Aging as "Natural"

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a seminar at Case Western Reserve University given by Baroness Mary Warnock. The eminant philosopher, known for her influential work on reproductive ethics, was also a keynote speaker for the University's Medical Humanities week.

She was an absolutely delightful speaker: erudite, clear, and open to questions. In this seminar, she focused on the use of the terms "natural" and "unnatural" in critiques against biotechnological interventions such as cloning and genetic engineering. "The natural," she argued, was a broad and imprecise term that was frequently used as a stand-in for "the good" and for religious conviction, particularly in the United States. However, using the concept of the natural is problematic, because humans already use a number of technologies and tools to improve society and life in general. Many things which are made by humans rather than nature (such as purebred sheepdogs) are considered good; while other things which are not man-made (such as disease-causing bacteria) are considered man. In effect, Warnock argues that an "unnatural" aspect is not an effective, logical, or clear reasoning behind the movements to ban certain biotechnological interventions.

That is not to say, however, that Baroness Warnock endorsed technological attempts to dramatically extend life. Rather, she expressed hesistation and doubt about what such extended lives might do to our understanding of the life course, to families, and to the community.

In contrast, many who oppose anti-aging efforts have as their first or primary argument the conviction that extending life is "unnatural" or "going against God." Kass, for example, has often portrayed aging as a "natural" part of the life course. The absence of aging, as a result, would mean the absence of something that makes us essentially human. Popular images of life-extended individuals, such as vampires, play into this view.

A different view is present in the new (and highly entertaining) book by Armand Marie Leroi, "Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body." The book charts the variety, history, and causes of human genetic mutations and what such mutations tell us about embryonic development and the genetics of human formation. In the last chapter, which addresses aging, Leroi presents a view of aging devoid of inherent meaning: unlike theories which present aging as a period of life review, here simply an accumulation of many mutations whose deleterious effects occur after the reproductive period (thus avoiding selective pressure) or may provide reproductive benef effects early in life. Thus, aging itself serves no specific purpose, but is an amalgamation of many mutations that contribute to the increase in mortality as one ages. As life expectancy continues to move ever upward, aging is increasing being "cured" (if the aging is understood to be the increased likelihood of death as one gets older).


"while other things which are not man-made (such as disease-causing bacteria) are considered man"

Did you mean "bad"? That's an interesting mistake - man=bad.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward at April 2nd, 2004 7:45 AM

Hmm. Yes, I did mean "bad."

Do you think this was a Freudian slip? It sure sounds like it.

Posted by: Roselle Ponsaran at April 2nd, 2004 12:21 PM
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