A Culture of Controlling, Malicious Timidity

The course of our future lives, our health and longevity, is swayed by a population of timid mice - but malicious mice, ever ready to use state force to punish and hold back anyone they see as being insufficiently timid. These are people who support the ball and chain of centralized regulation of medical research, people who fear all change, people who fear everything they don't understand, and people who rush to prevent anyone else from enjoying the freedom to undertake personal risk in the course of advancing progress. This describes the vocal mainstream of Western culture: risk-averse, ignorant, and enamored of control for its own sake: a dangerous combination for those who pull upon the strings of law and regulation.

As I have often remarked in the past, freedom is absolutely essential to progress in medicine: the freedom for researchers to attempt goals as they see fit; the freedom for anyone to fund the research and clinical development they desire; the freedom for people to take personal risks in the use of medical technology; the freedom for groups to create an unhampered marketplace in medicine, in which technologies are rapidly sifted for those with the greatest benefit. These are all simply parts of economic and personal liberty, something that is in extremely short supply in the medical industry.

So the mice stamp their little feet, and the impersonal engines of government - the unaccountable employees of bureaucratic bodies such as the FDA - move to prevent us all from undertaking rapid development in medicine, on penalty of jail. For our own good, supposedly.

If anti-aging drugs are possible, they will require dangerous - and ethically troubling - clinical trials. ... If anti-aging medicine is to become a reality, then the various theories about how to halt or reverse the aging process will require testing on human subjects. Carrying out such tests will place unprecedented pressure on the rules protecting human participants in clinical trials. I suspect, then, that human guinea pigs for anti-aging trials will come disproportionately from the poor and disempowered. ... The rich and powerful will be looking to do away with rules that they perceive as denying them millennial life spans.

Those would be the rules preventing terminal cancer patients from choosing to up and pay for their own personal trial of a promising therapy-in-development - forcing them to die without any recourse. The rules that make formal clinical trials so lengthy and expensive that many potential therapies are simply never developed or tried by humans, and those that are might be a decade in the slow regulatory grind from readiness to actual availability. The rules that raise the costs of medicine too high for those poor folk that the author seems to be concerned about. Regulation of medicine, which raises costs, disrupts the effective market mechanisms of progress, and prevents people from using potential therapies that are technologically feasible and ready to field-test, is a morally bankrupt affair.

But this is the culture we live in, sad to say: one in which vague and poorly articulated discomfort with potential future inequities are given more consideration than the ongoing massive toll of death and suffering that we should be working day and night, as fast as possible, to prevent. A toll of 100,000 lives every day, and the hundreds of millions who are crippled, diminished, and in pain. Instead we get institutions like the FDA, whose staff toil to prevent new medicine from ever seeing the light of day. The mice would close their eyes and drown the world in blood just to feel a little better in their own vague sense of disquiet: they are the very worst of humanity, not even willing to acknowledge the fearsome costs of their own timidity.


Absolutely right. I know people must be tired of hearing, but let's hope Ron Paul wins the election and brings the FDA to heel. I don't see any other possibilities on the horizon for getting them out of the way of progress.

In the words of the incomparable William Burroughs, "No one does more harm than those who feel bad about doing it."

Posted by: Paul at January 26th, 2012 8:33 PM

It's breathtaking to me to see how much opposition anti-aging research engenders. There's no sense of perspective or proportionality in criticisms of this research program. For example, overpopulation is a problem to the extent that it degrades the quality of life and leads to increased mortality. But what causes more death and loss of quality of life than aging?

But then, it seems technology in general has gone out of fashion. My favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Dyson has an article in the latest Natural History where he describes going on a news program where they asked a panel what the current 7 wonders of the world might be. The other guests suggested natural wonders, like waterfalls and the like. Tyson proposed the Saturn V rocket.

In his words: "When I mentioned this, they all turned and looked at me like I had three heads... I was not connecting... But the conversation sparkled on canyons, waterfalls, and ice caps were discussed.

Then I thought. Well, let me try another plan, and I mentioned the Three Gorges Dam in China, the largest engineering project in the world, six times larger than the Hoover Dam.... The other people on the committee again turned and looked at me like I had three heads and said: "Don't you know the dam is devastating the environment?" I replied, "It wasn't a prerequisite that no humans would be harmed in the making of these wonders. And in any case, that doesn't make the largest damn dam in the world any less of an engineering marvel." I got outvoted on that one too."

Posted by: Ranjit Suresh at January 26th, 2012 9:06 PM

Opposition comes from several sources. There's institutional inertia and associated self-interested bureaucracies seeking to expand their influence, there's conservatism rooted in religious and other philosophies (with religion itself not particularly to blame as strange ideas about life and death seem to be prevalent also in secular world-views), and there's a vocal political contingent within the environmentalist movement that can be relied upon to denounce biotechnology.

