While meandering the web, as I often do on Sundays, I came across a promising article from Harry Moody, one of the many bioethics-oriented folks affiliated with the International Longevity Center. You might recall his appearance in a SAGE Crossroads debate over whether to define aging as a disease. It's interesting - and pleasing - to watch the conservative rump of gerontology start to come around as real anti-aging science becomes ever more plausible:
When I began to prepare to write this article, I was clear and confident about my direction. Anti-aging technologies, I was sure, are a snare and a delusion--an appeal to vanity, to narcissism and denial of reality. Instead of techno-utopian delusions, I would argue for a more "ecological" vision of life where youth and age are both accepted as part of the natural life cycle. It is a line of thought I have held for many years, and what is more comfortable than familiar opinions?
But the more I thought about my skepticism and hostility to life-extension technology, the more uneasy I became. Gradually, as I reflected on my uneasiness, I found it more and more difficult to rationalize my strong rejection of life extension.
In this piece, Moody summarizes the for and against arguments as he sees them. His emphasis is on anti-aging medicine rather than anti-aging science, as mainstream, conservative gerontology is in the midst of what can only be described as a feud with the anti-aging marketplace over legitimacy, definitions and public understanding what is possible. As I've said before, both sides are as much in the wrong as they are in the right.
Diversion of scarce resources.
Diverting scarce biomedical resources to anti-aging research is wasteful, since the odds of success are remote and the consequences for society are problematic. Funding should go instead for more conventional research to ameliorate age-related diseases, as the National Institute on Aging contends.
Counterargument: A tradeoff decision isn't ours to make. Funding for anti-aging research mainly comes from private corporations, not government anyway. The situation is comparable to cloning: Research will go on either here or overseas, whatever we think. Tradeoffs will be decided in the marketplace, not at the policy level. Moreover, anti-aging research will have benefits in ameliorating age-related diseases. It is impossible to separate anti-aging research from other forms of geriatric medicine.
Virtues of aging.
Aging, death, and finitude are essential conditions for human flourishing. Working within limits is what artists do in the act of creativity. To live without limits would not provide a basis for the human virtues that give life its creative meaning.
Counterargument: Life extension is not immortality and doesn't do away with the finitude of existence. Life extension may even make the threat of "premature" death more poignant. Acts of artistic creation entail limits imposed by social convention (e.g., the form of a sonnet or a symphony). So too, extended life may require different new conventions. By analogy, instead of a short lyric poem, we aim for a longer epic poem. The extension of life will open greater possibilities for human expression and fulfillment on a larger scale. Why then should we be afraid of life extension?
Moody is still in the group of gerontologists who believe - unlike Aubrey de Grey and his supporters in the field - that radical life extension is either impossible or still far in the future. Both are self-fulfilling prophecies when held by those in charge of funding, since they won't fund what they believe to be a waste of time. Moody does recognize that the mainstream gerontological response to serious anti-aging research is lacking, however:
Indeed, within mainstream gerontology, anti-aging medicine is widely viewed with hostility and skepticism (an incipient form of "gerontological correctness"?). But we are entitled to wonder: Are the arguments against anti-aging medicine valid, or are the opponents of anti-aging medicine (including me) simply gerontological Luddites?
The response of mainstream gerontology to anti-aging medicine reminds me of an old joke about the man who borrows a pot from his neighbor and doesn't return it. Eventually the neighbor asks for his pot back. The one who borrowed it says nothing at first, then blurts out, "First, I never borrowed a pot from you. Anyway, I returned it last week. And besides, that pot was no good to begin with." What is it that bothers us about the technology of life extension? Is it perhaps the fear that it might--just might--work?
Here one cannot escape the memory of Lord Kelvin, who proudly declared that radioactivity must be a hoax, or the case of the French physicists who proclaimed that heavier-than-air flight was impossible--just a few years before the Wright brothers took off into the air at Kitty Hawk. Again, we come back to the question, Do we believe that life extension technology doesn't work, or that it can't work, or that it shouldn't work?
Overall, the article in not indicative of a large change in attitude. If the conservative scientists and funding administrators are slowly seeing the light, however, then we're getting somewhere. It is becoming harder and harder for these people to continue to ignore demonstrations of radical life extension in animals, working regenerative medicine, progress in understanding the causes of aging, and other steps towards real anti-aging medicine.