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The Methuselah Dividend: Introduction
"To build the future you want, you must first describe it."
We begin at the end
In beginning an exploration into the concept of radical life extension, it would probably be appropriate to start with some scientific or industry fundamentals. Indeed, some of my more prominent pro-longevity blogging forebearers have been doing an exceptionally good job of this. For example, if you want an excellent introduction into longevity science, please see this incredibly thorough post from José Luis Ricón Fernández de la Puente1. Or, if you find yourself overwhelmed by molecular biology, perhaps you would rather start with Nathan Chang’s impressively comprehensive coverage of the burgeoning longevity industry. Maybe you want a little of everything, and should subscribe to Reason’s seasoned weekly blog, Fight Aging!2, which has been spreading the good word for well over a decade. There are others still, but these are some of my favorites3.
So yes, it would make sense to follow in the footsteps of these talented folks and start with the basics. However, that is not what I am going to do, at least not at this juncture4. Instead, I will start at the end and concentrate on the effect ending aging will have on the broad contours of human civilization. Speaking generally, this has been done extensively by many science fiction authors and futurists of various stripes. However, my purpose here is to describe specifically what I believe will be the overwhelmingly positive repercussions of such a momentous achievement. Therefore, in a series of upcoming posts, I will attempt to thoroughly enumerate and categorize various aspects of such a change. To define the constellation of concepts I am going to describe, we need a new term: enter, the “Methuselah dividend”5.
Methuselah dividend > longevity dividend
Mainstream longevity enthusiasts are fond of popularizing the “longevity dividend” – the idea that delaying age-related disease will result in an economic benefit to society. Usually, this is presented in the context of expanding healthspan, rather than extending maximum lifespan. While I take no issue with this formulation of the longevity dividend – which I see as a valid short-term goal – my focus in this series will be on an analogous, but far more consequential, concept. The Methuselah dividend explicitly refers to the benefits – economic, but also otherwise – that radical life extension, and not mere heathspan maximization, will confer upon our societies. To be even more specific, my definition of radical life extension, and thus my conception of the Methuselah dividend, entails the complete eradication of biological aging and not a mere doubling or tripling of natural maximum lifespan6.
Lest you think it premature to begin discussing such changes given that maximum lifespan has hardly budged in the last few centuries of progress, it is entirely plausible that we are on the cusp of such a development right now. Indeed, given the nature of longevity escape velocity, it is difficult to predict how far, or how startlingly close, we may be to the point in time when increases in life expectancy exceed the passage of time itself. Aubrey de Grey has dubbed the arrival of this event, the “Methuselarity”7. Of relevance, Aubrey has recently articulated an ambitious schedule for the Methuselarity:
Naysayers of radical life extension must be countered
However, irrespective of how close longevity science is to pushing out the human maximum life expectancy curve, there is a need for individuals passionate about the prospect of radical life extension to articulate a positive and comprehensive vision of such a future. This is not to say there are no negative externalities of radical life extension – an important set of concerns that I will address in future work. But, as you probably have noticed if you follow this space even intermittently, the proposed problems stemming from radical life extension (e.g., overpopulation, economic and environmental collapse, immortal dictators, eternal boredom, cultural/scientific stagnation, etc.) are overrepresented in discussions surrounding the topic of superlongevity. When anti-aging enthusiasts attempt to counter these objections, the framing typically is as follows: Reaching the Methuselarity will present a variety of novel societal problems, but the singular achievement of defeating death outweighs them all and, therefore, is worth doing.
While I agree with this statement, it completely ignores the collection of civilizational benefits that will accrue in a world with radical life extension. Indeed, on balance, I believe the positive externalities alone outweigh the negative consequences, regardless of the value of ending aging per se. Thus, given the preponderance of fear, uncertainty, and doubt promulgated by naysayers of the anti-aging movement, I am motivated to produce a series of pieces describing each dimension of the Methuselah dividend.
