26 August 2008

Ending aging -- questions and answers

I will update this posting regularly as needed.

As the prospect of a cure for aging becomes more widely grasped, the debate in some circles has shifted from "Can we do this?" to "Should we do this?" There is actually a "pro-death" camp which argues that even if a cure for aging is possible, we should refrain from developing it. Here are some of the standard objections, and (in summarized form) my responses to them.

If older generations don't die off, humanity will become stagnant

The twentieth century saw a far greater increase in average human lifespan than all previous history had seen. But this did not make it a time of intellectual, cultural, or technological stagnation. On the contrary, it was a time of unprecedented innovation in every field.

If old age makes people become stodgy and set in their ways, that's most likely due to the effects of the aging process upon the brain. We're talking about preventing those effects. More here.

Ending death from aging will cause overpopulation

Birth rates in most developed countries are already well below replacement level, and most of the Third World is heading in the same direction. Without a dramatic increase in lifespan, the developed world, and eventually the whole world, could face rapidly declining population.

Overpopulation is a relative term. There are about twenty times as many humans on Earth today as there were at any time before the industrial revolution, and most of them live much better -- more abundant and reliable food supply, more material wealth, better medical care, higher literacy, etc. -- than their far less numerous ancestors. How is this possible? Technological progress. Contrary to Malthus, our ability to generate wealth has consistently grown much faster than our numbers. This will continue to be the case as technological progress continues to accelerate, even if the end of aging leads to further gradual increase in population.

As for human damage to the environment, the condition of the environment in most developed countries has actually improved over the last century or so, as more resources have been diverted into cleaner and more efficient power generation, better waste disposal, clean-ups of existing damage, reforestation, etc. The worst environmental damage is happening in places like tropical Africa and South America, where population densities are low. Environmental devastation in poor countries happens because those countries are poor -- that is, they don't have the resources to spend on keeping the environment in shape as they strive to develop economically -- not because they are densely populated. The solution is to accelerate technological development so that poor countries can become rich.

People who live forever will get bored

If you think that you might be bored if you are still alive 100 years from now, consider this: How bored would a person who was a young adult in the year 1908 be, if he were still alive (and young and healthy) today? He would have seen countless technological and cultural developments he could not possibly have imagined in 1908 -- antibiotics, jet airliners, movies, space travel, the sexual revolution, the internet, and far more. Will innovation stop for the next 100 years, leaving us in a world identical to today's except for our own extended life-spans? Of course not. It will continue to accelerate dramatically. More here.

Growing numbers of old people will be a burden on the young

In fact, it will be just the opposite.  We're talking about stopping and eventually reversing aging -- extending healthy and vigorous life, not dragging out the period of age and decrepitude.  If people remain in the biological equivalent of early middle age for centuries, they won't be a burden; on the contrary, there will be far more productive people to bear the burden of the relatively few who, for whatever reason (those who refuse anti-aging treatment for religious reasons, for example), can't support themselves.

Only the rich will benefit

Experience shows that that's not how medical innovations turn out. Every new medical technology starts off being expensive and not working very well, and becomes cheaper and more effective over time. Anti-aging treatments will follow the same pattern.

Rich countries should not focus on ending aging when basic needs in poor countries remain unmet

By this argument, rich countries in the 20th century should not have worked on advances like antibiotics and vaccines while the more basic medical technology of the time was only sporadically available in poor countries. Following such logic would have left both groups of countries much worse off. Vaccines and antibiotics are widely used in the Third World today, even if their adoption there lagged the rich countries, and have led to improved health and lifespan world-wide.

Innovations in medical technology benefit the whole world, even if their widespread adoption comes a decade or two later in poor countries than in rich ones. The same will be true of anti-aging therapies. It's hard to think of any realistic scenario where slowing down innovation in rich countries would benefit poor countries. In most cases it would harm both groups.

Aging causes more than twice as many human deaths world-wide as all other causes of death combined. It is the leading cause of death even in most poor countries. There is no more basic or urgent human need than the eradication of aging.

People don't want a cure

Pretty much every posting on this subject brings at least one or two comments from people who insist they wouldn't want such treatments even if they were available. With all due respect, I simply don't believe this. Past behavior is a much better predictor of future behavior than verbal statements are. In practice, in almost all cases, a person with a life-threatening medical condition not only accepts a cure if one is available, but actively seeks it out. Once aging itself -- certainly a life-threatening medical condition -- is curable, I think the same pattern will hold. Yes, the idea of being able to live forever seems strange and incredible today, but these treatments will be phased in over a decade or two; people will have time to adjust and come to see the new status quo as normal, just as they have with past innovations.

