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They Went So Young

The series finale for Six Feet Under aired earlier this week on HBO. SFU isn't really the kind of TV show we talk about here at the Speculist. Not to say that it wasn't a good show, or that it never got into speculist subject matter. As a matter of fact, it did. Twice. The first time, they pulled it off fairly well. It was the opener for season three. Nate Fisher, on his death bed, witnesses multiple versions of his own life and death while his deceased father gives an accurate, if sketchy, explanation of quantum immortality.

(SPOILERS ahead for those planning to watch the show.)

This time out, Allan Ball and company didn't do so well. The final scenes of the show are a montage of flash-forwards to the deaths of all the principal characters. It's actually a very nice piece of TV/filmmaking, a touching and satisfying end to the story of the Fisher family.

There's just one problem.

They all die too young. Check the obits for yourself.

With the exception of Keith, who we see dying at the hands of armed robbers, and Claire, who makes it all the way to 102, the rest of the characters die of natural causes in their 70's and 80's. Okay, so maybe life extension won't have caught on by the year 2025, and there would be nothing that could be done to save Ruth Fisher from dying in her early 80's. But David, Rico, and Brenda all die over the next 25 years after that. Even so, aging and death are shown to be pretty much what they are today.

Then we come to Claire, on her deathbed in the year 2085. She is 102 years old, and looks every year of it by our standards. Over the next 80 years, we can't even expect any cosmetic victories over aging.

Or maybe those kinds of treatments are available, but no one in the Fisher or Chenowith families takes advantage of them. Maybe cosmetic aging treatments will be viewed the way Botox (or even, say, breast augmentation) is today. Some do it, most don't.

I could almost believe that about cosmetic treatments. But real anti-aging treatments? No way. When they're available, people will use them. If not for themselves, then for their loved ones. Consider Rico dropping dead from (apparently) a heart attack somewhere around the year 2050. I think such deaths will be very rare by then and there is no way that Vanessa would allow Rico not to be prepared for such an eventuality.

Likewise, even if Claire was too "granola" to go for life extension, what about her husband, Ted the Republican? He would probably have extended his own life just to be sure he was there with her when she died.

Ultimately, it's families, loved ones, and friends who will drive the acceptance of life extension technologies. Randall Parker and Glenn Reynolds do an excellent job of outlining the economic and political cases for life extension. These arguments will be persuasive and will play an important role in the eventual acceptance of life extension. But I don't think they'll be determinative.

As Glenn explains it:

I've watched people I love age and die, and it wasn't "beautiful and natural." It sucked. Aging is a disease. Cataracts and liver spots don't bring moral enlightenment or spiritual transcendence. Death may be natural -- but so are smallpox, rape, and athlete's foot. "Natural" isn't the same as "good."

Yep. Death sucks all, right.

Throughout all the generations of humanity, people have watched their loved ones age and die, and deep down wished they could do something about it. When options are available, people will use them. Of course they will.

The question isn't really one of "How long should people live?" It's more like "How long should my parents live?"

Over the weekend, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. In proposing a toast, my father thanked my mother for 50 wonderful years and said that he looked forward to -- who knows? Maybe 50 more.

Who knows, indeed? What I do know is this: if I could give them the ability to celebrate their 100th anniversary, looking and feeling more like they did at the original wedding than they did over the weekend, I would. Would they take it? Based on his toast, I'm pretty sure Dad would. And if anyone could talk Mom into it, he could. Then again, she probably wouldn't need all that much convincing.

Who would?

Utlimately, Ball ends his series on a death-affirming note. For a TV show about a funeral parlor, that's probably about par for the course. Plus, to be fair, life extension would have been a very strange idea for him to introduce now. Although certainly no stranger than quantum immortality.

I was watching a show about the making of SFU last week wherein Ball and some of the writers were talking about how our culture "avoids" death and "is afraid of it" and "doesn't deal with it," etc. So he wanted to do a show about that affirmed the reality of death.

But as others have pointed out, our culture is highly accepting of death in general. We may not affirm it, but we certainly accept it as reality...for everyone else, anyway. We only want to deny it or avoid it when it applies to us and to the people we care about. But far from being some defect that needs to be corrected, I would say that that resistance is what will eventually make death a mere shadow of the threat it is today, and death from aging or disease virtually unknown.


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I don't link to the Speculist as often as I should - falling down on the job, I'm afraid. So without more ado, here is a selection of recent posts from the Speculist on healthy life extension and related medical advances: They Went So Young: Ultimately... [Read More]


Good point. It's surprising how little fiction touches on what will be such an important topic. I myself was always suprised that even Star Trek rarely touched on the subject of life extension. The only time I can recall it being mentioned was in the pilot of The Next Generation, where we meet a decrepid 140 year old Dr. McCoy. If just over the next few decades the life expectancy jumps past 100, I would expect that by the mid 24th century there would be nothing special about making it to 140.

The only problem with life-extension would be getting rid of the old folks-- specifically, what to do about dictators who won't die, and so torment their subjects forever (or as near to forever as makes no difference)? And, if one is unfortunate enough to be the "guest" of an immortal version of Saddam Hussein, death doesn't suck, it's a RELEASE.

Yes, death sucks. But there are worse things in this world-- see Harlan Ellison's short story, "For I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream".

