About this Issue
Is aging an inevitability or a disease? Is death the ultimate tragedy or necessary to give life meaning? If we could live forever, should we want to? If much longer lives are within technological reach, is it our duty to do everything possible to achieve radical life extension, or is it instead our duty to reconcile ourselves to finitude?
Such big questions require big minds. Aubrey de Grey,the maverick scientist at the forefront of anti-aging research, contributes this month’s lead essay arguing that it is our duty to “fight aging to the death.” Replying to de Grey we’ll have Diana Schaub, professor of political science at Loyola College of Maryland and member of the President’s Council of Bioethics; Ronald Bailey,Reason magazine’s science correspondent and author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution; and Daniel Callahan co-founder and Director of the International Program of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute.
Old People Are People Too: Why It Is Our Duty to Fight Aging to the Death
It has been obvious to me since my earliest days that the eventually fatal physiological decline associated with getting older is both tragic and potentially preventable by medical intervention. It was, therefore, a matter of some consternation to me to discover in my late twenties that my view on this matter was not universally shared. In this essay I explode various myths and illogicalities that surround the effort to combat (and especially to defeat) aging, with an emphasis on some that are often perpetrated by currently influential commentators.
The Pro-Aging Trance
Cancer is undesirable. Heart disease is undesirable. So are type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and a thousand other debilitations that predominantly afflict those over the age of 40. Is it not then bizarre that we should have any hesitation in declaring that aging in general, being the molecular and cellular root cause of all these phenomena, is just as deserving of the attention of our medical research efforts?
There is, in fact, a simple psychological explanation. Until very recently, aging has been regarded by all credentialed biogerontologists as far too complex to be substantially postponed within the lifetime of anyone currently alive. Indeed, this remains the majority view, with the present author one of a still rather small (though growing) minority who perceive a way forward. This being so, it makes good psychological sense to find some way to convince oneself that aging is all for the best, and thus to put it out of one’s mind, rather than to spend one’s life preoccupied with one’s grisly and inescapable fate. The fact that such rationalizations are stunningly irrational from a purely objective standpoint is irrelevant.
Unfortunately, irrational rationalizations only work for as long as we can suspend our disbelief. As a result, some of the world’s finest minds have gained great prominence by articulating excuses for aging that sound convincing to those desperate to be convinced. A pro-aging message presented as a moral or sociological fait accompli is a crutch, allowing its recipients to divert their attention to less unsavory matters.
But, of course, the authors of these arguments don’t see it that way–not least because they believe their own arguments just as sincerely as their followers do. Hence the rest of this essay.
The Tithonus Error
In the Greek myth of Tithonus, the (mortal) eponymous Trojan warrior won the heart of the (immortal) goddess Eos. Being too junior a deity to be able to immortalize her lover, Eos asked Zeus to do this–but “forgot” to ask that Tithonus also be eternally youthful. He thus became ever more frail and decrepit, such that eventually Eos had no choice but to turn him into a grasshopper.
The survival of this myth is a shining example of the pro-aging trance in action. The idea that a postponement of death might occur without a postponement of aging is plainly arbitrary (as well as biomedically absurd–being frail is risky and always will be), yet it is the presumption made unquestioningly in the story–and, as those who have raised such matters with the public know well, equally unquestioningly in the knee-jerk reactions of many when called upon to contemplate radical life extension.
Erudite commentators tend to avoid this error in its grossest form, but subtler versions of it abound. The most dangerous one is with regard to the motivation for intervening in aging. Let us consider some reasons why one might want to postpone aging:
- to live longer
- to let others live longer
- to avoid debilitation/disease/dependency
in later life
- to let others avoid debilitation/disease/dependency
in later life
Even once it is accepted that the postponement of death will probably be achieved only by the corresponding postponement of frailty, apologists for aging are often keen to cast the wish for a longer life as an ignoble, even unmanly desire. The controversial nature of this starting-point has an insidiously indirect effect: it distracts attention from the fact that even if this wish were ignoble, the conclusion that we should not strive to defeat aging does not follow. The unstated assumption in this form of the Tithonus error is twofold: firstly that those who wish for aging to be defeated wish it for the putatively ignoble first reason, rather than for the more unassailably noble others, and secondly that the merits of such-and-such a future scenario depend on why people strove to bring it about. I myself am much less motivated to combat aging by selfish desire than by humanitarian incentives, not least because I know that I can only alter the life expectancy of a particular individual (myself, say) by a small amount through my actions, whereas on a global scale I may save a phenomenal number of lives. But even if most pro-longevists were driven by a personal desire to live for centuries, and even if for the sake of argument we were to agree that this is not a noble motive, so what? Good deeds done for “invalid” reasons are still good deeds.
