We humans are irrational beings, for all we like to think ourselves otherwise. This irrationality is well known and often discussed within the pro-engineered longevity community: we all see that death by aging is by far the greatest cause of destruction, death, pain, and sorrow known to man. We also see that few people place a high priority on doing something about that:

The rational actor looks at risks to life and health ahead and acts to minimize those risks. Since we all have limited time and resources, we have to prioritize: we make lists, in our heads if nowhere else, putting the most likely and terrible outcomes up at the top. Highly unlikely but terrible outcomes don't receive much attention: meteors, lightning strikes, that sort of thing. Likely but merely unpleasant events might just be suffered as a cost of getting on with life: catching the flu is an obnoxious happenstance, but not particularly threatening for most of us. There are more important things to worry about while buying insurance and otherwise taking care of essentials.

So you end up with a list involving fires, car accidents, sudden implosion of the company you work for, that sort of thing. In that, most of us are not being terribly rational, as aging isn't on the list. It is absolutely going to happen, and it leads to the most terrible personal consequence possible - death - via numerous other very nasty personal consequences. Alzheimer's, heart disease, cancer, and all the rest. We all have a 100% chance of aging as things stand, and it's the worst thing that will happen to most of us. So why isn't it up near the top of that priority list?

I notice some more thoughts on that topic at In Search of Enlightenment:

Most people alive today will most likely develop, and die from, one of the chronic diseases of aging like cancer, heart disease or stroke. ... Retarding aging would help us delay all age-related disorders simultaneously, thus yielding healthy dividends that far exceed what a cure for cancer or AD or stroke could yield. So one of our top priorities should be to increase the health prospects of humans in late life. Thus aging research ought to be at the top of our priorities.

But it isn't, and so there is much toil, wailing, and gnashing of teeth amongst advocates for longevity science. It is said that you'll know you're onto something big when it becomes extraordinarily hard to convince other people that your ideas are good ... using the tools of biotechnology to extend healthy life and repair the biochemical damage of aging is certainly something big by that measure.

I see further discussion along these lines at Depressed Metabolism. Is the present generation of older folk going to quietly ride their degenerating bodies all the way down to the grave, or will they at some point take note of rapidly advancing capacities in biotechnology and decide enough is enough, perhaps giving rise to an energetic range of advocacy and investment groups?

One question that is going to be of great interest is how aging baby boomers will confront aging and death. Where previous generations have found peace in religion and silent resignation, there are reasons to believe that this generation will not be so complacent. The baby boom generation, or at least those who have shaped contemporary culture and politics, have been more secular and less inclined to accept the constraints of nature (as evidenced by the obligatory contempt for views that allow some degree of biological determinism).


There is a lot at stake here.

Yes, indeed there is. More hands make lighter work, and efforts to build the first generation of longevity medicine are very much lacking in the more hands department at the present time.


Wonderful commentary: Irrationality.

It is something that has troubled me for years now and I have finally come to think it might be simply something that is genetic and not even a choice for most folks to be rational about such existential issues as aging and death, etc. Then I think there may be a few humans who have come along to be on a different evolutionary "branch" and are able to consider such things rationally. It all might be merely a matter of our species evolving.

Posted by: vogbank at September 20th, 2009 6:45 PM

Interesting, I think such complacency is heritable only culturally. I agree that there is an emerging paradigm of scientific empowerment, but most people are still just ignorant to the possibilities; the public at large hasn’t a clue. Most just accept the decay as an unavoidable fate. Any ideological preclusions to longevity research however are indeed maladaptive cultural precepts. Too bad big pharma in the US won’t soon be funding research in this direction. Fighting aging should be public policy.

Posted by: revenant at September 21st, 2009 10:58 AM
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