24 December 2006

Life, death, and other stuff

About ten days ago I received an interesting e-mail from Mendip which I've been wanting to respond to. Posted with permission.

I really enjoyed your posting in regards to the Prez's Council of Bioethics and their bleatings to keep us at death's door. If I may put in my two cents, this reminds me of the pseudo 'debate' about abortions. When social conservative leadership calls for a ban on abortion all they're really doing is banning it from poor people, and perhaps those in the middle class located in the geographic center of the Country. Go ahead and ban it - the middle class living within 3-400 miles of the Mexican or Canadian borders will merely drive a few hours and take 3 and 4 day 'vacations' and 'sight seeing tours' to clinics there for the procedure. Places like Vancouver and Baja will make a mint, just like the old towns that allowed quickie and/or no-fault marriages/divorces did in the last century. The upper middle class will fly to the Bahamas or Jamaica for their 3-day weekend 'at the beach'. The lower upper class will hot foot it to 'spas' in Britain or Switzerland; and the upper upper class will do what they've always done - had the procedure in their own carefully guarded estates or the oh-so-private offices of VERY well paid society physicians. Practically speaking, the anti-abortionists are simply out to control poor and working class women, (quite similar to the control that upper class women tried to exert on poor and working class men in the Victorian era with their endless caterwauling against pornography and drink).

Not much I can add to this except to note that the defeat of aging isn't going to take the form of some one discrete, miraculous breakthrough that can be banned without affecting "normal" medical technology, the way abortion could be (in principle). Instead, there will be incremental (though increasingly rapid) breakthroughs in many areas. It will be impossible for the Kasses of the world to draw a clear line between the technology which ends up staving off aging permanently and that which simply continues to keep people healthier as they age.

And even if it were possible to isolate life-extension technology and ban it, we know now that banning anything for which there is strong, widespread demand will just push it into the underground economy where it can't be regulated and criminal elements get involved (and get rich). This happened with alcohol during Prohibition, it's happening with drugs and prostitution right now, and it would indeed probably happen with abortion if that were banned.

The same economic factors make a mockery of attempts to control medical research. All that social conservatives do is guarantee that such developments will take place elsewhere, most likely in Europe or the Pacific Rim. To think that there isn't a medical university, research center, or pharmaceutical company that wouldn't leap at a shot at developing/discovering serious life extension or the curing of a major affliction, with all the attendant wealth, prestige and fame just leaves me laughing with incredulity. It's going to happen, the only question is when/where.

This is very true. I call it the Lysenko syndrome. A government's endorsement of anti-scientific nonsense cannot stop the progress of science -- it can only cause its own country to fall behind. Note how the Bush administration's restrictions on stem-cell research in the US have not stopped the research, they've just driven a lot of it overseas.

Now, having said that, life extension brings up two interesting points to me. The first is the promotion of change within science and scholarship. I confess to being pretty cynical about scientific revolutions as portrayed in the popular press and organs of that community. We are generally taught that scientific advancements take place when one or more people come up with a new idea that challenges an old one. They test it, and if it tests our correctly, it is then accepted and all the followers of the old theory change their minds to conform to the new. While I'm sure this does occur, particularly in dramatic cases, (no one sane was going to doubt Einstein's theory after Hiroshima blew up), I think another process may account for much more - new theories replace old ones when the people who believe in the old theories die off. For whatever reason, young people tend to be the ones who challenge the status quo and come up with alternative (and sometimes) better explanations for it, while the old stick with what they learned when they were young and advance no farther (I constantly hope to be an exception to this, at least when it comes to scholarship and science, if not culture and politics). The old fight the young tooth and nail, depriving them of tenure, starving their research for funding, etc. But because their theories are correct, (or at least better than that of the oldsters), they gain more and more adherents amongst their own contemporaries and as they slowly climb the educational/ corporate ladder they are able to impose their new views on the profession as a whole, (and as the old dudes die off, thus presenting opportunities for advancement to the young). One can also see this in the evolution of government, the military, and business. I've no doubt that if life extension had occurred 100 years ago we'd be dealing with a Joint Chiefs of Staff who still believed in battleships, horse cavalry, and the uselessness of airplanes, etc.

So, if you have life extension, will it create a class of immovable old farts with tenure, seniority, positioning, etc., who stand in the way of any advancement in their fields? If so, how will it be handled? And think of politics - old prejudices might not die out. One can see signs with the whole gay marriage thing - young people raised on TV and other media with gay stars and personalities seem much more comfortable with gay marriage and civil rights than some, (but not all), of my contemporaries, having grown up when it was considered something between a sickness and a crime. It'll be curious to see how it plays out.

There is some truth to this -- Einstein himself rejected quantum physics, for example, though it is now accepted. But I think competition would tend to defeat such an entrenchment of conservatism. A military which clung to outmoded technology would quickly be disabused when it had to fight an enemy who was not thus handicapped, for example.

More to the point is the question of why people seem to become less open to new ideas with age. Remember, life extension is not about keeping people old for longer -- it's about keeping them young for longer. Already, youthful attitudes and behavior seem to persist much later in life than they used to, now that people in their forties (that is, past the end of the average life expectancy of any century before the twentieth) are still biologically vigorous and energetic.

Finally, there is empirical evidence that life extension does not lead to conservatism and stagnation. The second half of the twentieth century saw the most dramatic increase of human life expectancy in history. It was also a time of huge and accelerating innovation in science, technology, and culture.

Finally, I would attempt to address your questioning with Chell regarding those unwilling to have their life extended. I don't find this hard to believe at all. You are quite correct in your statements about the continuing advance of science and opportunity in the far future. But not all of us appreciate all changes. Some, if not all, prefer a certain lifestyle and if that can't be maintained, then they have little to hold them to this life. There is an alienation that can take place - perhaps it is overpopulation and overcrowding, the destruction of familiar and beloved surroundings, a perception of increasing regimentation, authoritarianism, lack of privacy, etc. There are many fine things going on right now, (this Internet with all of its communication and educational possibilities, for instance), but there are also things some of us might find fault with. As I stated earlier, I firmly believe in the strong possibility of our lives being extended greatly beyond what we currently expect, and have thought about what that might mean to me. I will not bore you with a list of my private pet peeves, prejudices, irritations and fears, I can only say that I'm not sure I'd necessarily be comfortable in a future society, if some current trends and projections play out over the next century. I might well be as out of place and antagonized as a 19th century Midwest farmer would be in our current situation. That's not to say that everyone will/should feel that way; but I think more than a couple will.

This is an understandable viewpoint, and one which I don't really have space to address here, though I hope you will read some of what Ray Kurzweil has to say about the potential of things like nanotechnology and virtual reality. I believe the medium-term future will vastly increase not only the resources available to the typical individual, but also his control over the terms and nature of his existence. As I said before, we should not assume that the world of the future will look or function just like the world of the present except that people will stop dying. Immortality is only the beginning.

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