Have you ever played Rise of the Tomb Raider? If not, no worries, there are plenty of examples of what I’m about to talk about in other media. Anyway, in this specific game the main character of Lara Croft talks about a MacGuffin that can unlock the secrets of immortality for humankind, talking about how it would change everything, stop sickness and disease, and all the usual nonsense people think up in these situations.
So let’s think for a moment about why this line of thinking is naïve and catastrophically flawed. First, yes, the basic premise Lara is discussing here is correct; a fountain of youth or other immortality device would have the potential to change the world and, more appropriately, humankind. But for the better?
Hardly. It’s true that a variety of human maladies could feasibly be either eradicated or heavily improved by something like this, but given humanity’s bloody and unpleasant history, do you honestly believe this is the outcome we could expect?
The very second people got wind of a panacea of this nature, there’d be instant riots and civil unrest as people claw and beat and kill their way to the top of the pile, hoping to be the one to capitalise on such a wonder treatment for the human condition. Those with power would suppress those without, and they’d fight anyone else with power in order to fully restrict who had access to this miracle medicine (i.e. no one but them).
But let’s say for sake of argument that the governments of the world came together in a spirit of cooperation and refined a new drug to grant immortality and immunity to all disease. How would that go?
First, no one would die any more, except as a result of accident (I’ll get to that in a moment). Overcrowding of the planet would accelerate exponentially and birth controls would have to be mandated and forced on the whole population of the planet. No new births means absolute cultural stagnation as no new people, and therefore no new ideas, are born.
Unless the drug works to actively reverse aging, elderly people would be stuck as elderly people, with the choice being to either live with whatever debilitating problems they have as a result of their age, or to simply die while everyone else lives on forever.
Children would probably never grow up since a degree of aging in their cells is necessary for this development to occur. Therefore they’d have to be ineligible for the drug until they mature to the necessary degree (probably around 25 years, as that’s roughly when the brain stops developing). Which means all our children and young adults would be susceptible to disease, suffering, and death, and would therefore have to be protected… coddled, in fact.
And then there are the aforementioned accidents. Living forever sounds nice if you don’t stop to think about it at all. The vampire Lestat once said:
There comes a time for every vampire when the idea of eternity becomes momentarily unbearable. Living in the shadows, feeding in the darkness with only your own company to keep, rots into a solitary, hollow existence. Immortality seems like a good idea, until you realise you’re going to spend it alone.
That’s bad enough for a vampire. But what happens if you’re a regular human and wreck your car, losing a leg? Does this drug allow for the regrowth of full limbs? Probably not. So where does that leave you? Living for potentially decades or even centuries without that limb, at least until technology advanced sufficiently to replace it… but would that even happen when there’s very little real pressure for technology to be developed any more?
Would the drug reverse the effects of, let’s say for example, sclerosis of the liver? Would you even be able to get drunk any longer? Or would the miracle drug that stops aging also interfere with other, normal functions of the human body, such as intoxication?
Lara talks about this potential cure for humanity’s frailties in the most naïve terms possible, which is entirely fair, she’s new to this whole adventuring lark and is still pretty young. It’s a good character flaw. Wishing for things isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing, but as with all wishes it’s best to be careful exactly what you wish for. It’s not necessarily going to turn out how you expected.
More to the point, there’s recently been more breakthroughs in tackling the issue of reversing cell ageing. Who knows, one day in the near future, we might actually have to ask ourselves the questions raised in this post.