Natural Death: We Should be Worried About It

Edge magazine recently ran their yearly question, which this year is "what should we be worried about?" There are more than a hundred and fifty responses from various authors and folk in the public eye, and I'll confess to not having read more than a handful - time is ever fleeting, and none of us have enough of it between dawn and dusk. Thus while I noticed Aubrey de Grey's response, I missed seeing this rather better one. You should definitely read the whole thing, not just the concluding except below:

What Should We Be Worried About: Natural Death

Even if the probability of quickly finding a technological method to delay or reverse senescence is low, we have been devoting far too little effort to it. After all, no matter what else we might achieve with our work in life, we soon won't be around to enjoy it. There are other problems on the planet to worry about, but none more personally important. And yet, despite this motivation, there is very little money being spent on longevity research. Because there is no history of success, and because of widely held religious beliefs, government won't fund it. And because achieving success will be difficult, and the marketplace is flooded with false claims, industry has little interest in solving the problem. Although the profit could be astronomical, there is no easy path to attain it, unlike for cosmetic improvements. Over a hundred times more money is spent on R&D for curing baldness than for curing aging. We may someday find ourselves with extended lifespans as an unintended side effect of taking a pill that gives us fuller hair.

This absurd situation is typical for high-risk, high-reward research in an area without an established record of success. Even with strong motivation, financial support is nearly nonexistent. Scientists working on life extension often lack for equipment or a livable salary, and risk their careers by conducting oddball research that repeatedly fails. The problems are hard. But even with limited resources, a handful of scientists are devoting their lives to the pursuit, because of what's at stake. Success will require research on a similar scale as the Manhattan Project, but government and industry won't be supporting it. The greatest hope is that private individuals will step forward and fund the research directly, or through organizations established for that purpose. Maybe an eccentric, farsighted billionaire will want a chance at not dying. Or maybe many people will contribute small amounts to make it happen. This is being done, to some extent, and it gives me hope.

Personally, I know I am not so different than other people. I also have a very difficult time accepting mortality. When I think about all who have and will be lost, and my own impending nonexistence, it makes me ill. It's entirely possible that the hope I have for a technological solution to aging and death is biased by my own aversion to the abyss. Being realistic, given our current rate of technological advance, although I'm hopeful that radical life extension will happen before I die, I think it's more likely that I'll just miss it. Either way, whether aging is cured within my lifetime or afterwards, it won't happen soon enough. Good people are suffering and dying, and that needs to change in a way that's never been done before.

The more people who set out to propagate this message with style and flair, the better all our chances become. Money is the root obstacle, a lack of funding for rejuvenation research based on the SENS vision that is well planned but moving slowly - but persuasion can move money to where it is needed. You just need enough of it.


I think the article's attack on religious beliefs in the afterlife is strategically unfortunate. To the author, who seems to think that adherents of religions with such beliefs will be necessarily opposed to life-extension, there is no harm in alienating these inherent opponents. It's possible, however, to entertain such beliefs and also advocate life-extension — surely there are many religious people who support ordinary medicine, which also trammels the devout souls that would otherwise hie off to heaven. Furthermore, there are very many nominal religious believers who don't really believe the doctrine in their "heart of hearts" but hew to the creed for cultural, family or just plain inconsistent reasons. This observation is not as elusive as it might seem. All you need do is look at what behaviours would logically result from actual belief in a religion's tenets and observe that few "believers" actually do things consistently with their supposed beliefs (and those that do are often called extremists or fanatics for that sake alone).

Furthermore, this religious axis of opposition seems to be an invisible chimera. Professed opposition comes almost exclusively from either an anti-human or a totalitarian statist perspective. Religion is only introduced into the discussion by atheists who make the author's inference that the opposition *must* be religious.

To the pragmatic advocate, it would seem less than optimal to galvanize inchoate avenues of obstruction to one's own agenda by railing against them pre-emptively.

Posted by: José at January 26th, 2013 2:02 AM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.