An Interview on Radical Life Extension

Today I'll point out an interview with Bennett Foddy, the author of The Right and Wrong of Growing Old: Assessing the Argument from Evolution, who fits into the interesting - and possibly small - category of people who both (a) see the only viable way forward in longevity science as being the same old slow boat of small, expensive gains achieved by slowing aging through metabolic manipulation, and (b) think that we'll make good progress that way. From the blurb to his book:

One argument which is frequently levelled against the enhancement of human biology is that we do not understand the evolved function of our bodies well enough to meddle in our biology without producing unintended and potentially catastrophic effects. In particular, this argument is levelled against attempts to slow or eliminate the processes of human ageing, or 'senescence', which cause us to grow decrepit before we die. In this article, I claim that even if this argument could usefully be applied against attempts to enhance other human traits, it cannot be valid in the case of attempts to enhance the various processes that constitute senescence.

Now I completely agree with the argument noted in the first sentence above, if not the rest of it - that we don't understand enough about metabolism to make good progress in manipulating it to slow aging to a great enough degree to matter. By which I mean we'll be old and dying by the time that useful results are produced, at staggering cost - and those results won't do much at all for people who are already old and dying, because all they will do is slow down aging. It is far better to focus on the SENS vision of repairing damage rather than just slowing down the pace at which it occurs. For one, repair should be easier as it isn't anywhere near as large a swamp of unknowns: the list of biochemical damage that we need to repair is known, means of repair have been planned in some detail, and effective repair biotechnologies for these known forms of age-related damage will actually produce rejuvenation in the old.

But on to the interview at the Atlantic, which makes for interesting reading. It would be pleasant to live in a world in which all we argued over was how exactly we should work to extend the healthy human life span and rescue the old from their degenerations. I should note that Foddy is a philosopher rather than a life scientist, so he's not quite as careful with his language as he should be - using "life span" in place of "life expectancy at birth", for example. But the general points he makes stand, and it is always good to see another member of the philosophy-slash-bioethics class explicitly place himself in opposition to the deathism of Fukuyama and Kass:

But there is another, deeper argument against life extension - the argument from evolution. Its proponents suggest that we ought to avoid tinkering with any human trait borne of natural selection. Doing so, they argue, could have unforeseen consequences, especially given that natural selection has such a sterling engineering track record. If our bodies grow old and die, the thinking goes, then there must be a good reason, even if we don't understand it yet. Nonsense, says Bennett Foddy, a philosopher (and flash game developer!) from Oxford, who has written extensively about the ethics of life extension. "We think about aging as being a natural human trait, and it is natural, but it's not something that was selected for because it was beneficial to us." Foddy told me. "There is this misconception that everything evolution provides is beneficial to individuals and that's not correct."

Foddy has thought long and hard about the various objections to life extension and, for the most part, has found them wanting. This is our conversation about those objections, and about the exciting new biology of aging.


[The Atlantic]: People usually regard life extension as a futuristic technology, but you begin your paper by discussing the ways that we've already extended the human lifespan. What's driven that?

Foddy: The reason I present it that way, is that there's always this background moral objection in enhancement debates, where a technology is perceived to be new, and by virtue of being new, is depicted as threatening or even strange. That goes for everything from genetic engineering to steroids to cloning and on and on. I think it's always worth contextualizing these things in terms of the normal. So with human cloning it's worth remembering that it's exactly the same as twinning. With steroids, it's worth remembering that in many ways it's not that different from training and exercise, and also that people have been taking testosterone since ancient times. I think this way you can kind of resist the idea that something is wrong just because it's strange.

When you're talking about medicines that help us live longer, it's important to realize how much we've already accomplished. In the last 150 years or so, we've doubled our life span from 40 to 80 years, and that's primarily through the use of things you can characterize as being medical science. In some cases it's clear that we're talking about medical enhancement - vaccines, for instance, or surgical hygiene and sterilization.

You should certainly read the whole thing.


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