chance of eternity, wouldn't a society of immortals think that anything that kept them safe was justified?

While I'm at it, in Warhammer 40K, the immortal Eldar (space-elves) go through cyclic career changes. Sometimes they get stuck in a career for ever, and it's considered both respected and a tragedy.

  • Leaving, of course, only taxes to depend on.

I think you did a good job dscribing such a society in Accelerando, Charlie. Very . . . plausible.

William @ 71 - Peter F Hamilton's "Misspent Youth" has a take on this.

It seems likely that such a society would become more conservative and/or economically "steady state", I think.


What an immortal society needs is something like the Bureau of Sabotage (BuSab) from Frank Herbert's Dosadi and Whipping Star novels.

There job would be to deliberately sabotage, ruin and destroy institutions that have lasted to long. Not through voiolence and terrorism, but through more subtle acts of sabotage - the kinds of things that cause financial panics, economic depresions, religious heresies, political scandals, exposure of criminal activity, etc. That way long lived institutions don't become ossified and mummified and society does not go stagnant.

Then we have to worry (to paraphrase Plato) about who sabotages the sabotagers.


82: Then we have to worry (to paraphrase Plato) about who sabotages the sabotagers.

It's Juvenal, actually, from his Third Satire. Plato wouldn't have seen quis custodiet ipsos custodes as a problem; his answer was "We will set up our education system and our society to produce a caste of incorruptible philosopher-kings, who won't need guarding." Juvenal had a rather more cynical view of human nature.

IIRC, BuSab personnel happily sabotaged each other - in fact, you got promoted within the Bureau by successfully sabotaging your boss. Your vision of a BuSab in a society of immortals sounds like a cross between the SEC and the League of Shadows in "Batman Begins"... could be an interesting one to write!


Hmm - There are a few "forces" that should affect how relatively stable/adaptive a society of ageless people would be relatively to how societies work currently -

First, and commonly overlooked - Biology. If everyone permanently has more-or-less the body of a 22 year old, that is going to affect peoples ability, and thus willingness, to embrace change massively. - societies with a lot of young people in them dont tend to be boring stable places, and here we are envisoning a society where everyone not only has their hormones telling them that they are immortal, their reason will back it up to some extent, which might actually result in excessively interesting polities rather than the reverse. -

The long wiev. Global warming is a bit more of a concern if you are going to be around for all of it.

Then for the more tyrannical countries we have the tension between risk aversion, (a lot more to loose) and the revolutionary urge born by the utter intolerablity of having to live with whatever injustice is making your life hell for potentially ever - This might spawn any number of more or less elaborate schemes to bring about change without violence, or a really serious population drain as people leave.


Today non-accident-prone healthy people age through a sequence of stages: embryo, infant, child, adolescent (transitional stage or social construct), adult, elderly adult (mileage may vary).

We are discussing a tomorrow where elderly is redefined (senescence cured or ameliorated) and/or a new stage is appended: super-adult (a.k.a. psuedoimmortal or biological immortal).

As mentioned above, the statistical distribution matters. How much is the curve flattened? How many old women and men become immortal?

I have these questions.

(0) How different is an immortal? Is the change not just in hayflick limit or cellular signalling, but also greater mental, psychological, social, professional maturity?

(1) Optimistically, might not almost all old people make the phase transition of immortals? What are the implications if an ordinary adult, at age 200 or 1,000 snaps into superiority, along the lines of a saint, genius, or super-villain?

(2) Theodore Modis makes the case that Hemingway killed himself, not because of pain, relationship troubles, impotence, but because he had no more novels in himself, and knew it. Modis claims that Mozart died of old age at 30, having composed 98% of all the music that he would, if asymptotically approaching 100 years old.

(3) Modis contrasts this with Alfred Hitchcock, whom after approaching his limit of movies, switched to Television, and was "young again" in productivity. Hence the mentioned tragedy of immortals who do not switch careers within a career portfolio. I've written an (unpublishede) book manuscript on this premise, called "Success Curve." It's a human interpretation of the Logistic Curve in measuring one person's profewssional output as a function of time. Seems to be an invariant of people, and of organizations.


