Precautionary Principle, Red in Tooth and Claw

Callahan complains that he has not seen specific descriptions from pro-longevists of how the world would address various of the more

obvious challenges that the elimination of aging might bring. He must not have read Bailey’s contribution in this series, nor the many essays I have written on the subject, because those pieces are replete with such answers. If Callahan regards those responses as inadequate he should specify why they are inadequate, not pretend that they haven’t been provided. The illogicality of Callahan’s position is not even concealed: he agrees that science has, on balance, done more good than harm, but then he advocates the precautionary principle red in tooth and claw when it comes to allowing science to do good in the future. Moreover, he persists in simply making no comment concerning the pro-longevists’ main point, namely that aging causes untold suffering as a result of the disease and debilitation that it brings. To Callahan, this suffering is evidently of no consequence as compared to the “qualms” he feels with regard to our ability to maintain a stable population size and economic structures in a post-aging world. Yet he still omits to tell us why. Callahan is fortunate to have reached his late seventies without yet experiencing the more severe ravages of aging – and because he has not, he is unlikely to die in the next few years. When those ravages become more evident, he may feel that he has had a good innings — but if he is glad today that he has so far escaped severe decline, I suspect he will continue to be glad of that health while it lasts — even if, heaven forfend, it lasts until he is a supercentenarian.

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.