Who's Afraid of Life Extension?

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.


Once again, these are the comments of someone who has lived the conventional life and lacks the immagination to live "outside the box".

As someone who live in the adult playground of LA during the late 80's as well as a totally "disconnected" open life in Asia during the 90's, I view the aging process as simply a pest, a thorn in the side, that gets in the way of me being able to live a completey free and open life.

I actually have not met any "immortalists" here in the states (judging from the interent, there are a lot of us), but all of the expats I met in bars throughout Asia all thought a cure for aging and immortality was pretty cool. Long-term expats (read Fred Reed's description of them, its accurate) are driven by freedom and being able to live ones life without the constraints of a conventional life cycle. Some of them do marry, most do not. They are definitely driven by desire not to live life in a pattern or to be a part of someone else's parade. These are all sentiments that I share.

We don't like the conventional life cycle because, on the whole, its basically boring, limited, and involves a lot of hassle without much payoff. In other words, its a lousy deal.

The problem with Moody (and others) is that they have lived the conventional life and honestly believe thats where its at. They cannot imagine anyone not wanting to have the kids, the morgage payments, and the boring expensive cars. They cannot imagine just droping everything, selling it all off, and moving to Thailand or Belize.

The point of immortality is to explore all of life's options. You want to live in Japan for 10 years, go do it. You want to start a software company in Singapore and spend 5 years building it up, go do it. You want to simply hang out in Bali or Boracay for months at a time, you can do it.

Immortality is about You Can Do It. You can do what you want for as long as you want, then go on to do something else.

The most frightening thing to me about Moody (and others like him) is their complete lack of comprehension about this kind of freedom. It simply does not register in the brains. These people live their limited, dark, depressing lives and think that all there is to life.

This is really quite depressing.

If I was superrich, I would buy some of these people a one-way plane ticket to Asia (or Latin America) and make them stay there for 5 years or so. It just might open their horizons.

Posted by: Kurt at August 1st, 2004 4:03 PM

The neat thing about a cure for aging is, we can have it both ways. I'm 26, married 3 years now, with a 20-month-old son and another kid on the way.

I have often gone through what-if scenarios in my mind. I love my family too much to entertain the "what if I never got married, and never do get married?" types of questions. But, what if I had waited five more years before getting married; I could have saved $1,500 a month at the job I had at the time. I could have invested in real estate, or bonds, or whatever, and in five years, been $120,000 in the black. Instead, I'm in the red, and just making enough in contract work to scrape by, with my wife working too.

But I love my wife and my son, and I don't want to change it. I'd rather finish with the kids in 20 years, and at 46, have 20 or 30 good years of work and travel ahead of me (assuming aging isn't cured).

But, with aging cured, someone in my position could have it both ways. They could wait the extra 5 or 10 or 20 or 30 years, save up a quarter million or a million dollars, then start the family, and really devote themselves to it. In other words, retire or semi-retire to raise a family.

Then, when the kids move out, they could go back to work. With 200-year or 500-year or longer lifespans ahead of us, I see monogamy becoming more and more abandoned.

But if you spend 50 years with someone, then you've basically spent a lifetime with them by today's standards. Why consider it infidelity to move on. I think staying with someone for 50 years when you have perpetual youth and sex drive is a sign a loyalty.

And if you happen to like that person enough to stay with them longer than 50 years (why do I keep saying 50? I figure, if you're going to have a family, you may as well enjoy the grandkids!), that's great.

Jay Fox

Posted by: Jay Fox at August 1st, 2004 10:01 PM

When I see a child, or a photo of an infant I think about its potential, its possibilities, given the care of security, safety, and inspiration. When I see a young adult, I am compelled to look both forward and backward, to see the past and to envision the future. As persons age, the indicators of aging compell us to look mostly backward but to consider the future to insure safety and security. When I see the photo in the Boston Globe of aging men, or aging women, like the photo of Julia Child who recently passed away that is ablaze with the glory of her well earned wrinkles over the entirety of her life, making the distinction of the young and the old may not be automatic, but most thinking people consider the full expanse of the experience and contribution to life, and lives, that she has made. This perspective is not typical today but a learned response by humans who are educated enough to consider the wide scope of lives in their integrity, not as a moment of time conditioned by our attitudes about beauty which may or may not include inner beauty, dedication, or contribution. The photo of Julia Child shows the beauty of the person, not the beauty of youth, or the glamour of her feminine curves, grown indistinct by time. Being able to differentiate the mind and body as one grows older is a cultivated talent for mature persons but can be understood even by children if they are given the chance to appreciate the full context of life, and the honor due to those who were born before they were. Like buildings, and wine, sometimes beauty is a cultivated artistic sensibility that has many dimensions. If Americans appreciate art, it is because they have been taught all of the facets of art and not cajoled into thinking that beauty exists only in the typical marketing of beauty and glamour that is commonplace in today's advertising. Failing to serve the public with an appreciation of the elderly beauty of humans around us with well lived lives is inconsistent with our appreciations of fine wines or of fine buildings. This is not to say that the fine modern architecture cannot or should not be admired as well. Isn't the mind of mankind capable of these multi-dimensional concepts, if they are marketed to them rather than ignored?

Posted by: Patricia Ross at August 18th, 2004 9:02 AM

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