Biology

John W. Campbell, Editor of Astounding Science Fiction, Described Actuarial Escape Velocity in 1949



Some of the voices of the past can appear entirely contemporary, because they saw further and with greater clarity than most of their peers. John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science-Fiction Magazine, died of heart disease at age 61 in 1971. In 1949 he wrote an editorial on the future of medicine, aging, and longevity that wouldn’t seem out of place today. He anticipated what we presently call actuarial escape velocity, or longevity escape velocity, the idea that gains in life span through progress in medical technology allow greater time to benefit from further gains – and eventually, we are repaired more rapidly than we are damaged, escaping from aging. These commentaries of past years, printed on paper, often vanish into the void. Fortunately this one remains.

As was the case for Timothy Leary in the 1970s, Campbell in 1949 overestimated what could be achieved with the technology of his near future. They were not the first to do so. Thus those of us who have advocated and raised funds for the rejuvenation biotechnology of today must have an argument as to why this decade is different, why we are not doomed to a certainty of aging to death just like Leary and Campbell. That argument must be detailed, robust, and heavily scientific.

That argument exists! Look no further than the SENS rejuvenation research programs and the extensive supporting evidence for the effectiveness of working to repair the root cause molecular damage of aging. This approach is different from the hypothetical approaches to intervene in aging that were proposed in the past – though Campbell is closer to it than Leary. The SENS thesis on aging predicted that senolytics to clear senescent cells from old tissues would be effective as a means of rejuvenation, and now we are finding that this is in fact the case. Senolytics robustly turn back all manner of measures of aging and age-related disease in animal studies. Implementing the rest of the SENS agenda, to repair or work around the molecular damage at the root of aging, is the way to demonstrate that, yes, it is different this time around.

Oh King, Live Forever!… – Astounding Science-Fiction Magazine, Vol. 43, No. 2, April, 1949

At some point in the history of the world and the history of medical science, a point will be reached such that a child born at that time can, if he chooses – and has reasonable luck so far as mechanical damage goes – live practically forever. This point in time will be some forty or more years before the perfection of the full requirements for continuous life – and this point may already have passed, without our knowing it.

For it is inherent in the nature of things that the critical birth-period can not be known until after the event – until after the perfection of the final techniques. Modern medical techniques have been developed to a high point – and on an exponential curve of progress, as is normal in an advancing science – with a view to keeping children and young adults happy, healthy and reasonably sane. The rise in the average-age-at-death statistics has been largely influenced by the diminution of infant and young-adult mortality; medical science has been devoting the greater measure of its efforts to that end of the problem.

Now, with an increasingly older population group, with increasing masses of people in the older age brackets as their biggest problem, systemic failure type medical problems, rather than acute infectious problems will predominate. Heart disease takes the place of diphtheria; cancer replaces tuberculosis. Childbirth fever is vanquished – the problem is hardening of the arteries. Pediatrics is a well-advanced science; gerontology, its opposite number, is practically an unexplored field.

The first achievements of an advancing study of “old age and why is it” will naturally be concentrated on the typical conditions that kill the aged – systemic failure troubles such as heart and artery breakdowns. Of course, the only real cure for the systemic failures of the aged is the very simple and obvious one – youth. Not chronological youth, but metabolic youth. Research must be done on that problem, and is being done. The efforts being made at any time will, of course, be basically palliative – treatments that are primarily symptomatic. The obvious symptom of trouble is heart disease; the cause is old age. The medical profession assures itself that it isn’t out to find the secret of eternal youth – simply to cure heart disease. But if it succeeds in cleaning up all the symptoms, one by one, the sum total of the results must, necessarily, be metabolic youth.

Some of the more forthright researchers are headed directly toward the more all-inclusive goal of extended maturity – i.e., extended youth. The two groups of researches will, inevitably, meet on a middle ground of success, sooner or later. For the present and near-future, say twenty years hence, we can expect some very real extensions in active life span, before the onset of the symptoms which, collectively, are termed “old age”, and, simultaneously, a successful attack on the more outstanding problems of old age. The combined effect may be to extend the useful period of life as much as thirty years. Certainly not a figure to be confused with “eternal youth” – but pleasant none the less.

During the next succeeding years, incidentally, progress may well be at a faster rate. If the maturity extension techniques are applied to the research workers themselves – naturally! – the experience and ability gained in the previous years of work will be available to aid in further advances. Instead of spending thirty-five years learning how, and then twenty-five years doing research, a man with an added thirty years of life would be a far more efficient unit of civilization; a non-producer for thirty-five years, he could be a producer for fifty-five!

And the great problem really can’t be very extreme: the human metabolism is already so nearly perfectly balanced that it takes many decades of very slow accumulation of imbalances to bring on old age. So small a factor of failure certainly should be correctable – and a small advance should mean a large improvement. With the accumulated knowledge and techniques of the previous research, the second twenty years of work might well see a further extension of maturity by another couple of decades.

The first advance of thirty years would be no “eternal youth” treatment. But – science tends to advance exponentially. That thirty-year reprieve might give just the time needed for research to extend your life another forty years. And that forty years might … We don’t know, nor can we guess now, when in time that critical point will arrive – or has arrived. But somewhere in history there must come a point such that a child born then will be just passing maturity when the life-extension techniques will reach the necessary point. They will grant him a series of little extensions – each just sufficient to reach the next – until the final result is achieved. I wonder if that point has been passed? And my own guess is – it has.

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