A Leon Kass Retrospective

A reminder from Michael Anissimov that some people are not just opposed to healthy life extension, but also quite willing to steer government power to block research and the development of working anti-aging therapies. So much for live and let live.

“Could the beauty of flowers depend on the fact that they will soon wither? . . . How deeply could one deathless ‘human’ being love another?”

“Biotechnologies may undermine the likelihood that I will find my path to a full and rich life.”

“Fancy medical technology wasn’t going to benefit a lot of people. It would lead to a trade in human spare parts.”


"Withering is nature’s preparation for death, for the one who dies and for the ones who look upon him.”


“One could look over the past century and ask oneself, has the increased longevity been good, bad or indifferent?”

Leon Kass may not presently possess the high profile of past years, and these views are not expressed in the mainstream media in quite such volume these days, but the President's Council on Bioethics that was his podium is just as bad now as then - stacked with folk who believe it best to force you to age and die on schedule. Bah. I've nothing against people who want to age, suffer and die, but there's a strong, ugly word for someone who forces death on others.

These sorts of pro-death viewpoint are rightfully brought out in the sunlight, ridiculed, and squashed. You cannot rationally debate people who are on the side of legislative murder.

When debating the views and opinions of Leon Kass, chair of the President's Council of Bioethics, it's rather hard to get past the point at which he says he wants to use government power to ensure medical technology for healthy life extension is never developed or used. While there may or may not be wonderous subtleties and interesting points being made, they're being made in the service of arguing for legislated murder. We can debate differences all we like, but using state power to enforce bans on the use of healthy life extension technologies is a form of murder, condemning millions to slow, painful death by age-related degeneration that they could otherwise have avoided. So you can see that after a man says "I would like to ensure that you die" it is somewhat hard to continue to treat anything he says with dignity and gravitas.

Really, you are left with pointing out the obvious, and working to see that rational thought prevails.

If you want to take the interview at face value, Leon Kass is a mystic. He is a modern alchemist. The alchemists of old stood atop what little knowledge of chemistry they had and built a speculative religion of hermetic magic, transient wishes, celestial signs and hidden gold. Leon Kass stands atop what little biotechnology we have today (and seems to have a good grasp thereof), building his own structures of fanciful thought, equally disconnected from the real world.

To repeat myself: the Kasses of this world are more quiet of late, but they haven't gone away. A part of the work needed to bring about great change in medicine and longevity is the defeat of those who would try to sabotage progress and ensure the deaths of billions. We should endeavor to remember that.

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One hundred years ago the average person could expect to die, probably of a disease, by the age of 45 or so. Tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera, and other maladies were beaten one by one with public health, sanitation and other rather simple measures. Logically Leon Kass should want to do away with pasturized milk, with sanitary water supplies, with safe food supplies, because all those things increased mean lifespan in the 20th century, and he frets it wasn't worth it.

However, until I see Kass actually living with uninspected meat, water that has to be boiled before drinking, personally rejecting antibiotics, I shall find it very hard to take him seriously.

Posted by: Not Leon Kass at December 12th, 2006 10:53 PM

In the long run this form of Luddism can no more succeed than the original. Even in the very unlikely event that Kass and his ilk succeeded in obstructing research here (something the public is unlikely to support, given the recent electoral victory for stem-cell research even in a conservative state like Missouri), there are other countries capable of advanced medical research which are unconstrained by such absurd taboos. What American scientists are prevented from doing, Japanese, South Koreans, British, French, Israelis, Russians and others will still be able to do. Frustrated American scientists might even leave to offer their skills to more liberal nations.

Kass is actually a nanny-statist of the worst stripe. No one is suggesting that anything should be imposed on him or on anyone else who doesn't want it. Why not let technology develop and let each individual decide for himself whether to take advantage of it? If Kass wants to die after a "natural" life span, fine, but what right does he have to force others to die with him?

Posted by: Infidel753 at December 13th, 2006 2:31 AM

I addition to fighting people like Kass we need to reach out to the community of biologists that see longevity research in the same boat as religion.

Take PZ Myers at http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/ for instance.

He is a brilliant man and understands why organized religion is bad and holding us back. He often makes comments about everyone dying in the end or mocks Kurzweil at the same time he is mocking people like Chopa that are pseudoscience. I mean Kurzweil has real patented applications and has been correct on much of his technological perdictions.

We need to reach out to academics and make longevity research an accepted thing to talk about. I think de Gray is doing well with this with LycoSENS and MitoSENS, but that needs to be brought to the front more.

PZ has the most popular science blog on the internet if we could get him to at least not longevity research off hand as pseudoscience we could bring a new large audience.

Posted by: Joe at December 13th, 2006 10:19 AM

PZ Myers has every right to mock people like Kurzweil. I, myself, see people like RK as between science and the psuedoscience, projecting dubious graphs that skyrocket into infinity. Technological progress doesn't work the way Kurzweil thinks.

Posted by: ADBatstone at January 2nd, 2007 7:30 PM

Infidel, Kass is not actually a nanny-statist, but something even worse - a Judeo-Christian crusader, like his boss, George W. Bush.

Doubters of Kurzweil read short articles on his predictions, then dismiss them, perhaps rightly so, because they don't get all the detail underlying why he thinks the rate of progress will continue as it has. But if you read the online precis, you'll see that Kurzweil is actually even slightly conservative in his latest book - he doesn't postulate any truly game-changing technological advances until 2030. He seems to slightly miss the potentially world-annihilating impact of nanofactories, for instance.

What folks like ADBatstone are turned off by is not so much the predictions themselves, but the philosophical and social atmosphere in which they are presented. It just intuitively sounds like too much too soon. But it so happens that the rate of progress is most likely to be determined by economic and technological processes that have already been operating continuously and at a slowly exponentiating velocity for decades, if not centuries, and they can be predictable to some extent. They predict molecular machines by around 2025, for example, and human brain equivalent PCs by 2030. Once you start actually talking about the underlying technologies, and not so much the results, it gets more cut-and-dried, and I think Kurzweil's arguments are uniquely well-researched (his book has over 1000 citations, iirc), and many large research industries have roadmaps that reflect this exponential reality.

"Technological progress doesn't work the way Kurzweil thinks" is a very bold and easy-to-make statement, but what do you mean? Everyone and their brother has a personal theory to bolster up their default vision of the future, which in practically all cases, I find them to be remarkably less developed than Kurzweil's, which he has spent years full time developing. Ask Jamais Cascio or John Smart, independent futurists, on whether or not they agree with Kurzweil's predictions. Actually, they, like a continuously increasing percentage of futurists, do!

Posted by: Michael Anissimov at January 3rd, 2007 8:46 AM

This article is absolutely wonderful! I'm actually writing an essay about fighting Death for my high school assignment, and I wish I could one day stand up to wretches like this Leon Kass. He's no more than a(Argggh, I could not think of the mightiest of bad words)that does not deserve to live. He is bane to any people that wants to make the world a better place. Let's hope the government is not idiotic enough to take these pathetic scoundrels seriously. Let we be and let those who want to see god to see god themselves.

Posted by: DannyZ at October 4th, 2009 11:00 AM
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