The Lonely Universe: Old Age Creeps On

The Doctor begins his many adventures, at a fairly advanced age, in David Whitaker’s novelisation.  Published by Frederick Muller Limited 1964.  Cover illustration by Arnold Schwartzman.

The Doctor begins his many adventures, at a fairly advanced age, in David Whitaker’s novelisation. Published by Frederick Muller Limited 1964. Cover illustration by Arnold Schwartzman.

People are living longer, not just in the West but across the world.  And the birth rate is dropping – in some developed countries it’s now below the minimum level for replacement.  There are still many countries where it exceeds that level, but the overall global trend is for an increasing percentage of the population to be older, and a reducing percentage to be younger.  While there obviously has to be a limit to this trend sometime, there’s no sign of it stopping any time soon.

There can be serious fears arising from an ever-ageing population, as described in Brian Aldiss’ 1964 novel Greybeard, where nuclear tests have resulted in the human race becoming sterile – the remaining childless people get older and older with no hope for the future.  We see a similar theme in PD James’ 1992 novel The Children of Men, later made into the memorable 2006 film of the same name.  Mass infertility brings society to the verge of collapse.

However, those dystopias are based on the impossibility of breeding.  It would be a different matter if reproduction was still possible, just curtailed to meet the needs of a stable, though ageing, society.

At the same time, one hopes that old age would be accompanied by the ability to continue to live a fulfilling life.  We see the extreme version of what might otherwise happen in perhaps one of the greatest satires of all time, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels of 1726.  In one of Lemuel Gulliver’s less well-known travels, he visits the land of Luggnagg where some of the inhabitants are immortal but don’t have the benefit of eternal youth.  The consequences for them are not pleasant, one of the least of which being that they must be declared dead for all legal purposes at the age of 80.

But as things stand now, we can expect an overall older population to be the future of humanity.  With ever more improvements in medical care, the median age of the human race may rise considerably in years to come.  The birth rate may also continue to decline to avoid unsustainable, and potentially catastrophic, over-population, but limited replacement will have to take place.  In Is An Ageing Population Our Natural Fate? (Philosophy Now, October 2016), Nguyen Ba Thanh argues that this may be inevitable, and would comprise the natural life cycle of all intelligent species.

There’s a clear logic to this, which could apply to any civilization.  No intelligent life-form is likely to want to die if it’s possible to continue to live a reasonably fulfilling life.  As a culture’s science grows, more and more of its members will take advantage of this to live longer.  To avoid disaster, the birth rate must be minimised.  So the average ET is likely to be old, by whatever its species’ standards are.

Probably the most famous elderly alien in science fiction is Doctor Who, who features in his many adventures in time and space at ages ranging up to a thousand years and more.   But he (or, as from the next series in the very near future, she) is something of an exception – an active and dynamic individual despite his age, but needing regular rejuvenations to keep him up to par.  Other ETs may not have the benefit of such a useful device to remain young.

Here may be a solution to the Fermi Paradox.  Old intelligent beings in any civilization, terrestrial or extraterrestrial, may live life to the full, but eventually, as Nguyen Ba Thanh suggests, atrophy may result.  And at the very least they will have gained experience – hopefully learning from it as well – which may result in a calm and serene existence where pushing the boundaries is not the prime aim.

As a sentient being in his old age, ET may be an interesting enough individual in his peaceful lifestyle, but possibly he’s not particularly interested in us or what we’re doing.  He’s seen it all before.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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