James Pethokoukis of Next News has been talking about healthy life extension and science recently - a good thing in my book. A couple of his posts discuss anti-research opinions recently voiced by William Hurlbut, a member of the rightfully maligned President's Council on Bioethics.
Next News: So what's wrong with doubling - or more - the human life span?
Hurlbut: It's like stretching out a symphony, playing it at half speed so it goes on longer - it wouldn't have the same beauty or meaning. We get a taste of each relational category - being a child, a parent, and a grandparent. And our direct family lineage is connected by both genetics and personal experience, not so attenuated by time that relatives feel unrelated. If people lived to be 140, as some scientists suggest we will through technological intervention, a child could have 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents whose names he or she could never remember. In our natural lifespan, there is a harmony of proportion between the cycles of birth, ascendancy, and decline-phases of generation, nurture, and dependency that give a sense of meaningful connection within the journey of our lives.
This is just outrageous, rampant nonsense. It is a man waving his hands in the air and liking the sound of his own voice - you can imagine the same sort of person saying exactly the same things in 1900 regarding living well to 90. It's dangerous! It shouldn't be allowed! Civilization will implode!
These remarks would be funny, even pitiful, if the person saying it was not a member of an influential group that is used to justify restrictive US government policies on medical research.
Further nonsense from Hurlbut:
Hurlbut: The idea of designing people for specific aptitudes or superior performance capacities goes against the very strength of our species. We are a "general purpose organism"; we have adapted for adaptability, not for a narrow specialization. Our very strength is in creative flexibility, freedom, and open indeterminacy. These are what give us our extraordinary capabilities, our comprehending consciousness, and controlling powers. Our species may already be the optimal design for fullest overall functioning and flourishing of life. Indeed, it is our very strength that is now threatening us. Liberated from the immediacies of mere survival, we are open to imagination, to the ambition of technological self-transformation that could shatter the fragile balance of our physical and psychological functioning.
1-There has never been, nor will there ever be a static 'natural' lifespan for human beings. Life span has been trending steadily upwards since the beginning of the species. There also never been a static 'harmony of proportion' between people of different generations, the ratios between numbers of older and younger inviduals has varied throughout history and is dependent on a huge number of biological, environmental, and cultural variables, all of which are in constant flux. We as individuals create our own meaning - it is a null statement to say that life would be meaningless with a longer lifespan given that expected human lifespan has doubled within the last century.
2- Once again Hurlburt overuses the word natural, which is logically null - it has no semantic meaning in this context. Everything about human technological research is a 'massive human experiment', every bit of technology we produce in this generation, for better or worse, is handed down to the next generation. We have consistently upgraded human capabilities through technology form the very beginning of our species history. To paraphrase Andy Clark - prosthetics are just high tech walking sticks, and cell phones are just an advanced form of shouting. What bothers Hurlburt is that we are about to internalize our technology, but this is a very smooth (one could even say 'natural' ) progression.
3- The irony in Hurlburt saying 'Our very strength is in creative flexibility, freedom, and open indeterminacy', and then arguing we shouldn't change anything was pure comedic genius. (Where does Bush find these guys?) His speculating that humans are the optimal design for life harks directly back to human-superior Linnaeic trees of life, with man at the top. We aren't the center of the universe, we are animals, we are not separate from our genetic desires - in short we (in human form) are not the end all and be all reason for the universe and there is going to be something after us.
I think that it is important to remember that people like William Hurlbut are, at root, arguing for a form of mass murder through government mandated upper limits to life span. They can dress this ugly truth up in pretty language as much as they like, but they are still making policy recommendations regarding medical science, life span, and law. Hurlbut, Kass, and other influential bioethicists continue to argue that people should be forbidden from using medical technology to extend healthy life span.
I think that this is reprehensible. These views must be challenged by the healthy life extension community: challenged often, directly, and effectively.