Granny’s Having Twins

Interesting item in the paper the other day. Our intrepid science researchers are working on extending the life span of humans to 200 years and more, roughly three times our current allotted time. Cool, you might say at first glance. I mean, nobody wants to die and some people go to great lengths to take care of their health and fitness to extend their lives. Imagine instead of our current seventy or eighty years, getting another hundred and change on top of that.

Think of all we could do, all the places we could see. Think of how good people could become at what they do with 150 years experience. Imagine a great artist with a 180-year career. Or an inventor like Thomas Edison working steadily for 120 years. What about the next Albert Einstein being at the height of his mental powers for over a hundred years? What mysteries of the universe could that thinker unravel for the benefit of mankind? The next Shakespeare, Dickens or Hemingway could bring the art of writing to a whole new level of insight and imagination. Imagine the splendor and majesty of Beethoven’s 40th symphony, or Spielberg’s 85th film. Think how we can now live through several ages of history in a single lifetime.

Well, think again. This is a BAD idea. Nowhere in any of the articles on the topic did it mention that people will be changed in any regard except length of life. We won’t be any more intelligent or wise, just younger for longer. People will still grow and reach maturity on the same timetable as today, able to reproduce in their teens. Normally a woman can bear children for about a thirty-year period, ending somewhere in her forties. Extend that to her late nineties or more, and you’re looking at a huge population that just won’t die. You think the malls are crowded now?

Also, your grandmother can have children younger than her great-grandchildren, and how weird is that? What will happen to the nuclear and extended family groupings that humanity has developed over the ages with which we identify so strongly? Who can see even the most devoted of spouses staying married for 175 years? Talk about getting on one another’s nerves.

And what about lay-about sons and daughters who seem to take forever to get out on their own and start their own lives? I can hear it now: “You’re 72 years old, still living with Mom and Dad. Get a job already! Do something with your life.” Hell, if you know you’re going to live to be 200, what’s the rush? Seventy year old surf bums and ne’er-do-wells might be commonplace. They won’t be able to extend schooling to age thirty or forty because as I said, people won’t be all of a sudden smarter and a 25-year old will still be an adult. I’d hate to be that 25-year old, though, trying to break into the job market even with a graduate degree, and competing with workers with 100 or more years of experience. And just exactly when will social security kick in? A hundred and sixty five? Man, that’s too long of a career at anything. Perhaps multiple careers will be the norm.

But what about poor people? 200 years is a really long time to be poor, and there’s always a goodly supply of poor people in every age. Or athletes. Will some guy some day hit 2,500 home runs simply because he had a seventy year career in baseball? After that, he’s still got 100 more years as an ex-baseball player and there are only so many announcing jobs available and just so many sports-related products to be endorsed. Worst of all, imagine being a guy sentenced to life in prison. Boy, would that suck.

Will men still lose their hair at about 40 or so? 160 years is a long time to be bald. Most important of all, have the intrepid science folks considered the human memory? How many megabytes of memory does a human being have? Nobody knows, but it seems to be just the right amount for a shorter life span than we currently enjoy. Nobody today remembers anything before age 3 or so, and to most of us with a few miles on us, all of childhood itself seems a dim and fading mist.

So, with 200 years to live and only so much brain space, perhaps our first 25 years will be lost in the memory banks, like some huge infancy. That would wipe out memories of our entire childhood, our education, and perhaps a first marriage and the bearing of a first child. People today in their seventies, eighties, and nineties are usually very forgetful indeed. It’s part of being old. So, with a 200-year life span and a 65-year memory capacity, there’s going to be a lot of blank stares on those ageless faces. These science guys and gals, as usual, haven’t really thought this thing through.

Sort of like the Y2K deal. Remember that? Seems they forgot to tell computers about the upcoming change in centuries back in 1999 and it took a lot of hard work to avert a worldwide crash of computers when the year turned 2000. I know this because my brother John was one of those people who solved the problem of allowing for the calendar we’ve been using since Pope Gregory dreamed it up 500 years or so ago. Ruined his New Year’s Eve plans, that’s for sure, having to be on duty just in case the whole system went ka-blooey.

Not that there was anything he or anyone else could have done about it if it happened, except maybe start from scratch building computers that were aware of the calendar. Hell, even my pizza shop gives me a new calendar every year. Do pizza guys have more foresight than our erudite scientists? It would seem so. Or maybe their memories are already overtaxed from all that brain-busting deep thought.

But even if one’s memory does last longer with an eternally youthful body, don’t the scientists realize they’ll have to wear long white coats and play with test tubes in a laboratory for the next 150 years? And it will be a long, long time before you get promoted when your superiors won’t retire for 110 more years. That big desk in the corner office gets farther and farther away, especially if your boss is only 25 years older than you.

Can you imagine a friendship lasting 200 years? Me neither. There would be no such question as “So, what’s new?” after about 80 or 90 years, then the fist fights would start and you’d drift apart. And back to the family thing, how many great-great-great-great grandchildren can anyone keep track of? They don’t make photo albums that big. How much will family mean to any of us when your family contains 900 members of direct-lineage.

Every wedding would have to be held in an arena to fit in everybody and their spouses and kids and the hundreds of friends you would make in a very long life. Judging by how well people of today keep track of first and second cousins, I’ve got to believe that the family as we know it will cease to exist. You could have a brother 60 years younger than yourself, so you’re at least 80 before he starts having kids of his own, your nieces and nephews. Then maybe you decide to have another kid or two with your ninth wife when you’re 110 and the whole system is shot to hell.

