Thursday, October 22, 2015

Breeding Methuselah's Children

In Robert Heinlein's METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN, TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, and TO SAIL BEYOND THE SUNSET, members of the "Howard Families" achieve longevity far beyond the human norm. Nineteenth-century millionaire Ira Howard had established a foundation for the purpose of prolonging human life. Since genetics had not yet been discovered, the foundation's trustees at first pursued their goal by encouraging people with family histories of long life to marry and procreate (by paying a generous monetary grant to each child of such a union). In METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN, the government and the general public resent the Howards because they're thought to be hoarding the "secret" of extended life. In fact, they live beyond the normal span simply because they carry the genes for longevity. Heinlein may have been onto something:


Leading a healthful lifestyle and enjoying the benefits of modern medical treatments can extend a normal person's life past the traditional "threescore and ten" into the eighties or nineties. With the rare human beings who attain a century and the even rarer few—"supercentenarians"—who exceed 110 years, there's another factor at work. They seem to have a genetic predisposition to live longer than the norm and an innate resistance to life-shortening influences. Many supercentenarians have drunk heavily and smoked all their lives. Some have never bothered with doctors. Typically, they don't follow any special diets. They've often escaped the usual diseases of aging and remain remarkably active and vibrant. So just changing your lifestyle wouldn't make you live to 110. You need the genes, a discovery that leads to research on identifying those genes and possibly passing on their benefits to people not born with them. One researcher calls supercentenarians "extreme mutants," who've had the phenomenal luck to inherit protection against the whole cluster of usual health-related aging effects.

So Heinlein was correct in his thesis of how to breed long-lived human beings: Match up people who've had long-lived ancestors and encourage their offspring to interbreed. On the other hand, so far it appears that the 110-year range constitutes the upper limit of the human lifespan. We won't be able to create the equivalent of the super-long-lived Howards, over two centuries old in the original novel, simply by selective breeding; we can't increase the frequency of a genetic factor that doesn't exist in the first place. (In Heinlein's fiction, also, rejuvenation technologies have been invented, so that in his future everybody lives longer. It's just that the Howards continue naturally to live even longer than normal people.) And if you've read the books, you'll remember that Heinlein stacked the deck with Lazarus Long, who carries a unique mutation that causes him to survive far longer than the breeding program can account for; he was born too early for the program to have had much effect on the Howard Families' lifespan.

In other news, a Russian scientist claims to have discovered a "bacterial fountain of youth" that may enable human beings to live to 140 years. Experiments on mice have resulted in extended lives and restored fertility:

Ancient Bacteria

Personally, I have no desire to live forever. Would I want to live well past a century? Only if a healthy, active, mentally sound existence until the very end could be guaranteed. An infirm ninety-year-old in a nursing home? No, thanks. One of Heinlein's Methuselahs? If enough loved ones took advantage of the treatment that I wouldn't be alone, maybe so. (But I'll pass on the restored fertility!)

Off topic, harking back to the Internet of Things, imagine having a robotic boss. About computer programs designed to take over the quantifiable functions of management and free up human supervisors to focus on areas that require judgment calls:

Can a Robot Be Your Boss?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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