Biomedical Wishful Thinking
There once was a time when most deaths were from causes unrelated to aging – predation, starvation, hypothermia, etc. In today’s industrialized world, such deaths are in the minority: aging kills around 90% of us. But some deaths from aging are widely held to be worse than others. Particular importance is often attached to the amount of time spent in a frail state before death: dying in one’s sleep in the absence of chronic disease and at an age somewhat (but not too much!) in excess of the prevailing average is considered “a good death” with which doctors should perhaps not interfere, whereas the protracted suffering endured by many elderly today (especially with the rise of Alzheimer’s disease) is a worthy target of medical intervention. This leads to the refrain that we should prioritize “giving life to years, not just years to life.” As with the Tithonus error above, this position is predicated on a miasma of arbitrary assumptions and distractions.
Firstly, it is distinctly unclear whether a sick person’s life is any less valuable (hence, worthy of sustaining) than a robust person’s. After all, no less an icon of contemporary moral philosophy than President George W. Bush stated in connection with the Schiavo case that “it is wise to always err on the side of life.” Note again the paradoxical utility of a controversial aspect of a position in distracting attention from aspects that are more unequivocally indefensible.
Secondly, the views of the victim of a “good death” tend to be forgotten once that death has occurred. Prevailing quality of life (and perception of near-term future quality) bears heavily on many people’s interest in self-preservation – and why should it not? – so those who have been getting quite a lot out of life right up until last night might, were their opinion sought, hesitate to join the consensus that it wasn’t such a bad thing that they didn’t wake up this morning.
Thirdly, the Tithonus error is equally erroneous when inverted. Just as being frail is risky, so being robust is not risky: people who are not in the advanced stages of one or another age-related disease will mostly not die until they are, whatever their chronological age. Biogerontologists have somewhat disgracefully engaged in the politically expedient obfuscation of this point in recent decades, co-opting as their own Fries’s entirely valid observation  that changes in lifestyle could “compress morbidity” – but that doesn’t make it true that postponing aging could do so. There are, of course, easy ways to change that – discontinue the supply of influenza jabs to the elderly, for example – but such approaches have not found favor with the general public (nor, it might be noted, with geronto-apologists) in the past and show no sign of doing so in the future.
The practical fact is that, of the three categories of death enumerated at the beginning of this section (early, “bad” late and “good” late), society seems committed to delaying all three. The only issue is the relative priority that should be given to delaying one versus another – and this must be evaluated in the context of foreseeable biomedical reality, not fantasy. Specifically, those who fear the consequences of a dramatic delay in both types of late death are engaging in profound intellectual dishonesty if they ignore the fact that meaningful compression of morbidity – that is, selective postponement of bad death and consequent increase in good deaths, without much change in life expectancy – is biomedically implausible. Rather, they must accept the fact that the only realistic approach to greatly postponing bad deaths is to combat aging itself, and that this will correspondingly postpone good deaths, thereby – unless we deliberately eschew measures to prevent early deaths, as noted above – greatly raising life expectancy, with all that that entails.
The question that humanity must face up to is clear: is the prevention of the suffering currently associated with most deaths from old age valuable enough to justify the inevitable side-effect of radically increased lifespans? The question is not whether that side-effect is good or bad – a question on which opinions will surely remain divided for some time to come. The question, rather, is whether that side-effect is so bad as to outweigh the benefits of eliminating aging-related suffering. Dodging this question is unacceptable – and thus, for those who profess to dispense wisdom on ethical matters, it is unforgivable.
The Feasibility/Desirability Hiding Place
Suppose we were to devise a feasible anti-aging intervention that, once developed, would postpone both good and bad late deaths by a modest but non-trivial amount – ten or twenty years, say. Suppose, further, that both the development and the provision of this intervention were very expensive. The ethical arguments against such expenditure are far more reasonable than those that I have demolished above. Specifically, one might point to the much more limited improvement in overall quality of life (because, since early deaths would still be in the minority, the average time spent debilitated before death would be unchanged). One might defensibly conclude that the societal drawbacks of such a measure – increasing the rich/poor health divide, in particular – outweighed these much more modest health benefits, and even the very large economic benefits of keeping the population healthy for longer.
