Earlier this year, bioethicist Peter Singer chaired a seminar on "The Science and Ethics of Eliminating Aging" at which Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation put forward his vision for rejuvenation biotechnology: building ways to reverse the root causes of aging, fixing cellular and molecular damage so as to extend healthy life spans, prevent aging in the young, and rejuvenate the elderly.
It has to be said that I'm not in favor of bioethics as a profession - medical ethics, its predecessor, has in recent decades has lost its way and evolved into an institution that stands opposed to its original goals. Medical ethicists tried to make medicine better, aiming to obtain, on average, better outcomes from the many unpleasant and difficult circumstances that can occur in the practice of medicine. Bioethicists, on the other hand, nowadays seek to empower themselves as general naysayers, able to put barriers in place of the path of development and invention. Thus they are incentivized to slow or block the progress needed to build better medicine: they can only justify their institutional positions by finding ever more reasons not to move ahead with new technologies.
Incentives of this nature are fundamentally corrosive, leading to people and organizations that are little more than parasites, consuming resources that might have been used for productive work, while laboring to harm their own field of science. One might argue that the rise in bioethics has come about because of rampant growth in regulation of medical research and development. Bureaucrats of the FDA have their own incentives to block and slow new medical technologies, and these regulators need institutions that can be used to justify the increasing costs placed on the process of building new medicine.
All that to one side, I noticed that a short article written by Peter Singer on the topic of radical life extension seems to have resulted from the seminar I mentioned at the start of this post. But consider the incentives of the bioethicist while reading it:
Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation and the world's most prominent advocate of anti-aging research, argues that it makes no sense to spend the vast majority of our medical resources on trying to combat the diseases of aging without tackling aging itself. [In] developed countries, aging is the ultimate cause of 90% of all human deaths; thus, treating aging is a form of preventive medicine for all of the diseases of old age. Moreover, even before aging leads to our death, it reduces our capacity to enjoy our own lives and to contribute positively to the lives of others.
On the other hand, we still need to pose the ethical question: Are we being selfish in seeking to extend our lives so dramatically? And, if we succeed, will the outcome be good for some but unfair to others? People in rich countries already can expect to live about 30 years longer than people in the poorest countries. If we discover how to slow aging, we might have a world in which the poor majority must face death at a time when members of the rich minority are only one-tenth of the way through their expected lifespans.
Whether we can overcome these objections depends on our degree of optimism about future technological and economic advances. De Grey's response to the first objection is that, while anti-aging treatment may be expensive initially, the price is likely to drop, as it has for so many other innovations, from computers to the drugs that prevent the development of AIDS. If the world can continue to develop economically and technologically, people will become wealthier, and, in the long run, anti-aging treatment will benefit everyone. So why not get started and make it a priority now?
De Grey has set up SENS Foundation to promote research into anti-aging. By most standards, his fundraising efforts have been successful, for the foundation now has an annual budget of around $4 million. But that is still pitifully small by the standards of medical research foundations. De Grey might be mistaken, but if there is only a small chance that he is right, the huge pay-offs make anti-aging research a better bet than areas of medical research that are currently far better funded.
That annual budget figure sounds closer to the SENS Foundation expenditures plus directly related research funded from other sources - the Foundation's budget itself is somewhat smaller than that per the last annual report. There's a long way to go yet in the fundraising stakes.