JvP@85 "What are the implications if an ordinary adult, at age 200 or 1,000 snaps into superiority, along the lines of a saint, genius, or super-villain?"

If we crudely assume 10000 hours (or 5 years working) to become expert at anything, then if that could be additive, you would have an immensely talented population if fairly immortal.

But what if the brain, which is finite, can only hold a few expertises concurrently. What if those are either "used up" after N, or perhaps just N can be held concurrently? If the first, you get a population of people unable to learn new skills. If the second, a population that can be current with skills, but never super-skilled.

How the brain stores memories and how it learns is going to determine what the outcome would be for immortals. What if immortality required discontinuous consciousnesses so that "you" would be different personalities over time, each only partially able to access previous ones?


Thanks for the heads up on Plato (I could have sworn that line came from The Republic)

could be an interesting one to write!

Cool, just dedicate the book to me when you win the Hugo.


Alex Tolley @ 87 is asking the right kind of follow-up questions, IMHO.

Henri Cartan, a mathematician known for meticulous proofs and for inspiring a revival of mathematics in France after World War II, died in Paris on 13 Aug 2008. He was 104.

He was still giving great research lectures at 103.

What's interesting to me is the effect of even a very small number of immortals (or near immortals) sending memes into the generational system. There are so many Nobel laureates mentored by other Nobel laureates. World-class musicians tutored by other world-class musicians. I've learned to ask many questions of my best teachers, as to whom were their best teachers, and (by induction) how far back they can trace the lineage.

One Ibn al-Haytham or Segovia or Merce Cunningham or Leonid Euler or Isaac Newton or Alan Turing in a century is more than enough to create an explosion of works of genius by mere mortals who follow the paths blazed by the Immortals.


Indeed, we are facing some new possibilities regarding human life: not only extension of life by means of improvements in Medicine but also cloning (which could lead to something like the "resurrection machines of BSG^) and cybernetic alternatives for living parts (which is concerning scientists just now, as can be seen in some articles where scientists defend the idea of governments limiting AI R&D).


Future News/USA- Televangelist Rev. Truhart Pornworthy responding to charges that he underwent the "Immortality Process" held a press conference this morning. He explained that "The Good Lord" instructed him to undergo rejuvenation treatments (even if it would delay his arrival in Heaven) so that he "could better minister to his flock and convert heathens by bearing witness to the gospel!" The Reverend took no questions.


Kind of off topic but Order of the Stick addressed a similar issue recently:


There's one regiment on the British Army which has been in continuous service since 1650, originally part of the New Model Army.

The 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland has a lineage going back to 1633, but was formally in French service until 1678.

It will be interesting to see how the British Army changes, as a fighting force, with the mucking about with Regimental traditions. Is the whole thing something of a red herring—it doesn't seem to matter to other armies—or is it significant because it does matter to the soldiers.

Incidentally, here I suppose I should give a nod to John Scalzi, who has dealt with immortal soldiers.

I think life extension might lead to significant differences between different sorts of military force. You watch the documentaries, and see those ancient fighter pilots talking about how they felt, and I'm not so sure that the pilots of the Battle of Britain would be all that different.

It's not just the half-joking axiom that every fighter pilot thinks himself the best there is, those RAF pilots were defending something.

I wouldn't be surprised if potentially-immortal pilots still flew Spitfires. And Tiger Moths.


65: I think gay marriage here in the States is the perfect example of the dangers of an immortal society. Even with our current life expectancy, we run into problems with the accelerated rate of change. As a society we need to be able to change at a rate faster than the velocity at which people die.

91: Bodily immortality should not be a problem for fundamentalist Christians. It just means they'll be here for the Rapture, and thus be taken bodily into heaven as opposed to rising from the dead.

The idea of uploading minds has always given me philosophical problems based on the nature of identity. Am I really extending my life, or am I donating a copy of myself to the future? While it's quite generous of me to donate a copy of myself to all of you, it's still a copy. The original, me, still experiences death and ceases to exist.