This has proven an irresistible temptation to geronto-apologists, and the following script has been repeated ad nauseam. When presented with the moral unassailability of the quest to defeat aging entirely, they overwhelmingly present arguments against modest postponement of aging instead, quietly eliding the distinction and portraying the reality as the worst of both worlds (the downsides of radical life extension with only the upsides of modest life extension). When confronted with their error, they retort that dramatic postponement (even defeat) of aging is “clearly” infeasible and thus not an appropriate topic for discussion. When it is pointed out that their certitude on this matter belies the fact that they are bioethicists, not biogerontologists, they point to the clear consensus of public statements of biogerontologists, which indeed centers on the feasibility of modest life extension but the infeasibility of defeating aging. When reminded that biogerontologists would say that, wouldn’t they (since they are funded mainly by taxpayers, who suffer from the pro-aging trance that conservative bioethicists work so hard to perpetuate), they reply that the existence of bad reasons to say something doesn’t imply the non-existence of valid reasons. When directed to the concerted and spectacularly unsuccessful attempts made by vested-interest-driven prominent biogerontologists to explain to neutral experts why the defeat of aging is infeasible , they merely repeat the same reply – for that is all they have.
This tactic can be summed up succinctly. Geronto-apologists simultaneously hold, and alternately express, the following two positions:
- They refuse to consider seriously whether defeating aging is feasible, because they are sure it would not be desirable;
- They refuse to consider seriously whether defeating aging is desirable, because they are sure it is not feasible.
Like a child hiding in a double-doored wardrobe, they cower behind one door when the other is opened, then dash to the other when it is closed and before the first is opened. Only when both doors are flung open in unison is their hiding-place revealed. They are both well and truly open now, and the time when this sleight of hand was effective has passed.
Fearmongering and Implausible Deniability
A venerable rhetorical tactic in the promotion of fragile positions is to raise in the audience’s mind the specter of some terrible consequence of the opposing position without actually spelling it out. Unnerving questions are asked – but then, rather than answers offered, the subject is changed, leaving the concern to fester in the subconscious. The author escapes, however, with the knowledge that if challenges are raised to the validity of these concerns he can resort to the claim that he never actually said that.
This tactic has been all too evident in prominent analyses of whether we should combat aging. I will use as my illustration the chapter “Ageless Bodies” from the President’s Council report “Beyond Therapy,”  but readers will notice abundant echoes of other writings. The litany of obfuscation begins by exploiting the terminological ambiguity of the word “ageless” with observations such as “An ageless body is almost a contradiction in terms, since all physical things necessarily decay over time.” Many pages are then devoted to detailed discussion of various age-retarding measures that have already been demonstrated in the laboratory, without mention of the fact that no credentialed biogerontologist currently claims that any such technique will ever deliver genuine agelessness.
By contrast, no space whatever is given to the work being done on bona fide regenerative medicine, which is the only approach that truly does have such potential. This confusion is amplified when ethical matters are turned to, e.g. with the stage set by declaring that the idea is to extend the working lifetime of all bodily functions by the same finite amount (thus allowing the fear to be raised that some would be extended longer than others). Then the fearmongering can begin in earnest. Preposterous propositions such as that “Our dedication to our activities, our engagement with life’s callings and our continued interest in our projects all rely to some degree upon a sense that we are giving of ourselves, in a process destined to result in our complete expenditure” are articulated; but then, rather than being quixotically defended (and their absurdity thus exposed), they are sidestepped – “This is not to say that [a life lived devoid of that sense] will be worse – but it will very likely be quite different” – and a new topic hastily begun. The same tactic is repeated over and over again: boredom, childlessness, meaning, families, creativity and more are introduced and then left hanging, with no explicit conclusions asserted, thus distracting the reader from the text’s naked bias of emphasis of the risks of radical life extension over the benefits. If you feel I’m overstating the case, I invite you to re-read the text with my comments in mind.
Urgency, Reflective Equilibrium, and Repugnance
When thoroughly cornered on the question of whether the defeat of aging would be a good thing, geronto-apologists generally turn as a last resort to the cry “Okay, but first things first!” The fact that efforts to postpone human aging will definitely not bear much fruit for at least a few decades is held as a reason to deprioritize such efforts in favor of combating already preventable problems.
