Nature Knew What It Was Doing

Aubrey de Grey’s argument in favor of efforts to combat aging and extend our life expectancy is a fine example of how to slap down doubters and skeptics. Those who oppose his views are accused of “irrational rationalization,” entertaining “myths and illogicalities,” suffering from a “miasma of arbitrary assumption and distractions,” “ethical bankruptcy,” and — best of all — they are “stunningly irrational from an objective viewpoint.” I have to confess that the last charge made me a bit envious. I have always wanted to entertain an objective viewpoint on something or other, and I have usually failed. I am impressed that de Grey has succeeded. I think I can objectively say, however, that if he is right about all of his charges against those of us of a different persuasion, then I am prepared to plead guilty to being part of the conspiracy of “standing in the way of saving a phenomenal number of lives.”

The deconstructed essence of his argument seems to come to this: (a) if we don’t like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, frailty and the like, unpleasant features of aging, we should not resist going after its root cause, aging; (b) that in order to combat aging we will in effect have to fight death; (c) since aging and death are twins joined at the waist, to combat the one is to combat the other, and both must be taken on together, (d) if we fail to do so, we will be guilty of the death of those whose lives could be saved; and (e) and joining the good fight against aging is be done in the name of humanitarianism.

There are a few premises of de Grey’s convictions that need to be examined. One of them — and I say this at age 77 — is that getting old is “tragic and potentially preventable by medical intervention.” Maybe age is “potentially preventable”; it is a mistake in science to say that something could never happen. But the word “tragedy” sounds like the voice of youth to me. Most of us who are getting old, or are already there, have many complaints about it, physical as well as mental; it isn’t the best stage of life (but then adolescence wasn’t great either).

I had a child who died a few months after birth, and I considered that tragic as did everyone else, but when my mother died at 86 of cancer, no one considered it a tragedy or even a great evil. Those who knew her said at her funeral that “we loved your mother and will miss her, but she had a good and full life.” I have never heard anyone say it is a tragedy that Socrates, Shakespeare, George Washington, and Albert Einstein died and are no longer with us. And while I hope in my more self-regarding moments that my friends and families will wail and gnash their teeth at my funeral, I doubt at my age they will do so; and I can, so to speak, live with that. I will get old and will die, an ancient story, but not a tragic one.

An implicit premise of de Grey’s argument is that a longer life is a better life, and that the longer the better, and even longer, even better. My own experience, and that of observing my elderly peer group, is that–at least if one lives into advanced adulthood, say, 55-65–there is no obvious correlation between length of life and satisfaction with life. The Roman philosopher Seneca noted many centuries ago that “it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given for the highest achievements if it were well-invested…. Life is long if you know how to use it.” Those words were written when the average life expectancy was 30 and one was considered was considered old at 40. He was right then and his words are still true today.

De Grey’s most mistaken premise is that it would be humanitarian to save the lives of those millions of old people who will live and die miserable and tragic deaths. First, a small but not trivial point: an extension of life expectancy does not save lives; it only forestalls death. If we all lived to be 200 or 2,000 we would eventually die, and my guess is that, to be consistent, de Grey would have to think that a tragic event. Only immortality would seem to make the trajectory of his argument coherent. If de Grey believes it would be different then, he should let us know just why. If not, we will remain trapped in the old bind, just stretched out in time.

But, come to think of it, he is not very specific about just why aging is tragic. People have always died in old age and, if accepting that reality is rationalization, then it is not clear to me why utopians who hope to rid us of aging are not in a fairy-tale land of rationalization also–not necessarily for thinking radical life extension is possible, but for thinking it will be good for us as human beings. I see no good reason to believe it will be, and of course–being speculative–no evidence can be offered that it will be. It is an act of faith, pure faith.

My standing complaint against de Grey and his enthusiastic colleagues is that they defend themselves by hypothesizing a variety of changes in our present way of life that would make our extended lives a kind of heaven on earth. We would be so healthy and energetic we would want to keep working indefinitely. We could start new careers, new families, new ways of life. That we might get tired of it all, or bored, is not allowed into their calculations. Nor is any imaginative effort to imagine the deleterious social effects allowed. Healthy, affluent people even now usually want to retire from work, not continue indefinitely, and poor people whose work is drudgery want it even more. But they would be forced to continue working unless society and their children were prepared to support them for hundreds of years. Social mobility in every human society has depended on the old making way for the young.

The late economist Kenneth Boulding once argued that “any major expansion of the span of active human life would create a crisis for the human race almost beyond imagining.” Speaking of the advantage of death for mankind, he noted that “it is the propensity of the old, rich and powerful to die that gives the young, poor and powerless, hope. When death is postponed, so is promotion.” Every society in human history has organized its work and social life around the fact that there are different generations, young and old, and people at different stages of life. I really wish we would be told, when the great day arrives and we have dozens, maybe hundreds of years ahead of us, exactly how it would all work. And to do so without invoking fairy tales. Nature knew what it was doing when it arranged, through natural selection, to have all of us get old and die. That is the price of species survival and vitality, and it has worked well. I don’t think we humans can invent a better scenario, but we can surely do much harm in trying.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, Aubrey de Grey, the Chairman and Chief Science Officer of the Methuselah Foundation and a leading proponent of radical life extension, examines the arguments and rhetorical stategies of those who oppose the effort to defeat death. Setting his sights on the “pro-aging trance,” the “Tithonus error,” “biomedical wishful thinking,” and two ways the “geronto-apologists” evade the real question, de Grey argues that reconciliation to death is a kind of discrimination, but that “old people are people too, so aging must be seen for what it is: a scourge that deprives far more people of far more healthy years than any other.”

Response Essays

  • In her reply to de Grey’s lead essay, Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, emphasizes our duty to think through all the consequences of much-longer lifespans. Can monogamy survive 1000-year lives? “What would the tally of disappointments, betrayals, and losses be over a millennium?” Schaub asks. If some societies now must wait for tyrants to die, won’t they have to wait a long time in an ageless world? And tyranny aside, “a nation of ageless individuals could well produce a sclerotic society, petrified in its ways and views,” Schaub submits.

  • Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine’s science correspondent and author of Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution offers a vigorous and straightforward answer to this month’s question: “Do we need death? No. Next question.” But before turning to the next question, Bailey tackles some of the worries Diana Schaub raised in her reply to de Grey, and even addresses “pro-mortalist” arguments Daniel Callhan, our next commentator, has made elsewhere. “The highest expression of human nature and dignity,” Bailey claims, “is to strive to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution, and our environment.”

  • Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the bioethics think tank the Hastings Center, digs beneath Aubrey de Grey’s premises and fundamentally challenges the idea that radical life extension would be a good thing. The argument against aging and death, Callahan argues, is “utopian” and depends on speculative “fairy tales” about the nature of very long lives. In a world of radical life extension, we might find people are “forced to continue working unless society and their children were prepared to support them for hundreds of years.” And social mobility may be imperiled if the old do not make way for the young. “Nature knew what it was doing when it arranged, through natural selection, to have all of us get old and die,” Callahan maintains.