When I go to sleep, then wake up, I feel that I am still me. Would it be the same with an uploaded mind? And would I still be me? I'm sure other people have been thinking about this, and in a much more rigorous fashion than I have. Am I the only one still worried about it?


@95 there would be 2 of you that would think they are "me". One would die, the other would be fine. This was explored by Robert Sawyer in "Mindscan", the movie "The Prestige" and Hofstadter & Dennett: "The Mind's I", to name just a few. Brin did a nice treatment in "Kiln People" where the split off versions reintegrate their memories with the primary.


If immortality or just real longevity were for sale.. there'd be a renaissance in daring political inhumation.

Imagine being stuck with creatures like Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi. Imagine Vladimir Putin, eternal president of Russia.

The fucks who live to accumulate power would just get better and better at it(while the 'voters' would be endlessly distracted by bread and circuses).. and I doubt people incapable of remorse or self-reflection would ever tire of the game.

@95. I'm sure mind uploading is against "human dignity", whatever that is. They haven't even bothered to condemn it, as it's not a near future possibility. (Kurzweil's predictions for 2029 will then seem like 1960's vision of 2000 to us now)


Harry @77: My grandfather is the same age as HMTQ (gawd bless 'er ;-) and he's still going strong with a whole lot less of the private doctors. And he's done a lot more physical work over his lifetime. HMTQ is a heavy smoker so she's pushing probability uphill with a point stick by now.

JvP: Physicists doing biology usually embarrass both themselves and real biologists... I'll stay out of the string theory, they can leave senescence alone.


Apologies, but my previous post vanished .... SLIGHTLY off-topic, but if we are talking about "repeat" brains, and maybe uploading as means of immortality, perhaps This news item about artificial brains being feasible SOON, might be relevant? ( Relates also to post #95 )


Immortality-via-medicine-curing-old-age and immortality-via-uploading are not even remotely the same things - its possible for a society to have both, but they have wastly diffrent social consequences and implications.


I'd suggest a friendly amendment to #98: "MANY Physicists doing biology usually embarrass both themselves and real biologists." But not all.

Then I asked myself: exactly whose honor am I defending?

Example: "What Is Life?", the non-fiction book on science for the lay reader written by physicist Erwin Schrödinger. One of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick, credited "What Is Life?" as a theoretical description, before the actual discovery of the structure of DNA (the existence of the molecule had been known for nearly 2 decades, but its role in reproduction and its helical shape had not even been guessed at this time), of how genetic storage would work and a source for inspiration for the initial research.

I await some other Nobel Laureate in Physics writing the book "What is Immortality?" and provoking the research that makes me ageless.


Posted by: Jez Weston "In the field I work in, there's certain professors who are stubborn enough to be derided as cranks, but they're still professors until they pop their clogs. So longer life will have to mean changes to academic career structures, whether through administrative reform or through a Discworld-style approach, whereby professors frequently seem to accidentally brutally stab themselves in the stomach while shaving."

I'd expect some sort of widespread serious life-extension tech to lead to the limiting of academic tenure to a (multi-decade) period of time.


I think nobody mentioned Jack Vance's "Clarges" yet. The size of the population is limited, so here one could take their chance to die naturally, or participate in the game to try to become first Brood, and via some intermediate steps Amaranth, who are immortal; but if you failed to reach the next stage you would be killed at a certain age.

Also, there is the concept of interstellar travel at extreme relativistic speeds, combined with immediate communication over any distance, resulting in people being in touch with their offspring of several generations hence, in Orson Scott Card's "Ender" series. As a variation, in Fredrick Pohl's "Gateway" series, (sorry this is a bit of a spoiler) someone realises someone else is falling into a black hole and still experiencing the moment of realisation (due to time dilation). Not exactly immortality but more infinitely delayed death.

Vampires can also get very old. The problems of that have also often been explored.

Then we have Captain Jack (Torchwood), who can't die, or rather, revives every time.

