We live in a civilised and technological world very different from that of thousands of years ago. Civility, knowledge, and technology have been developed collectively through the efforts and hardships, and the needs and the wants, of many across times and ages. Great things have been achieved to alleviate some of the difficulties of the human condition and make us all, on average, more knowledgeable, more capable, but also more conscious. And while all has not always been for the better, and while threats of receding exist and should be recognised, the trend, even if not a smooth and steady one, has been towards greater civilisation and civility.
One of the key achievements of civilisation and technology is probably the remarkable general increase in life expectancy of humans around the world over the past few centuries, for a host of reasons, medical and other. And while this achievement is of tremendous value to us – as it would be to any living being – it does not come without new challenges. These challenges can be seen in the disconnect we increasingly face today between our biological condition and the civilisation we have created. We live much longer with civilisation and technology, and we need to live much longer to do something meaningful; all the while, some of the key characteristics of our biology did not change. Let us take few examples:
- By late twenties, our cognitive processing speed is already well on the decline. We become wiser with age, and probably better decision-makers overall, but we do not have the same cognitive power as when we are young. We may also become less creative and imaginative in some areas, although the reasons behind this can be more due to longer periods of cultural conditioning than aging per se – the two are not possible to completely isolate from each other in any case.
- Woman fertility declines substantially year-on-year in her thirties, and even faster in her forties, until the woman reaches menopause. Most men are technically fertile for most of their adult life, but their capacity for sexual activity also declines, some studies even claim as early as the beginning of the twenties.
- And of course, physical power in humans is at its best in the late teens and early twenties, and it is on an incessant decline after that, all else being equal. As with cognition, some sports players manage to change their game as they grow older in order to last longer, but both intensity and endurance go down starting late twenties. The same goes for our motor skills and the sharpness of our senses.
We live today, on average, well beyond our physical, cognitive, sexual and sensing-capacity peaks. Life expectancy in the developed world is approaching eighty, and it has surpassed it in some countries already. And the one hundred-year mark for life expectancy is a distinct possibility in the coming two centuries. This means that we will live, on average, more than fifty years and more than two-thirds of our ‘useful’ life beyond our biological peak(s).
A world where we needed to reproduce fast and a lot, and conquer, dominate, and leave a legacy as quickly as possible before we die is no more – we have a greater leniency of time. And we need this leniency given where our civilisation and technology stand today. We need more time than centuries ago to absorb all that civilisation has developed, to learn, and to understand. And so, by the time we are done learning enough, understanding, and becoming sensible enough, we are already quite beyond our biological peak.
This disconnect creates us many practical challenges; we increasingly struggle to marry our biological condition and the civilisation and technologies we are creating. We try to remedy this disconnect by specialising (i.e. not learning everything but advancing in one particular path as quickly as possible in order to produce something new in it, while counting on others in society to do the rest); dropping school early to focus on a particular sport or modelling career, and returning to studying only after that (if at all); or looking for new medical ways of ‘going around’ our biological condition, such as freezing the eggs and finding a surrogate if the woman is too old by the time she decides to have a child. There is also another (lazier) way that is more dangerous to adopt; it is to blindly bypass in whole many aspects of civilisation, not bother understanding the achievements made so far, and become mere tools of civilisation and technology rather than conscious drivers of them.
It is likely that the disconnect between our biological condition and civilisation will increase even further with the continuous improvement in life expectancy and the continuous increase in the information and knowledge richness of the environment on which civilisation depends. We have to do something about it, no doubt. And maybe our cue comes from evolution. As we evolved to become human beings, we, and most primates for that matter, dropped biological features that may have been advantageous individually for the benefit of other features, while relying more on the community we started to live in to compensate for that. For example, our capacity to see wider angles was reduced for the benefit of much better three-dimensional vision, while counting on others in the community to spot any danger coming from angles we lost the capacity of seeing. Today, it seems reasonable that we may need to do more of such ‘outsourcing’ and sharing as we live much beyond our biological peak(s). With civilisation and technology, we increasingly rely not only on the community but also on machines and outsourced intelligence. This may raise some genuine fears of dependency and loss of control in us, but it does not seem that there is a reasonable way around it unless we start learning and understanding faster – we need only to strongly mitigate any possible risks.
As to another corollary, it is quite likely that greatness going forward becomes even more disconnected from biological peak(s). The greats of tomorrow may be very different from the greats of the past, and collective greatness may become entirely dominant over individual greatness.