There may, of course, be some people who will indeed reject anti-aging treatments, just as there are people today (such as Jehovah's Witnesses) who reject certain existing medical technology for whatever reason. I don't see this as a problem. No one has ever suggested that those who don't want anti-aging treatments should be forced to use them. If some large number of people honestly insisted that they would not use a cure for cancer if it became available, the proper response would not be to stop efforts to develop a cure for cancer -- but to press on, develop the cure, and let every individual decide for himself whether to use it or not.

This will hold true for the future, of course. We don't know how a 500-year-old person would feel about living for centuries more, because no one has ever lived to be 500 yet. As Aubrey de Grey has said, it's not necessarily about living forever; it's about living as long as you want to.

Many very old people do seem to accept death calmly, but that is natural in view of the infirmity and pain the aging process brings. When life holds more and more pain and less and less pleasure, death can come as a release from suffering. A 100-year-old person who was as youthful and vigorous as he was at 25 would not feel that way.

It's the pro-death side that doesn't want you to be free to choose. They want to force everyone to live (and die) the way they think is right, by preventing the development of a cure for aging. Their moral position is at least as bad as that of those religious fanatics in earlier times who argued against curing venereal disease on the grounds that doing so would promote "immorality".

Death is what gives life meaning or makes us human

This usually comes from a religious or "spiritual" viewpoint -- that is, the argument is based on avowedly non-rational premises and is thus not subject to rational discussion. I would say that it's covered by the personal-choice argument -- let's develop anti-aging treatments, and anyone who doesn't like the idea, for this or any other reason, will be free to refrain from using them.

If there's one thing that really makes us human -- that sets us apart from the other animals -- it's our ability to control the terms of our existence, to shape our own lives as we see fit, rather than being helpless victims of the genetic hand that evolution dealt us. It seems bizarre to define "humanity" in terms of the limitations we share with other animals -- including the fact that (for now) we are confined to a limited lifespan.

= = = = = = =

Ultimately the last word on this issue must be the very simple point which de Grey has made. The aging process kills about forty million people every year. That's the situation we're in now. Would a cure for aging cause problems? Yes, obviously it would. Would it cause any problems as bad as the deaths of forty million people a year? No, not even close.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was an excellent article, and If I could get rejuvenation treatments, and live a thousand years in good health I and every other Jehovah's Witness I know would avail themselves of that treatment ...unless it involved the use of blood, which God considers sacred, and so do JWs.


26 August, 2008 07:35  
Blogger Rita said...

This was an excellent article I agree & very thought provoking.

Many very old people do seem to accept death calmly, but that is natural in view of the infirmity and pain the aging process brings. I have found this to be true, being on fairly intimate terms with many elderly people. Because of pain & limitations due to aging, many elderly people are prone to severe depression. & in my experience depression does make the prospect of dying easier, sometimes even preferable.

About stagnation...
I would love the prospect of continuing the intellectual course I've set myself on. Given another 100 years I might actually understand quantum physics. :)

26 August, 2008 08:44  
Blogger Fran said...

I would never worry about getting bored. If I were to live that long- well I think there would be, as now - plenty to keep my mind and intellect engaged.

It is interesting to ponder the population aspect- I must give more thought and study to that aspect.

Right now I do not feel like I do want to live forever, say what you will. I am being honest about it but you always provide me with many ideas to consider.

While I may never come around, may I never stop reading, considering and probing.

That is why I am never bored now!

26 August, 2008 09:23  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Well guy...you know damn well I agree with you.What was fascinating in a comical way to me...was the questions asked. I mean.."people will get bored"?..
"only the rich will benefit"? "people dont want a cure"?."death makes us human and gives meaning to life"? The current species is genetically somewhat masochistic,and want to suffer to a degree.This IS going to be the norm in generations to come,the species will splinter,and our offspring will become the "god's" that humanity once wrote about,natural reproduction will be of the past as well..as well as over population..I'll shut up now and leave it at that.

26 August, 2008 12:14  
Blogger (O)CT(O)PUS said...

My mother passed away last April (on tax day - ironically). I spent much time with her in her last months, and also much time with her peers in the retirement home where she was residing. What I observed: All of them, mother included, were tired of life and did not want to continue living. Every day, they wished the end would come - painlessly, mercifully. I understand how they felt.

22 January, 2014 14:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Octo: Pardon my skepticism, but that doesn't seem to be the case with most elderly people -- certainly not with those I know personally. They buy medic-alert bracelets, take medications to ward of life-threatening conditions (even when it's burdensome), and in other ways make it clear that they want to stay alive as much as anyone else does.

I know some older people do feel the way you describe, but I addressed that point in paragraphs 4 and 5 under "people don't want a cure". The aging process inflicts terrible suffering and even death can seem like a release, when there is no alternative. A person who was 100 years old chronologically but still physically and mentally youthful would not feel that way.

In any case, the main point is that research must go forward and therapies to cure this scourge developed so they will be available for those who want to stay alive, even if some people will prefer not to use them.

23 January, 2014 02:23  

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