There was something else I thought of in the shower, but I forgot...


Aging is more likely not faulty genes at all, but rather an optimal balance between being around to nurture and teach our children, and getting out of the way and giving them their inheritance and access to the resources we were using. Darwin's theory would suggest that various other variations have sprung up, quite possibly including greater longevity, but people like us out-competed them.

That said, it'd be interesting to see how quickly greater longevity and other changes take hold if we ever do get to a cornucopia society and stop needing the previous generation's resources.


This was one of the concerns in Bruce Sterling's "Holy Fire". The protagonist was from a generation with very much extended lifespans that had lived through continuous upheaval and finally instituted a very cautious form of government. This generation was at least going to have the good grace to die some day. The younger characters thought themselves likely to be the first immortals.

At my university there is an institution called korner, consisting of a particular table in a certain cafe, and a variety of associated clubs and societies (science fiction club, role players, sca, you get the idea). University generations are much shorter than human generations, three or four years for a typical degree, and korner has survived many such generations.

I think it does so because it fulfills a need. If it were to cease to exist, something very similar to it would spring into existence almost immediately. That is, and I think this is common to many institutions, it is only to a small degree self-sustaining. Largely it continues to exist because the need for it continues to exist.


Rick @ 59:

Being eighty, I suspect that great longevity would induce boredom in career fields and (perhaps to a lesser degree) in hobbies and personal interests, so many people could be expected to switch around after a few decades, bringing a new or different outlook to whatever field they took up. (Probably this depends greatly on personality type, however -- I know plenty of people who seem to be perfectly content to just plod along for decades, leading lives I'd find insufferably boring. Their mental horizons are simply not broad.)

I must admit, and note, that my own level of Enthusiasm (for everything) appears to have decreased gradually but steadily since ... umm... either childhood or adolescence. I don't know if this is a physical thing, or a mental one, but (assuming that it's as common as I think) this probably needs to be considered when postulating a greatly-extended lifespan.

I suspect that there'd be no great shortage of risk-takers in an elite/wealthy-class long-lived society. They wouldn't gamble everything they have, most likely, but the example of present-world Very Wealthy People suggests that many people require only a certain level of security. Beyond that, they tend to be less cautious. And of course there are some people (including quite of lot of Celebrities) who apparently delight in taking dangerous risks.


Anthony @104: unfortunately for that argument, senescence and ageing effects only cut in once you're passed reproductive age. Unless traits associated with the senescence process confer an evolutionary advantage on the pre-reproductive-age individual, there doesn't seem to be any direct way for senescence to be selected for. Moreover, the "getting out of the way and giving them their inheritance and access to the resources we were using" argument contains a thinly-disguised appeal to group selection, which is not uncontroversial.


unfortunately for that argument, senescence and ageing effects only cut in once you're passed reproductive age.

Thousands of bald, short-sighted men in their thirties and forties would disagree with you.

Unless traits associated with the senescence process confer an evolutionary advantage on the pre-reproductive-age individual, there doesn't seem to be any direct way for senescence to be selected for.

It's not impossible that this could happen - for example, testosterone causes increased aggression and muscle development at the expense of the immune system, shortening life expectancy. More likely is that deleterious mutations which don't kick in until your sixties don't affect reproductive success, and thus aren't selected out.

Moreover, the "getting out of the way and giving them their inheritance and access to the resources we were using" argument contains a thinly-disguised appeal to group selection, which is not uncontroversial.

No, it doesn't - because you're getting out of the way of your own offspring, who carry your genes. This sort of behaviour actually exists, in its most extreme form among female spiders who allow themselves to be eaten by their offspring.


Charlie@107, but Anthony's conjecture works if the ephemeral genotype leads to more grandchildren than the methuselah genotype. Inclusive selection is much more firmly grounded within evolutionary theory than group selection.

Regards Luke


JVP @ 101 - Francis Crick himself, of course, had been a physicist at one stage, and involved in designing magnetic and acoustic mines during the war, before turning to biology.