I believe there were multiple references to life extension in the later Trek series (not sure about the original one). Just off the top of my head I can recall an episode in ST:Deep Space 9 where one of the characters was up for some type of career achievement award even though he wasn't all that old. He thought he was too young to be considered, stating something like "so-and-so got nominated last year - he was 102 and people said it was premature." There was also an episode of ST:Next Generation where some military officer was too old to fight a cruicial battle so he went and found some alien/experimental treatment that not only stopped, but reversed the aging process, turning him from an old man to a guy who looked in his early 30's (sadly, it was only temporary). If even I can recall those two incidents, I'm sure there must have been quite a few others.

They also show her on her deathbed surrounded by her photographs, but her eyes are clouded by cataracts or glaucoma.

Very poignant that a visual artist becomes blind as they approach their end, but hard to believe that cataracts or glaucoma wouldn't either be cured or that some sort of eye regeneration/replacement wouldn't be routine by no later than 2050.

Also I have a problem with Keith's death, as a security guard to be killed by shots to the chest would be unlikely today, let alone 25 years from now.

Given the current war, body armor will most likely make giant leaps in technology and levels of protection and the only way to make his death work is to also assume that bullet technology to thwart armor advances faster and becomes cheap enough for street criminals.

That's my two cents.

The Census Bureau has a number of older versions of the Statistical Abstract online. I tried looking for life expectancy in 1925, but they hadn't started carrying such data yet.

Choosing a random future year, I went to the 1950 edition, which has life tables for the period 1939-1941 (which only shows you how computationally intense such studies were, pre-digital-computing).

Anyway... the life expectancy at birth for a white female was 67.29 years in 1941. The life expectancy at birth for a white female in 2001 was 80.2 years (according to the 2004-2005 edition). That's an increase of 12.91 years over a sixty year period. To say that an additional 20 years over the next 80 "isn't enough" is contrary to the long term trend indicated.

Not only that, but most of the easy gains have already been made. Arguably, the biggest improvements in life expectancy haven't been at the end of life, but at the beginning, through the reduction of infant mortality and childhood diseases. For example, in 1941, if a white female child lived to age 2, her expectancy went up to 70.23 -- not only an increase of 4.3% in its own right, but 22.8% of the improvement between 1941 and 2001. While such early mortality has been cut drastically today, it means no such improvements take place in the odds early on.

So, basically, while your faith in "life extension" is touching, it doesn't seem backed up by the empirical data. Not only that, but you're basically stuck having to predict and/or rely on when a breakthrough or genius will happen to come along. It might well happen tomorrow, or it might not happen for a 100 years... But critiquing a TV show for not willing to go out on the limb you are seems... idiosyncratic, to say the least.


NB: The 1950 StatAb is here:


The 2004 Vital Statistics section is here:


Both need Abobe Acrobat.

Hale --

I agree fully that there are far worse fates than death. Needlessly extended pain leaps to mind as the best example. But the fact that there are worse things doesn't make death okay.

Hal --

Many thanks for the kind words. So few readers take the time to notice, much less comment on, the idiosyncratic nature of what we're doing here. And to suggest that we actually go beyond the idiosyncratic. Too kind.

My expectation of major breakthroughs is not an article of faith. It's based on a reasonable extrapolation of current developments in several closely related areas. As intellectually satisfying as it might be to pore over statistical abstracts, they have less to say about the future than you might think.

If you and I were alive in 1905 and I told you that one day virtually all homes in America would have television sets, you could argue that the "empirical data" do not show anyone owning such devices. Or, tending a little more closely to the argument at hand, if I were to suggest that polio (or "infanitle paralysis," as it was called at the time) would be all but eliminated in 50 years, you could likewise argue that the medical statistics suggest no such downward trend.

For an introduction to the scientific grounding for life extension, I would suggest you read this. For a good recent example of how even enthusiasts are tending to underestimate the rate of progress in these areas, look here. Finally, this site is an excellent source of ongoing information on life extension.

Phil, I would have no problem if you were to say, "Life extension might happen," or "should happen," or "will probably happen." The place where you're losing me is the implicit assumption that it's inevitable.

Take your 1905 TV scenario. Tell me at the time that, given developments in electromagnetic theory and machining, somebody might well be able to put two-and-two together... Sure, I have no problem with that. But saying it's inevitable, not only that the mechanical invention will be made but the societal traction will also happen where TV viewing will become widespread, and that if anybody disagrees with your sense of inevitability -- if they, say, write a novel about 2005 where this unique string of events didn't happen -- you criticize them for not drinking the kool-aid... well, then you've lost me. (Let's not mention that TV viewing has been declining since the rise of the internet, as the net proves to be The Revenge of Text...)

Life extension might well happen. On the other hand, I've been told it's "a decade away" for at least 25 years. When you actually have some results, I'll get excited.

And, speaking of results, I apologize for trying to inject actual data into what I thought was a discussion about scientific possibilities. Heinlein, whom you seem to be fond of, once said, "If it can't be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion." That was influential to me.

(For example, to look at the other end of the life spectrum from life expectancy at birth, it turns out the rate of growth in the survivability of white females in the US to age 100 has been cut more than eight-fold over the last 30 years. That is, for the decade 1961-71, survivability to 100 was growing at an annual rate of 12.65%. For 1991-2002, that was down to 1.48%. Still growing, yes, but much more slowly. Why? I couldn't tell you.)

Anyway... "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong -- but that's the way to bet."


Oh, and a reason why the 200 years of compounded money might not be worth anything that you didn't mention: Because the currency in question might not exist anymore. Whether because of conquest, demise of the regime, or regulatory meddling. Not many human institutions last 200 years (meaning the bank might fail, too), and that's not solely due to "short" lifespans.

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