Life extension and stagnation

Life extension and stagnation is the idea that once the old generation continues to live due to life extension treatment, their old ideas or genes will continue to survive as well, leading to a lack of progress in culture, societal morals, etc. Broadly, this criticism of life extension can be divided into those that worry about (1) social stagnation or (2) biological stagnation.

This page first outlines the two major types of stagnation arguments, then considers the related argument of delayed maturity; finally it lists various counterarguments to the stagnation arguments.

Cultural stagnation

The concern about cultural stagnation is based on the observation that some of society’s progress1 is based on new generations overturning various societal norms (e.g. ending slavery, women’s rights, various minority rights). If there was no prejudice today, there might not be a concern about society being preserved at its current state, but this is not the case. Indeed, even if present-day society seemed especially moral to us, the next generation may not see it that way.

This concern has been raised by several people, including biomedical researcher João Pedro de Magalhães.2

Biological stagnation

Biological stagnation is the idea that human biological evolution will stop once the current generation stays around. Note that the reason for concern over biological stagnation is the same as in the case of cultural stagnation; what is different is the thing that stagnates.

This argument has been put forth by Anne Corwin.3

Cultural and biological stagnation are independent in the sense that one can believe one but not the other, neither, or both.

Delayed maturity

A related argument is that slowing down aging will result in more years of “adolescence” for people. This is articulated by for instance Kass4:

Retardation of aging could really mean prolongation of functional immaturity. Consider the young: isolated not only from the top of the ladders of power but also from some of their lower rungs, supported by or even living with parents into their thirties or beyond, kept in a protracted sexually mature “adolescence,” frustrated,isaffected, rebellious or apathetic—the picture is not difficult tocomplete


This section considers counterarguments against both (cultural and biological) arguments of stagnation.

  • One counterargument to stagnation from life extension is that life extension has to some extent been implemented already, and that stagnation certainly hasn’t happened so far.5 Indeed, one might think social progress has been occurring at a more rapid pacesource?.

  • Another argument is that it’s unclear why older people have more ossified thinking. Aubrey de Grey considers a few possibilities in “Why we should do all we can to hasten the defeat of human aging”:

    Biological aging of the brain
    But if this is the case, then since part of the idea of life extension is to stop the aging of the brain as well, “those whose lives are extended by such technologies will not have old, decrepit brains, but rather youthful, innovative brains which have merely been in existence for a longer period of time and thus accumulated all the more experience to work with” (Infidel753).
    Amount of information in the brain
    Or, as Infidel753 says “the mere fact of having existed for a longer rather than a shorter time”
    Social pressures
    de Grey suggests that “it is eminently possible that the greater range of experience that very old people wil have, when combined with the avoidance of biological aging of the brain, will actually result in people with more cognitive flexibility and creativity than anyone (young or old) has today”.
  • There is even the argument that people may not maintain a single identity if they live for a very long time. Consider Rebecca Roache discussing punishment:

    A lot of philosophers who have written about personal identity wonder whether identity can be sustained over an extremely long lifespan. Even if your body makes it to 1,000 years, the thinking goes, that body is actually inhabited by a succession of persons over time rather than a single continuous person. And so, if you put someone in prison for a crime they committed at 40, they might, strictly speaking, be an entirely different person at 940. And that means you are effectively punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else. Most of us would think that unjust.

    Similarly, if people change and become different individuals throughout a long life, they may adopt wildly different views on topics, which could prevent stagnation. See also the distinction between a “career self” and “seriatim self” (Ackerman, pg 3306):

    James Lindemann Nelson distinguishes between Margaret Walker’s notion of a career self, who sees his life ‘as a unified field in which particular enterprises, values, and relationships are (in principle) coordinated in the form of a “rational life plan” … or a “quest” … or a “project” ’ and a ‘seriatim self’, deriving from Hilde Lindemann Nelson’s concept of ‘living life seriatim’, where life is seen ‘less as an overall unified project and more as a set of fits and starts’ (Nelson 1999: 121, 122). Overall points out that either type of self can appreciate greatly extended life. The career self may ‘value continued survival, for the career self sees human existence as an open-ended set of challenges’ and thus may ‘continue to seek opportunities for activity, striving, self-development, and the achievement of goals’ (Overall 2003: 186). ‘The seriatim self might choose … to enjoy a life lived without further conquests’ (Overall 2003: 181). Overall discusses the possibility of personal transformation while retaining one’s core identity, as happens in our society to people who undergo religious or other conversions (Overall 2003: 158–61).