Late to the party, but I'm not sure duration is the proper measurement, if you're looking at the number of people a given institution has affected. The total number of humans that have ever lived is estimated to have been between 50 to 105+ billion. (I know a lot of people's intuitions on this forum are likely have been shaped by Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld or Twain's Captain Stormfield, so this might seem low. But it's really because the world was much more sparsely settled in the past.)

Let's call it 100 billion. Over six billion, and probably closer to ten billion, were born into a recognizably modern world. That's ten percent of human history as it's been lived.

Normalizing human population as constant from its origin -- let's use 200 kiloyears -- that would be twenty thousand years of people doing modern stuff: time clocks, barbed wire, phone calls, canned peas.

There are other corollaries. About one percent of everyone who has ever lived has been American, as in lived under the Constitution American. That's the time-averaged equivalent of a 2000-year-old global civilization.

Anyway. The very good literary critic and occasional BYTE columnist Hugh Kenner once described Western civilization as a mechanism to keep Homer in print. At a guess that's affected a fifth of all humans who have ever lived, for better or worse.


Civilisation isn't that old. Proto-dynastic Egypt started about 3100-3000 BCE Scorpion I, Scorpion II and Narmer Early Dynastic Sumer started about 2900 BCE. It looks like GraffitiTim was quoting a date in BP (before present originally used for radiocarbon dating now widespread in archaeology) and thought it was BCE the year defined as the present in the BP scale is 1 January 1950 CE. Which means that the Egyptian and Sumerian civilisations did start at about 5000 BP.

This means that the oldest extant office, that of Pontifex Maximus which dates back to about 500 BCE and is now attached to the papacy has existed for about half of recorded history.


Oldest commercial organisation extant (I thought) was the Hudson's Bay Company.... But, oops, wrong!

Wiki says otherwise - they a list of the oldest companies that are still extant, supposedly.

One interesting thing - there's a lot of BREWERIES in that list.


Greg: it's obviously the marmite factor at work!


You could argue that the Catholic church and the Roman empire didn't last for a millenium either. The church of 1000 AD was very different from when it was founded, and also very different from that of 2000 AD, both in terms of organisation and practice, and in at least some of its beliefs. The Roman empire too was only founded about 2000 years ago, changed beyond recognition in the first 300 years, and the Byzantine fragment of it changed a great deal - again - between then and 1000 AD and between 1000 AD and when it was finally destroyed. The only real constant in such supposedly long-lived institutions seems to be the name.


Re Jonathan Vos Post @66, 19: Colour me extremely sceptical about vague reports of alleged translations of unidentified Tibetan texts, especially ones which make very unlikely-seeming claims.

Certainly Hindu cosmology deals with very long periods of time. Wikipedia has more on this, some of which reminds me of Pythagoras' delightful The Sand Reckoner. There's a childish delight in inventing very large numbers when one first grasps the notion of mathematical infinity - see also the word "googolplex", and the absurdity of the notion of a "very large number" - but I think R.A.Lafferty outdid even the Hindu ancients in "Been a Long, Long Time" (a stone cube one light-year across; every thousand years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it...).

But the idea that any ancient astronomers could have observed galactic rotation is a remarkable claim, and therefore it requires remarkable evidence.

I'll ask a friend of mine who reads this blog and knows Sanskrit (etc) whether he has anything to add.


Did I write Pythagoras? Of course I mean Archimedes. What a doofus.


What is to be done indeed. Governments will adapt. Laws will be passed limiting how much "immortals" can get involved. With luck we'll have the capability to colonize other planets. Immortals will still get bored with their 100 year hobbies, and pick up new ones. Hopefully things will progress along the likes of Peter Hamilton's Commonwealth universe books (Misspent Youth,Pandora's Star,Judas Unchained, The Dreaming Void,The Temporal Void,The Evolutionary Void) though without the alien invasions, etc. The older folks among us will eventually find their consciousness downloaded/uploaded to virtual environments. (hopefully we'll realize that breakthrough)


@107, 108, 109: you're drawing the fairly long bow that people lived long enough to get "old" (as we understand it), throughout most of human evolution. I know some people in hunter-gatherer societies lived to a ripe old age, but did the average person? The modern selective landscape is rather different from that which shaped us.


