"Should we treat aging?" is a rhetorical question here, but sadly it remains a straightforward open question for much of the world - when it is asked, they are quite serious in asking it. People expect there to be good reasons as to why aging should be left as it is, the cause of death for more than 100,000 people each and every day, and scientists restrained from working on therapies of rejuvenation. This is one of the uphill struggles taking place in the patient advocacy community for aging research, that most people don't consider themselves patients exhibiting the symptoms of degenerative aging, have little inclination to do anything about it, and are in fact initially hostile to the whole idea.
I am a scientist working in the growing field of biogerontology - the biology of aging. The cause of aging remains one of the great unsolved scientific mysteries. Still, the past decade has brought real progress in our understanding, raising the prospect that treatments might one day be feasible. Yet aging is not just another disease. And the prospect of treating aging is extraordinary in terms of the potential impact on the human condition. So, would it be ethical to try to treat it?
I argue for the recognition of an imperative to seek treatments that decelerate aging in order to alleviate late-life diseases. But at what point would such an imperative be fulfilled? Although decelerating aging would postpone the illnesses of aging, it would not make them any less awful. This means that achieving decelerated aging would not lessen the imperative. We would only be compelled to decelerate aging further, and then further still. Here the ethical calculus seems to set us inexorably on a road to ever-greater life extension. Could any sane authority ever opt to force others to forego treatment and suffer from avoidable age-related disease? Surely not.
So it is that decelerated aging would force a dilemma upon us. Should we alleviate suffering on a large scale and accept life extension? Or should we allow an immensity of avoidable suffering in order to avoid extending life? To my mind, the only reasonable course is the first. In fact, we should pursue it energetically, and begin to prevent illness as soon as is feasible. If not, we risk the fury of future generations for dithering. As for life extension, we will just have to take that on the chin. If we can prepare for it socially, politically and institutionally, and if we keep birth rates low, we should be able to ensure long, healthier, happier lives for our children and for our children's children.
In reading this, one must understand there there are a great many people in the world whose first, instinctive reaction to extending healthy human life is to reject it. For them, life extension is indeed a bad thing. Various strains of environmentalism are one of the main culprits here: so many minds are poisoned by the false ideas that spread from environmentalist and related Malthusian ideologies: that there are too many people, that people are intrinsically bad, that wealth and longevity are intrinsically bad, that economics is a zero-sum game, and so forth.
There's nothing wrong with liking trees and wild places enough to spend your hard-earned resources on helping to maintain them. But environmentalism has a way of veering off into the worship of death and destruction, a sort of modern penitent movement focused on the mortification of society as a whole. It's so widespread and embedded in our cultures now that even mild-mannered, everyday folk declare their support for shorter and fewer human lives, for abandonment of technologies that improve the quality of human life, and for relinquishment of technological development that will greatly improve life in the future.
In the long run, these are the ideas we must defeat and bury if we are to build the level of understanding and support required to speed the advent of rejuvenation biotechnology.