Now, imagine longevity as a trait capable of evolving into immortality. Substitute the idea of performance advantage for anything resembling purpose or progress, and scale longevity for measurement and appropriate comparisons.127 One might also propose a phylogenetic scenario from comparative data and tease apart an order of events, since a trait may originate with or before a performance advantage (an aptation).
What then are the performance advantages of prolonged longevity? As already mentioned, the prolongation of average life expectancy might well be paid for by altruistic behavior, including baby-sitting and the banking of cultural knowledge and wisdom.
Altruism might not however, seem quite as attractive to immortals. Would an immortal, let us say a 200-year old (the equivalent of a great, great, great, great, great, grandmother or grandfather), be happy as a baby-sitter for the umpteenth time, and would such a baby-sitter be a better baby-sitter than a mortal grandmother or grandfather, to say nothing of a trained child-care worker in a crèche? Would a 200-year old worker even want to work after the fifth or sixth run-through at a career? Could the immortal store more information than, say, a computer with a mega-giga hard drive supplied with the equivalent of a large number of CDs, and how many times can anyone tell the same joke and make it sound fresh? What is more, age is not necessarily a qualification for wisdom, and "gems" fall from the mouths of babes.
Performance advantages are difficult enough to attribute to structures in the present; they are almost impossible to anticipate in the future. If immortality offers any performance advantage, we may simply have to find out what it is when we get there. This is not to say that it will not; but whatever it is, it is not intuitively obvious or theoretically predictable.
The question might better be asked, "What would immortality look like shorn of performance advantages?" In other words, what is the down side of immortality? What losses might lurk in the supposed performance advantages of immortality, waiting to spring upon the unsuspecting immortals?
One possible drawback is of concern to the science writer and novelist, Ben Bova. He is worried that institutions such as marriage and family would be decimated by immortality, given recent experience with prolonged "good times":
In the twentieth Century divorce rates have skyrocketed, in large part because people are living long enough to want to change partners. Death does not part these married couples; boredom or infidelity or simply a gradual estrangement over the years sunders their marriages.128
I cannot say that I am worried about social structures; church and country have found ways of adjusting to change in the past. That immortality might irreparably harm individuals is a serious concern. Boredom, for example, is the leading cause of suicide. Would self destruction become the leading cause of death among immortals?
What does immortality offer the individual? What good is the certainty of infinite life if it comes without the pleasures of living? What is individual stability worth without the dynamics of birth and death? It is one thing to say that infinite life is attractive when one faces uncertainty and death, but quite another to trade pleasure and wonder for stasis.
Another problem can be anticipated from the link between prolonged longevity and reduced fecundity: the sudden-death syndrome.129 How would a species with reduced reproductive potential due to increased longevity be able to cope with an unanticipated population disaster? What were once long-lived birds, the moas of New Zealand, seem to have been driven to extinction in a very few years after the Maori arrived and began hunting adults.130 Similarly, "blitzkrieg" hunting of long-lived adult mammals in the Americas and Australia seems to have driven many prey to extinction simply because low reproductive rates foreclosed recovery.131 Were long-lived human beings with reduced reproductive potential victimized by similar hunting or exposed to new virulent viruses, our species, too, might be in jeopardy. Immortality might then be our formula for extinction.
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