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Kirby: The problem with prolonged lifespan

Published February 6, 2013 12:09 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I subscribe to a number of scientific periodicals. Reading them doesn't make me smarter. Quite the contrary. Most of the time I have no idea what they're talking about.

But occasionally these periodicals make me think. And as anyone forced to associate with me will tell you, nothing good can come from that.

In the March issue (yeah, I know it's still February) of Discover magazine is an article by Steven Kotler on how human beings are continuing to evolve — but now at a fantastically accelerated rate.

When people think about evolution, we tend to focus on appearances. For example, man went from a slope-shouldered, supra-orbital browed creature named Oog, to the more (even if only slightly) alert and articulate guy we know today as Brad.

If human beings were continuing to evolve along that model, then we'd have to factor in things like our addiction to computer and TV screens. In another 1,000 years our eyes should be closer together again, and we'll have bicep-size muscles in our thumbs.

Ten thousand years of immediate gratification and our careers and long-term relationships will be measured by days instead of lifetimes.

But as Kotler points out, the current form of human evolution is much more subtle than that. And we're doing it on purpose.

When human beings first emerged 200,000 years ago, our lifespan was just 20 years. By 1900 — thanks to cleaner water, better nutrition, pasteurization, etc. — the human lifespan had more than doubled to 44 years.

Here's the cool part: In just the past 100 years, our longevity has nearly doubled again. At 80 years we're living four times as long as our ancient ancestors.

This prolonged lifespan is all thanks to our ability to think up ways to make ourselves safer, ironically while simultaneously inventing world-obliterating %#@$ such as nuclear weapons.

If the current rate of longevity continues, in another 50 years we'll be living to the ripe old age of … um … hell, I don't know. Round it off to 300.

We'll be doing this by the newest technology of all — the ability to tinker with our own genetics. It won't be long before we're fixing everything that's wrong with us by stopping it from happening in the first place.

Even better, we'll be able to shop for our babies. Not the actual babies … well, OK, the actual babies. You'll be able to order (probably online) eyes, hair, skin tone and even mental acuity for your baby.

While this sounds great, it isn't. Unlike natural selection, better is a relative term to human beings. When left to our own devices (as opposed to nature's) we've never gotten anything entirely right.

Hey, it's one thing for a normal person to order up a healthy baby with dimples and a great smile, and another thing for a Hollywood celebrity to do it. The last thing we need are babies equal part Goth, rapper and purple ferret.

But it's the longevity part that scares me the most. I can't imagine why anyone in his right mind would want to live to be 500 years old.

Maybe that's the problem. In 200,000 years, we've never been entirely in our right minds.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.




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