Could Public Opposition to Life Extension become Lethal?

I have managed to find 3 polls querying people on their attitudes towards radical life extension. By far the most comprehensive one is PEW’s August 2013 Living to 120 and Beyond project. The other two are a poll of CARP members, a Canadian pro-elderly advocacy group, and by Russia’s Levada Center. While PEW and Levada polled a representative sample of their respective populations, the average age of the CARP respondents was about 70 years.

On the surface, public opinion is not supportive of life extension. 38% of Americans want to live decades longer, to at least 120, while 56% are opposed; 51% think that radical life extension will be a bad thing for society. Only 19% of CARP responents would like to take advantage of these treatments, and 55% think they are bad for society. Though a somewhat higher percentage of Russians, at 32%, want to live either “several times longer” or “be immortal” – as opposed to 64% who only want to live a natural lifespan – their question is phrased more positively, noting that “youth and health” would be preserved under such a scenario.

For now, these figures are a curiosity. But should radical life extension cease being largely speculative and move into the realm of practical plausibility – Aubrey de Grey predicts it will happen as soon as middle-aged mice are rejuvenated so as to extent their lifespans by a few factors – public opinion will start playing a vital role. It would be exceedingly frustrating – literally lethal, even – should the first promising waves of life extension break upon the rocks of politicians pandering to the peanut gallery. This is a real danger in a democracy.

Still, there are three or four strong arguments for optimism in those same polls:

First, while people may not want to live much longer themselves, their pro-death sentiment isn’t as strong towards relatives; 44% of Russians want their family members to live factors longer, versus only 32% for themselves. Americans and Canadians both assume that while they might not want radical life extension for themselves, the majority of their countrymen would. And there is widespread support for research. 63% of Americans agree that “medical advances that prolong life are generally good”; there is no identifiable line that separates those advances from radical life extension itself. 45% of Russians would support a social movement advocating for radical life extension, whereas only 33% wouldn’t.

Second, the younger demographics appear to be more supportive of radical life extension. While 48% of American 18-29 year olds think treatments to extend life by decades would be a good thing for society, the sentiment is shared by only 31% of 65+ year olds. Though the gap in personal preferences for radical life extension is much lower – 40% for 18-29 year olds versus 31% for 65+ year olds – this could partially be a reflection of young people in their 20′s thinking that they are virtually immortal anyway. This is of relevance because by the time we can feasibly approach actuarial escape velocity, the vast majority of present day 65+ year olds will likely be already dead. So their fatalism, you can say, is not an irrational sentiment. (Unless they make arrangements for cryopreservation, but this is a digression).

Third, it appears that a significant chunk of the opposition is motivated by mistaken ideas of what radical life extension is about. To be honest, I’m not a fan of the term. It gives some the impression that they’d continue aging indefinitely, slowly becoming a withered, creaking husk of their former selves. Like in those countless tales and fables where an immortality wish is granted, only for its recipient to become a ghost, or a crazy evil old man, or a metal statue. The reality is that radical life extension, in practice, means rejuvenation, or at least “freezing” the patient at one specific age. Ironically, eking out a few more years of substandard life is what the bulk of modern medical research is about. Medical research that the vast majority of people everywhere approve of. Radical life extension research, to the contrary, is mostly about identifying the aging processes, actively repairing the damage, and eventually mitigating them through genomic interventions. This is a very important distinction that was only made in the Russian poll. In contrast, one of the big two worries of elderly Canadians – apart from resource shortages and overcrowding – was that they would outlive their savings of human life was to be radically extended. This entire point is moot because if and when we pass the actuarial event horizon, the human clock will start ticking backwards and there would no longer be any need for pensions.

Finally, Americans who heart a lot or a little about radical life extension were more likely, at 45%, to say they would undergo such treatments than were people who hadn’t heard anything about it, at 32%. However, this point is weaker than the others, because presumably people who have at some point idly wondered if they could live forever would have been more likely to go Googling and stumbled across all that SENS  and H+ stuff in the first place.

Comments

  1. I find it really strange when i ask my friends if they would like to stay young forever and even add that they can suicide whenever they want most of them say no(and all of them are atheists) And they give all sorts of strange reasons for that, But then when i ask them what if they had some fatal cancer and they have one year to live would they like to cure it and unsurprisingly they all answer yes, And then i ask so when you will be 90 and you will know that soon you will die what is the difference between that and the cancer situation? and of course then they all answer the usual strange explanations which all leads to your argument “this could partially be a reflection of young people in their 20′s thinking that they are virtually immortal anyway” .

    Personally since i remember myself i always wanted to live forever and always hoped that when i will be older the technology will be available and i still do. and i really hope that the mainstream idea in this period will be for life extension rather then against as it is right now.

    my only question about the subject is wont we have a massive overpopulation in a really short period after people will start extending their lives? i know that the current demographic trends show that earth’s population will reach a maximum number in the current century and then will start to decline(even afro Americans and Iranian have low TFR) but if significant percent of the population will extend their lives then where they are all going to live? if we are talking about 2050-2100 then massive space colonization will still be in the future and people of 2050-2100 would want to live forever now and not one year later.

    • my only question about the subject is wont we have a massive overpopulation in a really short period after people will start extending their lives?

      I think this is one of the very few valid criticisms of RLE.

      Presumably, if the death rate plummets to near zero, while women’s reproductive years expand indefinitely – presumably this is what will happen if biological ages are reset to young adulthood – then the present-day population growth slowdown could drastically reverse itself. This effect will if anything be most pronounced in rich countries that are currently in demographic stagnation.

      Short of mind uploading/”dematerialization” scenarios, there WILL have to be fertility restrictions – a One Child Policy per reproductive pair. This will limited consequent population expansion to a doubling, aka 15-20 billion people.

      Unfortunately, this brings to the fore a variety of other social neuroses, linked to population control that is associated with “bads” like eugenics and totalitarianism and whatnot.

  2. If immortality becomes reality, a virtual feudalsim is created due to some people holding the best positions in society forever since there is no retirement anymore. Young people will never have change to move up social ladder.

    If death tax intended for feudalism, there is might be longevity tax on certain age or term limit for any privilege positions to increase social mobiltiy.

    Certainly immortals are relatives. We all gonna die some day by chance of accidents, war, plane crash, ect if not dying of old age. Birth control should become law to prevent overpopulation. Birth guota only is given when there is plane load of people killed. Violent death is only form of death since natural aging death is eliminated.

  3. One of my more ‘out there’ imaginings is that humanity has reached some historic level such as life extension, and that it is hidden from us regular folks because of the society-level problems that would arise. This line of speculation also applies to things like intelligence enhancement or time travel.

    If I discovered life extension, would I share it public, knowing it would ruin the planet I must live on from overpopulation or would I just keep it close to the vest?

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