A Response to the "Compression of Morbidity" Mindset

May 23, 2010

"...there is no basis for the ardent hopes and positive statements made as to [its] safety and success[..], and [..] therefore, it would be a wrong, whether wilful or unknowing, to lead the people and perhaps governments at this time to believe the contrary;..."

I will come back to this quote shortly.

The popular and wide spread article about the need to support and fund the compression of morbidity called the "Longevity Dividend" is a good example of a solid piece detailing a need to fight aging. In it, the authors show the viability of slowing the aging process, urge people to support it, urge the government to direct funds to it, and urge places like the NIH to reserve more resources for it.

However, they don’t push for indefinite health-spans or indefinite life extension, here after referred to as indefinite life extension. They push rather for the 'compression of morbidity', or in other words, for more healthy years in the last period of a person’s average, traditional, 70- to 90- year life span.

“This compression of mortality and morbidity would create financial gains not only because aging populations will have more years to contribute, but also because there will be more years during which age-entitlement and healthcare programs are not used.”

S. Jay Olshansky, Daniel Perry, Richard A. Miller, Robert N. Butler, 2006

At the same time the authors work to discredit the pursuit of indefinite life extension. They suggest that altering genes would not be practical, useful, or ethical. They call indefinite life extension unrealistic and suggest that it is not feasible. Although they are not focused exclusively on compressing morbidity, as much of the gerontology community has been, they are still mired in old-school thinking.

The overall mindset includes older academic scholars who have grown through the younger, naïve dreaming stages (where people tend to think more about things like indefinite life extension) into the realm of more realistic endeavours like the compression of morbidity.

In response

We must never forget that we are cosmic revolutionaries, not stooges conscripted to advance a natural order of things that kills everybody.”

 Alan Harrington

Achieving indefinite life extension is the most important, urgent, and time-sensitive cause ever undertaken in the history of humanity, and with all due respect, sentiments like those expressed by proponents of the compression of morbidity, though very noble and well meaning, are misleading and harmful to this cause.

Regardless of whether we ultimately find that we can achieve indefinite life extension or not, we need to go all the way and see. Our lives- this amazing shot at this incredible mysterious existence- depend on it. We can not afford to sell ourselves short on this.

If life is practical and useful, if choosing life over death is ethical, then whichever functional constructive approach to creating its indefinite healthy extension that we discover will be practical, useful, and ethical as well. Life is those things.

People are right when they say that it is not productive or healthy to over hype this cause, or anything for that matter. Incidental examples are not representative. Also we cannot afford to confuse this cause's efforts with hype when they are not. This is a real, urgent, life-or-death cause. Its components are by their very nature demanding, large, and extraordinary. They require reciprocating reflection, dialogue, and action.

This is more than a scientific endeavour; this cause demands work, development, and in depth sociological reform as well. The two need to work together and acknowledge each other, rather than occasionally (and some times more often) misunderstand each other. We work to help facilitate these and other aspects more fluently, as we continue growing toward where humanity needs this cause to go.

The number one reason why we need to choose indefinite life extension over the compression of morbidity is this:

We don’t have to know we can get there to go there,
but we do have to go there to get there.

Compression of Morbidity isn’t a bad thing per se. However, portraying to the public that indefinite life extension is not in the cards is.

If people think that they can not get indefinite life extension in time for them, they won’t fight nearly as hard as this cause needs them to.

People like the Dr. Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation, who work on strategies for ending aging, say that the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 years old now. He’s not saying that the first person to live to 1,000 is alive now. There’s a big difference. “Might” means go and see; “is” means go and get. We aren’t going there to get indefinite life extension; we are going to see if it is there to get or not. Organisations like ImmInst, stress that the world can see indefinite life extension if it supports this goal with urgency.

When something is this important, allowing people to open their minds to the realities that breakthroughs may be around the corner is important.

To be sure though, we cannot announce that indefinite life extension is just around the corner, because we don’t know that. That’s not what this cause is saying. Those that suggest that we are saying things like that are wrong. Indefinite life extension may not be in the cards in any foreseeable future. If we never find it, and along the way we realize a compression of morbidity by say, 7 years, then great, that’s a great goal, and a much needed step. But these 7 years should not be the goal in and of itself.