I am not the first to be interested in this idea; please do not mistake me as claiming that the concept of the Methuselah dividend is heretofore original. I am aware of a range of sources – everything from books and academic publications to blogs and YouTube channels – that consider the effects of radical life extension on civilization in one way or another8. While I have not yet come across a systematic and detailed description of how indefinite human lifespans will alter humanity, I am sure that someone has probably done a fantastic job of this9. Indeed, by simply browsing the right corners of social media, you can find high-quality chatter on the Methuselah dividend itself10:
In addition to trying to refine the ideas that others have put forth previously, I also hope to propagate the use of something that is novel – the phrase, Methuselah dividend. This may seem trivial, or even self-serving, but I believe neologisms are important. Words carry meaning, or more specifically, the right words strung together serve as efficiently packaged memes that have the potential to rewire neurons.
Why does this matter? Well, I would wager that, due to the aforementioned perceived dangers of radical life extension, political opposition to delaying death may end up being more of an obstacle than the actual challenges of longevity science itself. Thus, communicating a coherent, appealing – and dare I say, glorious – vision of what radical life extension could offer humanity is worthwhile. So, if you think our newly coined term has a certain ring to it, please appropriate it for use in your own writings and discussions; I claim no ownership or copyright.
It is relatively easy to extrapolate current socioeconomic dynamics to accommodate an understanding of extending healthy lifespan to ~115, something exponents of the longevity dividend have done convincingly11. The same cannot be accomplished when considering the Methuselah dividend, which would radically alter the socioeconomic landscape to a degree unseen since the Industrial Revolution12. Like the process that began to unfold in 18th century Britain, or perhaps the Agricultural Revolution thousands of years before that, the Methuselah dividend would represent a phase transition in the organization and capability of civilization.
Given the multifactorial manner in which the Methuselah dividend will change the world, it is epistemologically challenging to paint even the broad strokes of such a new paradigm. This difficulty will limit me to mostly qualitative descriptions, since quantitative measures of the Methuselah dividend would likely be wildly inaccurate13. That said, I will obviously endeavor to be directionally correct in what I describe here. Additionally, given the already daunting task of trying to envision such a world, I will not consider the interplay of other radically transformative technologies (e.g., intelligence augmentation) with radical life extension, even though the development of such innovations will likely overlap in reality14.
Finally, thank you for reading the introduction to this series. I do hope you are looking forward to our next installment where we will explore the first component of the Methuselah dividend: “unbounded deep scholarship”. As always, if you find this content worthy, please subscribe below and spread the good word:
I appreciate how explicitly direct this name is…perhaps “Methuselah’s Library” is too subtle.
And hopefully, there will be more to come. Indeed, I was partially inspired to finally start writing by Balaji Srinivasan, who in this galvanizing post called for “a thousand individual newsletters, constantly pushing for technology in general and reversing aging in particular”. You may tally Methuselah’s Library as one of those thousand newsletters.
Rest assured, we will investigate the nitty-gritty of longevity science in due course, but Methuselah’s Library must define its own niche before invading others.
Yes, I know, we longevity enthusiasts really like to refer to everyone’s favorite biblical multicentenarian. Bear with me, there are more allusions to Methuselah in store.
While a doubling or tripling of current maximum lifespan would enable many aspects of the Methuselah dividend, we will presuppose a complete defeat of death for reasons of theoretical simplicity and because this is what the ultimate goal of radical life extension should be in my view.
Aubrey also formally defined the concept of longevity escape velocity (he called it “actuarial escape velocity” at the time) itself, publishing a paper in PLOS Biology in 2004.
I am currently in the process of consuming a couple books, several academic publications, a dissertation, and various shorter form media to see just how well-trodden this topic is. If any of these sources are of sufficient quality, I will review them on Methuselah’s Library as an adjunct to the Methuselah dividend series.
If you know of such sources, please do not be shy about dropping a link in the comments.
Please do read all the replies to Geoffrey’s tweet - they are essentially a partial preview of what you will encounter in my upcoming posts.
This recent publication is a short and accessible article on the (still impressive) economic impact that targeting modest gains in life expectancy/morbidity compression may have.
the Industrial Revolution truly was a singular event in world history. This monster post by Luke Muehlhauser does an excellent job showcasing this fact.
Indeed, even my qualitative speculations are probably somewhat wrong, but one must start somewhere.
As Methuselah’s Library matures, we will address other aspects of the Biotechnological Revolution and build a more cohesive synthesis.