The linear progression of our family units will disintegrate, and that’s not just a social phenomenon, it’s a bone-basic, species-identity issue, a huge part of what makes a being human. Do scientists think they can convince bears not to hibernate and salmon not to swim upstream to get devoured by those hungry bears?

The general order of things as they are today is not something that came about because some scientist applied a new technology to the human race. The order of life is something that has developed over the millennia and doubtless will continue to develop at nature’s own tortoise pace. We are not the end product any more than the hunter-gatherers of past ages were the end product, merely part of life’s rich pageant in this place and time.

Who knows, perhaps someday people will live for 200 years, 300 years, a thousand. If that does occur it will happen over the course of eons and be imperceptible to individual generations of men. For anyone to attempt to artificially lengthen life spans threefold in a single generation is to try to play God. At least He allegedly has a plan. Science tends to do its handiwork now and worry about the consequences later, when it’s too late.

Human life spans have increased very slightly over the past several centuries, due primarily to better nutrition, sanitary conditions and medical science. We still enjoy basically the same Biblical “three score and ten” years of our ancient counterparts.

A human being that lives for 200 years is not a human being as we currently define ourselves. Our lives and priorities are what they are because we are what we are. Would a long-lifer be willing to take the risks that need to be taken in order to affect progress that have characterized the history of humanity?

Why risk all when you already have the gift of 200 years of life and health? That’s a lot to lose. Long observation of commerce, sports, love and war has taught men that those who play it safe are usually left by the wayside. Risk and danger can bring great rewards and great advances. Would Christopher Columbus or Neil Armstrong haven taken the giant steps they took on behalf of us all if they risked losing 160 years of living? Would an entire generation of valiant young soldiers have risked their lives to stop Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini?

Academic questions, sure, but valid ones. Here’s another: How many human beings can the planet support? Probably any number, but at what level of subsistence? The earth at various times has supported countless trillions of plants, and an ice-sheet a mile thick. Trees and glaciers, however, don’t spend a lot of time worrying about overcrowding and quality of life. People certainly do. We need space and we need food and we need fuel and clothing and shelter and there’s only so much available here.

We’re already pushing the envelope regarding living space and drinkable water now with our short lives. Factor in triple life spans and who knows what will happen here on Earth. Murder, suicides, food riots, living space wars? Who knows? Maybe even mass insanity from being artificially altered as a species. Can evolution be rushed by skipping a couple of steps? I’m no scientist but basic logic tells me no process can advance without following the step-by-step procedures. You can’t build an attic before you build the first floor, otherwise the whole house comes down in a heap of rubble.

Not that the Earth is in any danger from man, only that man is in danger from man. So we blow a hole in the ozone layer, the planet doesn’t suffer, only man and our fellow species that prowl the face of this rock. Other species have vanished before and the world just kept on spinning and orbiting the sun right on schedule, oblivious to who was or wasn’t along for the ride. Quite possibly the size of our planet, the precise timing of its journey around the sun and its 24-hour spin cycle have had a lot to do with our size and shape and length of life. Perhaps altering any of these things will usher the age of humanity to the exit of extinction. We don’t know. If that happens, others will develop and replace us. Hopefully they’ll have the wisdom to take what’s given them and make the best of it.

I’m not one of those don’t-mess-with-God’s-creation guys. I think we’ve been given the brains we have to use them, and this is a good time to use them. Science has done wonderful things for humanity, and some pretty rotten things. It’s all part of the game, win some, lose some. Cure for Polio, good. Nuclear bombs, bad. Dialysis machines, good. Love Canal, bad.

And so it goes. In general, when a technology becomes possible, it is applied. Humans will be cloned, and probably quite soon, despite any laws to the contrary. I have no problem with that as long as nobody thinks they own their clone, although the theological debates touched off by the announcement of the first clone birth will be world-shaking. Again, I believe anyone’s idea of  a God would not have given man the ability to discover and apply scientific advances if He didn’t wish us to, but I think He’d expect us to be judicious in their application.

At least think about their future ramifications, something science has almost never done. Would they think it wise to make the next generation of humans thirty feet tall, just because it was possible? Or two feet tall, to conserve space? I doubt it. That would be tampering with our physiology and perhaps result in something other than human beings.

Smart as we are, we have no way of knowing the results of such experiments. Same with the lifespan thing. There’s no shortage of human problems for science researchers to tackle. How about trying to extend the life spans of the sick children among us? Or increasing the yield of our farms to feed the starving people all over the world? Before we add billions of long-living people who will eat and drink and breathe three times the resources that we do, consider that.

If you are afraid to die, you are afraid to live. Human beings need challenges. We thrive on adventure. That is a huge part of what makes us human. Can anyone recall a riveting story told in any medium about playing it safe and preserving the status quo? Neither can I. Our greatest heroes, both real and fictional, have always been bold risk-takers who defied life and defied death and accomplished the seemingly impossible by their personal force of will, intelligence and courage.

I don’t believe people with 200 years ahead of them will be daring or heroic, merely cautious and prudent. The cautious and prudent have never written history and never will. Scientists, find something else to do. Preferably something daring, exciting and useful.

Copyright 2007 R.R. Crespo

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