It is not the goal in and of itself in the same way that getting the “No Coloreds Allowed” signs removed wasn’t the goal of the Civil Rights Movement or performing 50 more space launches to orbit the earth wasn’t the goal in getting to the moon. Martin Luther King Jr. stated the notion that it was no time for gradualism and that justice too long delayed was justice denied.

"We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.'

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

They needed to set ambitious goals that went all the way.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

“…even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.

But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun--almost as hot as it is here today--and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out--then we must be bold.”

John F. Kennedy

They needed to go there. It is the same for this cause.

We don’t have to know we can get there to go there, but we do have to go there to get there. Things like the removal of “Coloreds Only” signs, orbits around the earth and 7-year dividends,  are parts of it, but the struggle for cilvil liberties and the moon landing would not have reached their potential if the visionaries had not dreamt to go all the way, rather than hoped to go a portion of the way.

“The great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree.
The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years.
The Marshall replied, 'In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!’”

We have to plant the seed that we are undertaking the quest for indefinite life extension now. We have to take into consideration the fierce urgency of now; we have to have a dream; we have to shoot for the moon. We have to start now. We have to go there. We have to see if our lives are in the cards for us or not. Missing out on this chance to exist here because we don’t go there would be as big of a tragedy as if the Americas were still undiscovered, blacks were still segregated, and the moon were still untouched.

This is the next great human mission. Through blood, sweat and tears, progress, joys, and dreams, our ancestors have delivered us to this cusp at the end of the technology era, which is emerging into the grand new Transhuman era. In a way, we have been preparing through out all of human existence for this. We cannot let our ancestors down. This is an immense homage we owe to them for their great sacrifices and hard work, as well as an obligation that we owe to ourselves and all of our dear progeny of the future.

There is no time to waste. We must plant the seeds we have been handed, the seeds of the movement for indefinite life extension, now. We have to get going now.

Let me get back to that statement from the beginning -- and quote it in full this time:

"...there is no basis for the ardent hopes and positive statements made as to the safety and successful use of the dirigible balloon or flying machine, or both, for commercial transportation or as weapons of war, and that, therefore, it would be a wrong, whether wilful or unknowing, to lead the people and perhaps governments at this time to believe the contrary;..."

Rear Admiral George Melville (1901)

Those who 'know better' are often worn down by a lifetime of trying.

The pioneers of important concepts and causes made their discoveries and pioneered their areas when they were different ages. Albert Einstein was 26, Isaac Newton was 23, Werner Heisenberg was 24, Bill Gates was 20, Alexander the Great was 20, Neil Armstrong was 39, and Meriwether Lewis & William Clark were 32 and 36, respectively. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. started advocating for the Civil rights of African Americans when he was 26, Christopher Columbus was 41, and Mahatma Gandhi was 45. In fact it is hard to think of any who were 50 or older. That is not though, to say that that there were not many great pioneers over the age of 50.

Those who kick against a prevailing mindset can expect ridicule,
even at the cusp of their breakthrough.

"...a physicist who professed such heresies is unworthy to teach science."

German Minister of Education,
when George Ohm's theory of electricity was published in 1827

We aren’t of those mindsets; we are of the mindset of one of the founders of the scientific method itself,

“But by far the greatest obstacle to the progress of science and to the undertaking of new tasks and provinces therein is found in this–that men despair and think things impossible.”

Francis Bacon

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. If people don’t want it, crave it, fight for it, and believe they can have it, they they are going to innovate at a much slower rate.

Fighters know this, and in their hearts, scientists know this as well.

“It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it.”

General Douglas MacArthur

“100% of the shots you don’t take don’t go in.”

Wayne Gretzsky

We may not be able to get there, but we have to believe we can if we are to put forth the amount of effort that is needed to get it done in time for us if it is there.

“The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

Eden Phillpotts

We don’t intend to keep it waiting. The time is now.
For the love of life, we may not get there, but we have to go there, and we have to do it like our lives depend on it.

Eric Schulke



Eric Schulke is currently a Director, Teams Coordinator, and Marketing & Outreach team leader at ImmInst. He lives in Wisconsin, USA.

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