  • There is also the keyhole solution of conditionally offering life extension treatment. For instance, one could offer treatment conditional on relinquishing the right to vote, or agreeing not to hold government positions (e.g. supreme court justiceship).


  • A claim made in a reddit comment: “Culture, as tech becomes more and more advanced, changes very quickly, society is now in constant flux. People of tomorrow will have very flexible views.” How true is this, i.e. have societal views changed more rapidly as a result of technological progress, and can we expect this to be the case in an “immortal society”?

  1. There are other sources of societal progress, including scientific discovery and technological development (though these are not isolated from moral progress).

  2. de Magalhaes (João Pedro de Magalhães. says:

    Curing aging would mean the current human culture would be predominant because older persons would never retire, probably would hardly change their ideas, and would block the way to the younger, fresh ideologies. Culturally, or memetically, humankind has been evolving at an astonishing pace. If we compare human society 1,000 years ago with our society now we see an extraordinary cultural evolution in various concepts and even in ethics (e.g., slavery and racism were widely accepted not too long ago in human history). In [spite] of the fact that someone brilliant at his/her job would be able to continue at it forever, to have a generation of men and women without cultural progress could be a catastrophe for humankind.


    There is still too much prejudice, ignorance and attachment in the world for this to become a generation that is eternal. An end to genetic evolution can be obviated with genetic engineering; it is the end of the cultural evolution that concerns me the most.

  3. Anne Corwin in “Superlongevity, Stagnation, and Posthuman Potential argues that as people stop dying, “biological evolution” will stop, but cultural evolution will continue; i.e. evolution will “occur through creative means that are nonbiological in nature”. This is in contrast to de Magalhaes, who says that genetic evolution can continue through genetic engineering, but that cultural progress may stop. Regarding the concern for cultural stagnation cited by de Magalhaes, Corwin argues that “It makes little sense to place arbitrary limits on the brains of posthumans in terms of the ability of these brains to enjoy a degree of plasticity and flexibility often considered the exclusive province of the young and new.” She even argues that people who live longer will be valuable for their greater experience and perspective:

    I imagine that if there were any humans alive today (with intact memories) who were born 500 or 1000 years ago, these people, far from being seen as evidence of “stagnation”, would almost certainly be sought after for their ability to offer a long-range perspective.

    This might be convincing if the people with extended lives were a minority, but de Magalhaes seems to concerned with a society where the majority of people have extended lives.

  4. “The case for mortality”. LR Kass. The American scholar, 1983 Spring; 52(2): 173-91. Accessed from JSTOR.

  5. Infidel753 writes in “The moral bankruptcy of deathism:

    Indeed, we’re already quite some ways down this road. During the 20th century, life expectancy at birth in developed countries roughly doubled, from about 40 years to about 80, due to vaccines, antibiotics, and various other innovations. All the clichéd objections that are now made to radical life extension – overpopulation, cultural stagnation due to having too many old people around, widening the gap between rich and poor countries, etc. – could just as easily have been made in 1900 against these achievements. But it would be an audacious deathist indeed who would argue today that we should not have invented vaccines, or should stop using them now. The coming advances which will extend an individual’s youthful life to centuries and eventually millennia are essentially a continuation and acceleration of the same trend.

  6. “Death is a Punch in the Jaw: Life-extension and Its Discontents”. Felicia Nimue Ackerman. The Oxford Handbook of Bioethics. Bonnie Steinbock ed. 2007.