Eros and Thanatos

Ronald Bailey closes his reaction essay by accusing a group of “well-meaning and intelligent people” (thank you, Ron) of wanting “to stop biomedical research.” So far as I know, no one has called for a ban or moratorium on anti-aging research. I know I did not. There are types of biomedical research that I regard as morally wrong (for instance, research that exploits vulnerable classes of human beings for the benefit of other, usually more privileged, human beings); however, I would not put anti-aging research in that category. If folks want to respond to the Methusaleh Foundation’s passing of the plate and become one of The 300 (whose $25,000 commitment will “beat back not just an army, but the Grim Reaper himself”) that is their business. For my charitable dollars, I would prefer to remedy the malnutrition and childhood diseases that deprive so many of their full “three score and ten.” These are scourges that we have some hope of beating back. For my health-care tax dollars as well, my vote would go to the urgent and the doable. (This is not to say that there is no place for noble and daring government-funded undertakings such as the space program.) Refusing to put my money in the pocket of messianic immortality-seekers does not constitute an attempt “to stop biomedical research.”

What I did attempt was a thought experiment, or the beginnings of one, on the effects of advanced longevity on the shape of our lives and pursuits. This is, of course, pure speculation—based not on “data” but on one’s assessment of the human psyche and social matrix. Bailey’s reference to the “available evidence” of the last century’s real, but exceedingly modest gains in life expectancy—a couple of decades as compared to a millennium—doesn’t strike me as terribly relevant. Works of the literary imagination, including science fiction, probably offer more material for reflection on an ageless future than does any other source.

In my reaction essay, I raised the question of the fate of monogamy (and by implication other life-long commitments) in a millenialists’ world. Bailey ducks the issue by claiming that monogamy has “already begun to fall apart.” Regardless of the divorce rate, the aspiration to find a true and lasting love remains heartfelt today. That fundamental human aspiration could potentially be altered by millennial existence, to the detriment of individual happiness. In his “Conversation” contribution, Bailey is untroubled by the prospect that our descendants might not “breed like us, feed like us, or need like us.” It’s a nice rhyme, but a vulgar idea. At our best, we love and long; we procreate and dine; we don’t breed and feed on the animal model and I hope we won’t in future. Civilization depends on the uniqueness of human sexuality—and much of that uniqueness may derive from our awareness of and experience of mortality.

Bailey refers to using “new technology to help us and our families to flourish.” However, in his first posting, he describes the “happy side effect” of a “lack of interest in progeny.” He implies that there will be more for us (the lucky Olympians), since we won’t be troubled by the overpopulation that could result from wave after wave of near-immortal generations. (By the way, my point about the inverse relationship between longevity and fertility—observable in age-retardation research with animals—was not about interest in having offspring but the physiological ability to do so.) If hyper-longevity impairs the bond between generations that would be a loss for both individuals and society. I find it paradoxical that the supposedly gloomy and cramped “pro-mortalists” are the ones who welcome new generations and the vibrancy and hopes they bring, while the “pro-longevists” would sentence mankind to live under the reign of the self-preoccupied baby-boomers forever.

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.