Peter Singer on SENS and Radical Life Extension

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:

Should We Live to 1,000?

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.


He mentions several times the plight of people in developing countries, but it's important to acknowledge that the the primary and ultimate cause of hardship in that case is government failure. Take for example the epidemic diarrhoea he mentions. The underlying issue there is lack of clean water. This could result in principle from poverty and lack of infrastructure, but if you take the time to reflect on particular examples in detail you find that the actual causes overwhelmingly are corruption, abuse, deprivation of human and economic rights and political instability.

This realization leads me to question whether such problems should be weighed against medical research in the developed world. I have no evidence that our money can ameliorate the failings of human nature, but ironically life extension research may go farther toward this end than most alternatives.

As an aside, has anyone tried to confront attacks on SENS and life extension research elsewhere on the Internet only to to be banned and have posts deleted? I confronted accusations that, among other things, quote attacks on SENS from EMBO Reports without noting the response or subsequent developments or state that SENS Foundation spends all its money on advocacy and has never produced any "valid" research. On multiple occasions this has resulted in the deletion of *all* my posts, banning of my accounts and being labelled a "spammer."

Posted by: José at December 11th, 2012 3:40 AM

One thing I think is funny is how people like Singer ignore the inevitability of technological advancement. They seem to think that these philosophical ruminations might actually affect the ultimate outcome in some way. Anti-aging technology will obviously be developed, if it is possible, regardless of "ethical" issues, so what's the point of going round and round on whether we "should" do it? Let's get on with the program before it's too late for us to benefit, so we don't wind up on our deathbeds stuck full of tubes watching a TV special about the revolutionary new aging treatments.

Posted by: Will Nelson at December 11th, 2012 10:36 AM

Will Nelson:

You might be right that philosophical ruminations will not stop the inevitable locomotive of technological and scientific progress. However, as the organizer of this website frequently points out, that locomotive needs fuel: funding dollars are required for the near-term success in regenerative and anti-aging medicine. And so-called philosophers, for instance the President's Council on Bioethics during the Bush years, have been responsible for manipulating policy decisions that directly affected where research money has gone(and in the case of the PCB, affected what was legal with regards to government directed stem cell research).

I think Singer is engaging in an important debate, one that might actually matter for whether people get effective anti-aging interventions sometime within the next few decades or whether our descendants get them. Also, Singer has perfectly reasonable reservations concerning our priorities, and presents what seems to me to be a reasonable opinion that we ought to investigate exactly what to spend money on now that will have the maximum effect on decreasing suffering down the road (interesting to note that this is how de Grey has been defending research into anti-aging therapies recently). Like you (I assume) I believe that anti-aging research ought to be a top priority. But I also think that people who want to see your reasons for believing that are not necessarily irrational, and that engaging with these people is a worthwhile and practically useful project.

Posted by: gheme at December 12th, 2012 10:56 PM
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