Is the present human life span enough? This was the topic for a recent debate, wherein Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation and Brian Kennedy of the Buck Institute were matched against Ian Ground of Newcastle University and Paul Root Wolpe of the Emory Center for Ethics. Obviously my answer to the question is a resounding no; we should absolutely be doing far more than we are to eliminate aging and extend healthy life spans to the greatest degree possible. I am in a minority for holding that view, however. A growing minority, but a minority nonetheless. Two thirds of the population, when asked, say that yes, the present length of life is just fine. For my money, I think this is simply that most people live in the moment, within the bounds of what is, and give little thought to what might be different. If the wall is white and has always been white, you'll only get blank stares if you ask people what color it should be. What is familiar is equated with what is best, or sufficient, or good. Most people see the future as more of the present, just a different day with different fashions. Managing to hold this state of mind whilst standing amidst the fastest pace of progress in history is a feat, but clearly we humans are up to it.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the position that present length of life is sufficient is that near all of the people who think this way, will if asked, also say that cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and other well-known age-related conditions should be cured. This is inconsistent, to say the least, as these conditions are caused by aging. They, and the other failure modes of organs and tissues that have been given formal names, are what kill people. Aging is the wear and tear that gives rise to these conditions, but these are not separate things. The only way to prevent age-related disease is to control the processes of aging - such as through periodic repair of damage after the SENS model - so as to indefinitely sustain function and health. If function and health are sustained, then life is lengthened. It is impossible to decouple aging from health.
The next time you find someone who thinks that the present length of life is fine, ask them what disease they want to suffer and die from. What is an acceptable way to decay into death? Heart disease? Kidney failure? How about neurodegeneration, the loss of the mind? My guess is that they don't want to suffer any of the above, and have hazy notions of an easy death at the end of life. Modern societies have pushed the ugly realities of what it means to age to death out of mind, behind curtains and into nursing homes and hospitals. That ugly reality for near everyone is pain and degeneration, the loss of function over time, and a very unpleasant end. Again, the only way to prevent that is to control the underlying processes of damage that cause aging and disease, and by doing so extend health and life. There is no picking that apart. It is only through ignorance of how things actually work in our biology that people can hold the strange and inconsistent positions that they do on aging, medicine, and longevity.
What if we didn't have to grow old and die? The average American can expect to live for 78.8 years, an improvement over the days before clean water and vaccines, when life expectancy was closer to 50, but still not long enough for most of us. So researchers around the world have been working on arresting the process of aging through biotechnology and finding cures to diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer. What are the ethical and social consequences of radically increasing lifespans? Should we accept a "natural" end, or should we find a cure to aging?
First to argue in favor of the motion that "Lifespans are long enough" was professor of bioethics and director of the Emory Center for Ethics, Paul Root Wolpe. He said: "We all want to live longer. Maybe even forever. But I think the quest for immortality is a narcissistic fantasy. It's about us. It's about me. It's not about what's good for society." As Wolpe saw it, the question is not about whether it's possible to extend life but whether it's desirable. He viewed making the pursuit of indefinitely long life a goal in and of itself as wrong-headed. "Will life extension make the world a better place, a kinder place? Has extended life expectancy made it better? I don't think so," Wolpe said.
First to debate against the motion that lifespans are long enough was Aubrey de Grey, chief science officer of SENS Research Foundation. "I believe that the defeat of aging is the most important challenge facing humanity," he declared. "I'm going to start with this question about the alleged conflict between individual desire and societal good." De Grey compared the issue to people not wanting themselves or anyone else to get Alzheimer's disease. "It's a societal good because we don't like each other to get sick any more than we want to get sick," he said. De Grey doesn't believe that future problems are anywhere near as horrifying as the problem we have today. He said: "Let me tell you exactly how bad the problem that we have today actually is. Worldwide roughly 150- to 160,000 people die each day. And more than two-thirds of those people die of aging. It's crazy. In the industrialized world, we're talking more like 90 percent of all deaths. Let's actually do something about it."
Philosopher Ian Ground of Newcastle University and Secretary of the British Wittgenstein Society supported the motion that lifespans are long enough. Ground questioned the wisdom of having an indefinitely long life that could be led with no thought about its ending or decline. He urged us to consider a decision like committing to a certain career, person or place. People can't do everything, marry everybody or live everywhere, Ground said. We become particular people by making those choices, and must recognize that with natural capacities come natural limitations, he added.
The final panelist, who argued against the motion "Lifespans Are Long Enough," was Brian Kennedy, CEO and president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. Kennedy addressed speculation from the previous three speakers about what life might be like if we lived to 150, from how society would change to the prospect of boredom. "Maybe we're going to be bored. Well, you know, if you ask me: 'Do I want to have cancer at 75? Do I want to have Alzheimer's disease at 85? Or do I want to be bored at 110?' I know which one I'm going to take," said Kennedy.
In the end, the team arguing against the motion "Lifespans Are Long Enough" won, according to the audience. The post-debate score results were 40 percent for the proposition, 49 percent against and 11 percent undecided.