Shunning Advances Through the Instinct to Equality

It is not uncommon to see people suggest that efforts to extend healthy life should not take place while there is great suffering and poverty in the world. These is something deeply hardwired into the way our brains work that leads to an instinctive rejection of disparity in wealth - or at least a rejection of that guy over there having more wealth. As this bioethicist puts it:

When I talk to people about my interests in [engineering greater healthy longevity through science] are a number of reservations and concerns they have. Let me briefly identify, and address, two of them: (1) many feel that talk of retarding human aging sounds like mere science fiction; and (2) many express the viewpoint that it is distasteful to worry about decelerating aging when there is so much poverty and disease in the world.

But the instinct that leads to rejecting longevity engineering is a patchy one that leads us falsely. You don't see many of these people giving up their comfortable lifestyle because it is better than poverty. You also don't see many of them decrying the progress of the past century that has led to better medicine - all accomplished while there was much poverty and disease in the world. They accept the beneficial progress that has taken place while at the same time recoiling from more beneficial progress accomplished under the same circumstances.

This is an issue rather than a depressing curiousity because widespread support is needed if engineered longevity is to make progress at a rapid pace. That same bioethicist believes this is a matter for persuasion and education:

One might wonder why, given all the pressing issues facing women in the world today, that they ought to add aging and longevity science to the list of things to address. "Is it really a priority?" one might ask. "Is it a priority in a world with disease and poverty?"

This is a fair question. And the answer is "YES!". Why? Because most disease in the world today is caused by aging. Now you won't find data from the World Health Organization that states that explicitly. But what you will find are the data concerning the proximate (rather that evolutionary) causes of morbidity and mortality. But behind the proximate causes of most human deaths (like cancer and heart disease) are the biological processes of aging. In other words, it is not a coincidence that most people who suffer disease and death today are over age 60. The vulnerabilities of late life reflect the tradeoff that natural selection has made between the fitness of a parent and reproduction. Natural selection favors a strategy in which organisms invest fewer resources in the maintenance of somatic cells and tissues that are necessary for indefinite survival of the individual (source).

The enormous and unprecedented disease burden the world will experience this century makes vivid the human toll of this tradeoff. Take the year 2005, the latest year that one can easily find the stats from the World Health Organization. Approximately 55 million people died in 2005. Of that number, 35 million died of chronic disease. That number is twice the number of deaths due to infectious diseases (including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria), maternal and perinatal conditions, and nutritional deficiencies. That is a staggering figure. Furthermore, between the years 2005-2015 WHO estimates that 220 million people will die from chronic disease, most of them (144 million deaths) in lower middle income countries like China and India. The diseases associated with aging are not, contrary to popular perception, only a problem for people living in the developed world. Indeed, being vulnerable to disability and frailty is a much greater disadvantage if one lives in a poor society with no decent health care or pension, as the link between income and "ability to work" is much more direct. So the chronic diseases associated with aging are a problem for all societies, not only the richest countries in the world.

Which is nicely done, presenting facts to change minds without attempting the much harder task of addressing the underlying prejudice against unequal progress. I'd prefer to live in a world in which it was realistically possible to bring entire populations to a greater understanding of economics, such that only a few people instinctively seek to block progress in the name of equality, but I don't believe that this is such a world.


Other points:

(1) Aging is the leading cause of death even in Third World countries. Real progress in defeating aging would save more poor people than anything else we can do right now (yes, the technology would start off expensive, but would rapidly get cheaper).

(2) There has been enormous progress over the last half-century in improving health and life expectancy in the Third World because of those advances which the developed world carried out instead of focusing exclusively on Third World poverty. Vaccines and antibiotics have improved conditions in the Third World much more than we could have done if we had refrained from developing those things and diverted the money to foreign aid.

(3) The argument that we shouldn't work on problem X because problem Y is more serious leads to obvious absurdities. By this argument, we should just identify the one most serious problem in the world and work only on that problem, not on anything else. Of course that is not the best way to achieve progress. (Even if it were, I would argue that aging is the most serious problem -- it kills more people than anything else.)

Posted by: Infidel753 at March 3rd, 2009 2:05 PM

health care is the most important issue now !!!

billions and trillions of bucks were spent on wars and space programs, from which only the rich benefit.

if the same bucks were spent on health care, including searching for and curing aging,
this planet would be a much better place.

before exploring other planets and searching for life there, humans should improve( both quality and quantity of) their lives on this planet

not everyone believes in curing aging -- those who don't believe in it can choose to suffer and die of it.
But the rest of us who believe in curing it should have a choice to get affordable cure of aging.

Posted by: nikki at March 4th, 2009 5:48 PM

I beliefe that one reason that many people are opposed to the idea of life extention is, that they have lived their lives as an investement in a "good death". Those are the religios people that think that by "serving" their respective gods, they have an adventage in the "afterlive" (heaven).

Posted by: Alfred Schickentanz at March 8th, 2009 9:10 PM

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