The George Bernard Shaw story is absolutely astonishing, devastating, it could have been written tomorrow.

That's one more piece of the Heinlein puzzle I was looking for. Thank you.

When you read through Back to Methuselah also think Star Trek:TOS, and the works of Poul Anderson.

"Millions dream of immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon." - Susan Ertz


Most politicians are older than 50, some are late 60s early 70s. John Mcain would have turned 80 within his first term as president.

Considering age related cognitive decline begins before your 40 and drops like a stone after 60, we may see a improvement in the world is run having leaders that are more mentally fit and aren't sure they'll be retired in a decade and a dead decade after (and thus feathering their pockets before they cut and run). With a indefinte life span, or at least no definitive age at which you'd ever be unfit for work... why retire?

Just how might our views change if we knew we would be alive to see the long term ramifications of our decisions right now? If we were sure we had a good chance to live to see 2100 or 2200, we just might do something about climate change. Just how far ahead would we be thinking? The world today can't see much past the next financial quarter than a few years. IMHO, longevity reseach is important to our planet's survival. Ray Kurzweil for president!


womprat @121: Most politicians are older than 50 -- only in your nation.

(Over here in the UK, we had the leader of an opposition party hounded into retirement for being "too old" at 61 -- he'd have been 63 at the next election. We've only had one prime minister over 65 in the past seventy years, IIRC; the electorate made an exception for Winston Churchill in the 1950s, but generally prefer someone young and energetic.)

The question of why the USA is a gerontocracy these days is rather interesting in its own right, but you shouldn't extrapolate from a sample of one (nation) to the state of humanity in general.

(Aside from that, I take your point about cognitive decline and the effect of politicians knowing they'd live to see the long-term consequences of their decisions.)

Carlos @111: that's a really valuable insight; time-normalized population as a metric, rather than strict duration, yes. I like that. However: About one percent of everyone who has ever lived has been American, as in lived under the Constitution American. That's the time-averaged equivalent of a 2000-year-old global civilization. Is a US citizen from 1790 equivalent to a US citizen from 1990? What about the slaves? Yes, applying time-averaging means that we can wave a magic wand and marginalize the pre-1870 population -- but as someone else noted, the Roman Empire at year 300 was radically different from the Roman Empire at year 1.


@120: I've always scoffed at that quote. The entire POINT of a rainy Sunday afternoon is to enjoy not knowing what to do with oneself!

It is the ultimate hang time. You can quite happily get away with putting your feet up on the couch and falling asleep under a Heinlein novel.

Immortality would give us all time to work out the problems attached to immortality.


Russell Dovey @ 123: "Immortality would give us all time to work out the problems attached to immortality."

And the fraction of people who would actually do so is?


Daniel@ 46 "...over the course of 120 years your odds of meeting an angry chav with a knife go way up."

High probability then of long lifespan societies becoming very, very intolerant of chavs. Draconian criminal codes from the reasonably likely to the extreme: wearing a hoodie becomes a capital offence?

More seriously: how would persistent criminals be dealt with, esp. violent ones?

And how would such a society react to the rise of an "edgy" subculture among the young?


I don't believe that we are "fully optimized" for long life. The evolutionary driving force for life extension drops with age, as the chances that our ancestors would survive to procreate in later life were small even absent senescence. And there may be a kin-selection driving force for death, in the sense that there may be an age at which (in Darwinian terms) it becomes better to invest family resources in the kids than the elders (who are gradually going to accumulate impairments from injury and disease)--in which case dying off helps to propagate your genes.

There are also some very suspicious observations. The life-extending effect of calorie restriction, for example, or the fact that dogs and cats start to develop arthritis after a dozen years or so. Are their joints really inferior to ours? Do they really put that much more stress on them? Same for organ diseases. And how come some birds live nearly as long as we do?



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