Esquire, May 1999 v131 i5 p84(1) by Edward O. Wilson.
WE’RE ON THE VERGE OF BECOMING the first species to decide its own evolution. Scientists are within five years of getting a complete readout of the 5.6 billion genetic letters in the human genome, and soon after, they’ll have a complete genetic map of the eighty thousand or so genes these letters compose. So genetic engineering to increase longevity is on the near horizon. Right now we’re in a narrow window of concern where the aim is to eliminate genetic disease, to correct the thousands of genes that cause hereditary defects. That should be the first goal of biomedical science, because it will eliminate an immense amount of suffering. But keep in mind that the possibility to enhance genetic traits in normal genes comes quickly behind.
These gene therapies will add up, statistically, to longer life spans. Take, for example, one of the main causes of death in America: heart disease. We know a certain percentage of heart disease is due to hereditary elevation of blood cholesterol to abnormal levels. A whole class of genes that cause increased lipids and imbalances of various kinds, low and high, of lipodensity are under continuous study. Ultimately, we’ll get significant life extension simply by spotting and treating certain genotypes: You recognize a tendency, you correct it through gene therapy, either at the level of early genetic regulation or with changes in the genes themselves, and you wind up adding–statistically, at least–decades of longevity.
We’ll be able to extend life by working at two levels. One, of course, is the phenotypic–you jog, you avoid bad foods, and that gives you maybe five years–and then there is the genotypic, correcting your genetic tendency toward building up plaques or having weak arterial walls or whatever. That’s the way longevity is likely to increase. There won’t be any magic change in one or a small number of genes. Progress will be a gradual advance by better lifestyle and small genetic changes to correct serious genetic defects.
If life expectancies wind up being significantly extended–say, by twenty or fifty or a hundred years–the consequences will be enormous. The first thing people will have to do is virtually stop having children. In order to keep the population from exploding, people will have to cut clown drastically on the number of children they have or face the severe effects of space and resource depletion. Who will be allowed to have babies? If you extend life to 150 or more years, and especially if you expand the reproductive period of women, then society will have some very hard choices to make. There will have to be some kind of policy to prevent explosive population growth. The old taboos will have to be discarded in favor of realism. We’re already approaching the Malthusian wall in terms of how much life the planet can sustain. Arable-land and water supplies per capita are dropping worldwide in what appear to be irreversible trajectories. So the ecological implications of extended life expectancy are quite serious and will need to be addressed precisely as individual health is improved. We may reach a point when it becomes a high privilege to be able to have a child or to provide the DNA for a new child. And rarely would you be able to participate in that lottery or win it, because everyone would be of comparable age, in the early decades at least.
The species is likely to end up with people who have the physical capabilities of teenagers but who are culturally, educationally, and emotionally aged. It’s likely to be a very conservative culture, one in which those who have survived and enjoyed longevity extension have a very high level of security guaranteed by their own activities. They won’t be revolutionaries. They won’t be bold entrepreneurs or explorers who risk their lives. They’re not going to throw away any intimation of physical immortality. It’s too precious a gift. What would it mean to have healthy, physically young bodies–and aging minds? With certainty, at the very least, a very different civilization.
Harvard would probably stop giving tenure.
“I see no reason why humanity and the species as a whole cannot be immortal, at least until the last reachable stars die.” Encouraging words, especially from someone as distinguished as Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard, recipient of the National Medal of Science, and winner of two Pulitzer prizes. Unfortunately, according to Wilson, immortality may not be such a good thing. In “A World of Immortal Men” (page 84), Wilson, the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books, including Consilience, discusses the severe overcrowding and resource depletion that would occur on a planet where the average life span was 150 years. Given such a
world, would Wilson want to live to be 1507 . “If body and mind were whole and active, yes, I’d want to live that long,” says Wilson, who is finishing a detailed study of 630 species of ants as part of his continuing efforts to promote biodiversity. “I mean, after all, there’s always suicide as an option.”