It is trivial to expose the ethical bankruptcy of this position. We lock people up for the same amount of time if they kill people with a gun or with a booby-trap bomb, even though the interval between the murderer’s action and the victim’s death differs by several orders of magnitude in the two cases. The same irrelevance of that interval applies to the saving of lives, since action and inaction are morally indistinguishable. We are close enough today to defeating aging that serendipity does not define the timeframe: the sooner and harder we try to do it, the sooner we’ll succeed. Thus, our inaction today costs lives – lots of lives.
Time was when we didn’t lock people up for either such crime: we executed them. That tradition has been roundly rejected across almost the entire developed world, as have slavery, sexism, racism, faithism, homophobia – and, with the notable exception of this essay’s subject, ageism. Our view of what is and is not repugnant evolves by a process best described by Rawls, with the name “reflective equilibrium,” in which logical contradictions between simultaneously held values are progressively highlighted and resolved by the abandonment of the less central one. 
Kass has courageously defended an academically unfashionable position that I personally share, which ethicists call “non-cognitivism” and he called “the wisdom of repugnance.”  In this view, one’s gut feeling regarding the ethical status of an action is not something to be meekly subordinated to logic, because the very existence of that feeling constitutes evidence of its ethical correctness. However, the beauty of reflective equilibrium is that it works for cognitivists and non-cognitivists alike: one needs no belief in the existence of objective morality to appreciate that one’s moral stance on all matters should be logically consistent.
Thus, it is the duty of opinion-formers on ethical matters to work to accelerate the reflective equilibrium process: to identify and highlight internal contradictions in conventional moral wisdom so that the competing views can battle it out. In the case of radical life extension, since the equivalences noted above (action/inaction, ageism/discrimination, saving/extending lives) are so fundamental, the odds are rather heavily stacked against the pro-aging position’s survival of this process.  The title of this essay really says it all: discrimination of any sort is passé. 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. Aging, in a word, is repugnant, and we would be wiser to follow Kass’s general maxim than his specific conclusion. To persist in defending aging is psychologically excusable – fear of the unknown is a reasonable emotion, in particular – but it is ethically inexcusable.
 James Fries, “Aging, natural death, and the compression of morbidity,” New England Journal of Medicine, 303 (1980): 130-135. Online: http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/abstract/303/3/130
 Jason Pontin, “Is Defeating Aging Only a Dream? No one has won our $20,000 Challenge to disprove Aubrey de Grey’s anti-aging proposals,” Technology Review, 109 (2006): 80-84. Online: http://www.technologyreview.com/sens/
 President’s Council for Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, 2003. Online: http://www.bioethics.gov/reports/beyondtherapy/index.html
 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).
 Leon Kass, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” The New Republic, 216 (1997): 17-26. Online: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/medical_ethics/me0006.html
 For an elaboration of this conclusion, see Aubrey de Grey, “Life extension, human rights and the rational refinement of repugnance,” Journal of Medical Ethics, 31 (2005): 659-663. Online: http://jme.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/31/11/659
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Aubrey de Grey doesn’t promise that the lights won’t go out, but he does think we may be able to change when and how they go out. He rages not at death but decline. Of course, if bodily decline can be successfully staved off, then a major cause of death will have been removed. Accordingly, de Grey envisions a future where the human lifespan will be “radically increased.” Although his present essay is oddly reticent about attaching a number to the word “radically,” the website of de Grey’s Methusaleh Foundation is more forthright. The Bible puts Methusaleh’s age at 969 years and de Grey is confident that science could restore such antediluvian longevity to humankind. He calls for a life-prolongation project that would deliver a 1,000-year human lifespan. Presumably, life would still be cut short either by events that continue to elude rational control — accidents, acts of God (like the flood that did in Methusaleh), and acts of others (war and murder) — or, I suppose, by deliberate choice, whether heroic self-sacrifice or suicide. So, we won’t be deathless, but we will be ageless (or pretty nearly so). Death will come, but not as a predictable culmination of a life cycle.
