The idea of people living considerably longer than their currently allotted lives is a recurring theme in science fiction. In fact for many its more than a theme, it is a bedrock assumption, a given. And by longer I mean hundreds and even thousands of years. As a science fiction writer I am also using this in my soon to be published books. Now maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but as a scientist, a zoologist, I ask myself 1)is it really possible? and 2) why do we age in the first place?
I got hooked by science fiction when I was at university, studying zoology. And as a zoology student you are opened up to the wonders of life. Now at one point we were introduced to the squid, which is a fascinating animal. The squid’s eye is a prime example of convergent evolution. The squid (and octopus etc.) is a mollusc and its eye and the mammalian eye are almost the same despite evolving independently. Sorry, I digress, but bear with me. The next thing we learnt was that it also has a well developed brain, learns quickly and can be trained. Fine you’re saying, but so what. Well its capacity to learn and develop in that sense is limited by its short lifespan, about two or three years. As a student I thought, what’s the point in that? That’s like nature being wasteful, not normally something you can accuse nature of.
Then, while I was at college Richard Dawkins published the selfish gene. The basic premise is that once we, or any animal have passed on its genes to the next generation and raised them (if that, as a species is something you do) to sexual maturity then you have served your purpose. It’s the genes survival, not you as an individual that counts. A bit brutal I know. Essentially, we are all genetically programmed to age and die once we have performed that function. As we get older our cells becomes less and less efficient at reproducing themselves.
Many believe it doesn’t have to be that way, that aging should be looked at as a disease and therefore potentially treatable. I know this is a gross over simplification but for me as a science fiction writer the assumption is that a ‘cure’ will be found. That living for hundreds or even thousands of years is a distinct possibility.
Given the pace of medical science advancement some (many?) believe that ‘cure’ may only be a few generations away. Too late for me, I know, which is a shame as I rather fancy being around to see what wonders we’ll come up with in the next few hundred years. Yes, I know there are those that think the human race is heading for a self inflicted disaster, but I’m more optimistic. I believe we humans have the ability and ingenuity to overcome almost anything. The big question then of course is what impact will individuals living for hundreds and thousands of years have on society, the human race and the individuals concerned?
Now this is turning into a much bigger topic than I first thought, hence the ‘part 1’ in the title. In the next part I’ll explore my, science fiction, view of the impact of that extended life.
As usual I’d love to hear your views.