Back at the end of 2003, I proposed that we need a "suitable outrageous extreme" in our promotion of healthy life extension.
The middle of the road, "reasonable" position in public or political debate tends to gravitate to midway between what are perceived to be the two opposite outrageous extremes, regardless of the actual merits of any of these positions.
With this in mind, it is occurring to me that part of the ongoing problem in the modern political debate over healthy life extension is that our "outrageous extreme" has always been a tentative, reasonably proposal that medical research carry on and that near-term technology would seem to allow us all to live a little longer ... say, to 150.
I mentioned Aubrey de Grey's figure of 5000 years for the life span of an ageless human (based on accident rates - you can find more information on that sort of calculation in "The Tithonus Option is Not an Option" at the Longevity Meme) as a suitable outrageous extreme at the time. I was pleased to see a recent example of this sort of psychology at work in an amusing column at the National Review:
Here we are talking about the federal retirement system facing possible disaster because a lot of people are living into their 80s and 90s. Meanwhile, out in the real world of science, medicine, and hypercompetitive Americans, 90 years old is already peanuts.
Normally skeptical journalists are reduced to goo by any news from the longevity frontier. Who cares if a lot of the science is dubious and contradictory? There's a massive audience for this stuff, and the media are only too happy to provide it, quality be damned. Now, with Baby Boomers on the verge of oldster-hood, there's a lot more to come.
Cautious longevity scientists say that it may soon become common for people to live up to 100 or 120 years. Bolder optimists extend it to 150. And there's the prominent inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who takes 250 vitamins a day and co-authored the recent book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. The book, which got serious coverage in elite media outlets, contends that if we can just all live another 20 or 30 years, we'll be in the age of "intelligent nanobots," tiny machines that will go into our bodies and eradicate all disease and damage, allowing us, potentially, to live forever.
Between these extremes is a Cambridge University scientist named Aubrey de Grey, who has said that people born in the next century (i.e., beginning 95 years from now) may have a life span of 5,000 years.
So 5000 years is now "between these extremes" and must thus be a sensible prediction, never mind the underlying science. While despairing of any attempt to inject rational, factual discourse into mainstream journalism, I think that we are making progress in the marketplace of ideas. That progress will translate to an easier time for scientists working on longevity medicine - when people are producing good science to back up projected future life spans in the thousands of years, proposals for funding to extend the healthy human life span by a few decades look quite reasonable.