It is a strange world that we live in, in which we have to argue - actually debate with people who earnestly hold the opposing view - that more of us living for longer, in better health than is the case today, is a good outcome. That it is worth aiming for, a great good, a sign of progress, a cause worth devoting a life to. That less suffering and less death in this world of ours would be a good outcome. How is this not self-evidently true in everyone's eyes? After all, you won't find many people out there arguing for the reinstatement of the shorter, less healthy lives that our ancestors lived. Few of the world's advocates are earnestly interested in rolling back the medical progress that has been achieved to date, with the aim of making more people ill, and reducing life expectancy.
Every death is a tragedy, and aging and its consequences kill far, far more people than any other cause. More than all of the other causes lumped together, in fact. Dealing with the mechanisms of aging should at this point be the primary focus of the efforts of our species to improve our lot in the world. That it isn't demonstrates that we are not particularly rational, either individually or as a collective.
So why is it so hard to obtain support for straightforward progress in medicine, where that progress implies longer, healthier lives? The entire point of medicine is to evade death and illness, to improve health. This is also a primary rationale and outcome in numerous other sizable human industries, such as farming. Success in cancer research implies cancer patients becoming cancer survivors, living longer in good health. The same is true of any other well-supported and publicly approved field of medicine for age-related disease. And yet bring up the lengthening of human life as a direct goal, and suddenly there is opposition.
After watching this behavior in puzzlement for more than two decades, I'm still little closer to understanding it. At this point, I think it has much to do with a bias towards the status quo, rather than any of the details of the situation. It is the fear of change that leads to rejection of all change, whether or not it is beneficial.
Longevity scientists who favor the idea of living for centuries or longer tend to speak effusively of prosperity and possibility. As they see it, sustaining life and promoting health are intrinsically good and, therefore, so are any medical interventions that accomplish this. Biomedically extended longevity would not only revolutionize general well-being by minimizing or preventing diseases of aging, they say, it would also vastly enrich human experience. It would mean the chance for several fulfilling and diverse careers; the freedom to explore much more of the world; the joy of playing with your great-great-great-grandchildren; the satisfaction of actually sitting in the shade of the tree you planted so long ago. Imagine, some say, how wise our future elders could be. Imagine what the world's most brilliant minds could accomplish with all that time.
In sharp contrast, other experts argue that extending life span, even in the name of health, is a doomed pursuit. Perhaps the most common concern is the potential for overpopulation, especially considering humanity's long history of hoarding and squandering resources and the tremendous socioeconomic inequalities that already divide a world of nearly eight billion. There are still dozens of countries where life expectancy is below 65, primarily because of problems like poverty, famine, limited education, disempowerment of women, poor public health and diseases like malaria and H.I.V./AIDS, which novel and expensive life-extending treatments will do nothing to solve. Lingering multitudes of superseniors, some experts add, would stifle new generations and impede social progress.