About that last mentioned group, I have observed that their actual enthusiasm for practical measures to reduce the negative impact of industry, to restore the environment or to preserve genetic and species diversity is rather tepid. The only consistent trend of their advocacy is opposing all forms of progress (economic growth, technological development, infrastructure improvement) that promise to improve quality of life for people. On this basis, I suspect that environmentalism is acting as a pretext for this particular group (not to say all environmentalists) who are actually more anti-human than anything. They hate humanity and think that we should all collectively suffer and die as much as possible because we are inherently bad and "a pox upon the earth."

Finally, there are people who have not actually given the issue real thought but merely spout off received memes and platitudes. Among these are people whom I will call the "post-modernist insightful." They take any issue, point of conversation or concrete thing and give it a perfunctory cynical gloss, for which they can rightly expect to be lauded as perspicacious and pragmatic.

Posted by: Jose at January 26th, 2012 11:52 PM

Well said. I believe the anti life extension bias at the FDA is really a big Pharam bias. And that the big pharma bias at the FDA is structural more so than philosophical. Big dysfunctional bureaucracies just naturally prefer to regulate other large entiies like big pharma companies. Regulating a multitude of live extension practioners is just too difficult and stressful for FDA employess, thus they act in their own self interests and oppose live extention strategies which are difficult to regulate.

Posted by: JohnD60 at January 27th, 2012 8:11 AM

All these explanations make sense. I especially appreciate Jose's point about many, though not all, environmentalists. For example, note that environmentalists are much more vocal about what they are *against* than what they are for - opposition to the Keystone pipeline, for example, gets more attention than support for solar plant or wind farm construction, which they are ostensibly in favor of. I think the explanation is that, effectively they are opposed to development and technological progress - full stop.

Nevertheless, saying bureaucrats have an interest in opposing anti-aging remedies is presupposed on the notion that they believe that their job interests outweigh the extension of their lives. The only way this makes sense is if many of them are convinced that these treatments will not arrive in time for them.

This last point makes me wonder if to a certain extent our problem is that leading figures in politics and government are rather old and do not believe that such revolutionary technological development as SENS will ever benefit them. Of course the irony here is that problems like global warming and terrorists gaining nuclear weapons are much less likely to ever impact them either - yet they devote resources and energy to them all the same.

Posted by: Ranjit Suresh at January 27th, 2012 9:00 AM

The quote about anti-aging drugs is absolutely stupid. Why would this be any more true about anti-aging drugs than any other kind of drugs? It is well-known that the pharmaceutical companies sometimes do drug testing in developing countries. The ethics of drug testing on human subjects is no different for anti-aging drugs than it is for any other kind of drugs. The person who made this quote in "Slate" is an idiot.

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at January 27th, 2012 9:27 AM

Follow the money... the current healthcare system profits when we get sick. The bigger companies in healthcare pay off politicians, who make these rules.

If there were ever to be a bigger profit potential for curing aging then there is in treating sick people, you better believe it would change in a heartbeat.

It's just way too profitable for them to make chemicals that poison us in order to treat a symptom, further making us dependent on other poisons to treat those symptoms... rather then working on actual cures... there's no healthcare industry if there are no sick people.

We are all rats in a cage.

Posted by: David at January 27th, 2012 2:34 PM

That line of thinking has always been BS, David. Yes, the healthcare industry is just that: an industry. People are in it to make money. But conspiracy theories which talk about pharmaceutical companies willfully avoiding manufacturing cures so they can keep us sick are nonsense. They completely fail to take into account the fact that the drug companies are in competition with one another. Whoever has the best, most up to date treatment on the market will be rewarded with the patronage of the consumer. The market incentives are such that individual companies have to produce better remedies than the guys down the block, and fast. Trust me. Nobody with a profit motive is stifling the cure for cancer. Once it's found, you'll hear about it in Forbes.

A conspiracy implies conspirators, working together. An industry implies competitors, working against one another. Industries are good.

Ideologically motivated bureaucracies, on the other hand...

Posted by: Ben at January 28th, 2012 6:26 AM

That's fine Ben, but frankly, corporations successfully lobby government and government bureaurcracies to better serve their interests in a whole range of industries. Why have pharmaceutical and biotech companies been so singularly unsucessful in this area? In part, it may because they are not so enthusiastic about devoting billions to blue sky research in anti-aging therapies. If they lobbied as fiercely as Hollywood and the entertainment industry does for intellectual property rights or as much as the petroleum and natural gas industries do for energy exploration, we wouldn't be such lonely voices crying out in the wilderness.

Posted by: Ranjit Suresh at January 28th, 2012 6:47 PM

They aren't lobbying because to do so would be premature, as there's no reason for them to think they can make any money from doing so. There has been essentially no proof of concept demonstrated in the lab that aging can be reversed. We've recently seen some small examples, but it's very early days. That's the whole point of SENS. Once the SENS Foundation can demonstrate rejuvenation in mice, the floodgates will open.

When that happens it won't just be corporations lobbying the government to support aging research, though I'm sure they'll play their part.

Posted by: Ben at January 29th, 2012 4:31 AM
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