16 July 2009

The real "pro-life" battle

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey explains the shift in focus in his recent published work on aging. While his ideas have gained consi-derable acceptance among researchers, more progress still needs to be made in showing the general public that the eradication of aging -- by far the commonest cause of death in humans -- is both technologically feasible and desirable.

I have, of course, long sought to contribute to that latter goal in a modest way with this blog. For those new to the concept, see my overview of de Grey's ideas here.


Blogger Conrad Strong said...

Thanks for the link and info on the feasibility of eradicating aging. It's all above my head Infidel but I look forward to reading up on your thoughts on the issue.

16 July, 2009 18:24  
Anonymous Cameron said...

I found your linked post intriguing to read but had a couple thoughts and figured I'd reply to this post.

The chemistry of the brain changes as we age. We transition from childhood obliviousness to teenage and young adult open mindedness and invincibility. Then we gain cautiousness as we experience middle age. Finally as we get even older there's an increased struggle to learn new skills and ideas.

Is there any discussion or argument in the book regarding influencing this brain development pattern?

If there isn't a viable solution to brain age, I question the feasibility or desirability of the cessation of physical aging. It'd be an odd world indeed if the entire human race had the physical bodies of twenty somethings but the brains of eighty year olds.

If the solution can be found within some of the mentioned seven components of aging, there could be an interesting challenge in meshing the physical and mental components of any potential anti-aging treatments. There could also be some intriguing possibilities opened up with the invention of brain age enhancements. Imagine being able to learn a foreign language as easily as a child.

Another thought I had relates to the accumulation of toxins. It seems likely that levels of substances like mercury and lead might become problematic during an exceptionally long life. These environmental factors don't contribute to the aging process but could contribute to death in an ageless world. Is there any mention of proposed therapies to remove substances like these?

On a more humorous note, imagine just how much of a commitment marriage would be in an ageless world. Life without parole prison sentences would also have to be tweaked. So would lifetime warranties for things Craftsman wrenches.

18 July, 2009 01:18  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Interesting points. The brain-chemistry issue is most easily addressed; the loss of brain capabilities over time is caused by the same general kinds of cellular deterioration that cause aging in other parts of the body, so a comprehensive program of anti-aging therapies would rejuvenate the brain just as much as the other organs. De Grey's book does have extensive discussion of the brain.

On the other hand, changes in attitudes such as increased cautiousness may well simply be the product of wisdom born of experience, or even a rational assessment of changed circumstances. I myself have become considerably more cautious since I realized that dying now might mean the loss of centuries of healthy life, not mere decades. This would probably be true of people in general in an ageless world. So long as the anti-aging therapies are effective enough that abilities (such as learning new skills and ideas) do not deteriorate, I don't see this as a problem.

Some have argued that an ageless world would be culturally stagnant because it would be dominated by conservative old people, but experience does not support this. The twentieth century saw a greater rise in life expectancy than all of previous history combined, but cultural change did not slow down -- it accelerated.

Even in an ageless world, of course, non-age-related causes of death would still exist -- murder, accidents, war, etc. Accumulation of toxins would be one of these. I assume that the defeat of aging would result in redoubled efforts to minimize other causes of death, since, again, a person who died from some such cause would be losing far more than a few decades of further life. De Grey doesn't discuss these issues, however; his book is concerned with aging specifically.

I would argue that the increase in life span during the twentieth century has already changed marriage, with serial monogamy becoming the norm; the longer people live, the less likely a marriage is to last a lifetime. The point about prison life sentences is an interesting one. I suspect the use of the death penalty would actually increase; if "life imprisonment" meant centuries or millennia, there would be an unacceptable risk that some future change of government or mores would release people who were supposed to be permanently out of circulation.

18 July, 2009 05:03  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

PS: De Grey does briefly address the toxin-accumulation problem in this interview.

18 July, 2009 06:37  
Anonymous Cameron said...

Your point about cautiousness is an excellent one. A world that doesn't have time based death looming over us is one where it makes all the sense in the world to try and avoid other types of death. Would you want to sky dive if you might be throwing a few hundred years of high quality life down the drain? Would you volunteer for the hazard-pay job? Would you drive on the road? Would you ski or participate in thrilling but mildly risky sports? Would you leave your house?

We're already a more cautious society than we were just 50 years ago and we will likely continue that trend even in the absence of life extending therapies but risk prevention would obviously matter a great deal more in an ageless world.

Aside from prison terms and wrenches, there are some other really fascinating institutional components of our world that would be altered or thrown into disarray by vastly extended lifespans.

We grant judges life terms to SCOTUS. Was it really our intention for Alito or Roberts who are both 50ish and could benefit from potential future therapy to serve for a couple of hundred years on the court?

Or consider the plight of countries under the thumb of dictators. What if we'd had this technology in the 40s and 50s? We could have been living in a world of Mao and Stalin a hundred years later.

Another interesting issue is the concept of seniority. While we in the west have some institutions where seniority matters directly such as police forces and unions it is typically more subtle and appears in terms of power and compensation. It is possible to get ahead in the corporate ladder without seniority fairly easy in our society. It requires merit and ass-kissing but it's possible to leapfrog people who are many years your senior.

Such actions are extremely difficult in places like Japan. Seniority is absolutely everything in a world where many people still work at a single company for thirty or forty years. The system works because everyone can have a chance at the top levels of power as prior generations retire and die. What happens when the threat of death is removed and people inevitably choose not to retire? It is easily imagine that system facing extreme pressure from younger generations who would simply have no shot at the top because they were born too late.

Inheritance and other familial traditions would also face challenges if we weren't constrained by age deaths. Consider the house that's been in the family for six generations. How could the current occupants pass it on to their children or grandchildren if they were for hundreds of years?

Actually that raises another problem: just how much junk would we accumulate during these extended lifespans? How many mementos and keepsakes would we build up over the course of extra decades or centuries of living. Or chirst, how many bloody family photos would we need to display as we spawned massive numbers of grandkids? We'd need new genealogical phrases too. How do you easily refer to your 9th generation decedents...perhaps 3great^2great granddaughter?

18 July, 2009 08:53  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I have to congratulate you for original thinking on this -- most people just come up with chestnuts like "if nobody dies the world will get overpopulated" or "people who live forever will get bored", which are pretty easily disposed of.

"Deathless dictators" are an issue that doesn't concern me too much -- dictators have a way of dying other than by natural causes, and when they do live to die of old age, they usually pass on their power to equally-nasty successors. Reform and/or revolution will happen -- or not -- regardless of anti-aging technology.

Seniority and lifetime court appointments are more of a tricky problem. I think the key error people make is to envisage a world where aging has been abolished but everything else is the same as it is now. That won't happen. Over the next 20-40 years, other technological changes will transform life even more fundamentally than anti-aging technology will.

18 July, 2009 10:21  
Anonymous Cameron said...

It's fun to think about. The topic reminds me of a mildly similar question posed by Rojas over at TCP. He asked what society's moral blind spots are. The question is utterly brilliant because it forces you to think about our failings from a perspective we don't normally take, the future.

18 July, 2009 11:11  

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