De Grey’s thought has the distinct advantage of being visionary and radical. The boldness of his forecasting invites equally far-reaching speculations (including some forebodings) about the character and shape of human lives measured in centuries rather than decades. Before I say “yes” to a whole lot more life, I would want to think about the relation between more life and a good life. I must admit that I don’t find persuasive de Grey’s attempt to silence potential doubters and dissenters by brandishing the specter of age-discrimination and insisting on “our duty.” If the powerful desire for self-preservation, coupled with the fear of death, is not enough to fill the anti-aging ranks, I don’t think calls to duty will do it.
After all, most of us — so long as we’re not environmentalists of the humanity-hating stripe — already have pretty pronounced pro-longevity sympathies. Over the last century, there have been tremendous gains in average life expectancy throughout the developed world. In the United States, for instance, the figure went from 48 to 78 as a result of reductions in infant mortality and other causes of premature death. Similar improvements in nutrition, safety, and longevity are earnestly being sought in less developed nations. At the same time, scientists and doctors are searching for cures for the diseases that afflict us in later life. All of this is welcome. Right now, the human lifespan is 122 years (maximum lifespan is set by the longest-lived individual of a species). You might say we are endeavoring to make life expectancy approximate lifespan. To the extent that we can close that gap, human beings could expect to live long and relatively healthy lives.
I suspect that de Grey is correct that in the course of this desirable work to allow us to live out our natural lifespan, we will increasingly turn our attention to the mysteries of aging. We will seek to arrest or even defeat senescence. Age-retardation techniques, whatever they may be (candidates at this point include caloric restriction, genetic manipulation, regenerative medicine, antioxidants, and manipulation of hormones and telomeres), will open the prospect of re-engineering the human lifespan. This is an altogether different prospect — not a modest postponement of aging, but a dramatic one.
I don’t know whether a 1,000-year lifespan is scientifically feasible, but I’m quite willing to grant for the purposes of the argument that it is. More interesting, at least for a political scientist with a humanities bent, is whether it’s desirable. The cliché one often heard about Marxist communism was that it “sounds good in theory, but won’t work in practice” — in other words, that it was desirable, but not feasible. I always thought the cliché had it backwards. It was the communist dream itself that was undesirable. Sitting here with an aching back and my share of middle-aged complaints, I’m not quite willing to say that agelessness is undesirable but, on the other hand, I can’t shake the conviction that the achievement of a 1,000-year lifespan would produce a dystopia. Our moral obligations to posterity require us to give more comprehensive thought to what we bequeath them — not merely physically, but psychologically and politically.
De Grey singles out for criticism the “Ageless Bodies” chapter in Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. He faults the President’s Council on Bioethics for asking questions –
“unnerving questions” that “fester in the audience’s mind.” To my mind, unnerving questions are the stuff of philosophic inquiry. We should wonder about the effects of a 1,000-year lifespan on the “moral contents of life.”
Let me start my own speculations with what might seem a frivolous topic: pet dogs. For those who love their dogs, the disproportion between the human and canine lifespan is already painful. I know of dog-lovers who just can’t bring themselves to get a new puppy after they’ve lost one too many. How would one feel at, say, 370 years of age, contemplating pet number 30-something? The physical energy required for a new puppy is nothing compared to the psychic energy. So, I don’t think it’s absurd to worry about the effects of extremely long life on our commitments, aspirations, and receptivity to new life and love.
Perhaps we won’t find it disturbing to be so out of sync with the rest of creation (particularly not if we take a chosen few, like our dogs, with us into hyper-longevity). Our human companions, in any case, would be equally long-lived. But how would human relations be affected? How would monogamy fare? It’s not doing great as it is, but could one even imagine the vow “till death do us part” when death might be nine centuries away? If monogamy simply disappears as a promise and an expectation, we might be confronted with the human version of the puppy problem: would there be enough psychic energy for ever-renewed love? Life takes its toll on the spirit as well as the body. What would the tally of disappointments, betrayals, and losses be over a millennium? Would we love other people more or less than at present? Would we be better partners, parents, friends, and neighbors? What would it be like to experience the continued vitality of the body in conjunction with the aging of the spirit? Would it mean the best of both worlds: the vitality of youth with the wisdom of maturity? Or the worst of both worlds: the characteristic vices of age with the strength of will to impose them on others?
The consequences of radical life-prolongation would not be purely individual, but social and political as well. Since tyranny is an aspiration coeval with political life, we might wonder what the effects of millennial existence would be on the possibilities of tyranny. Every era so far has generated instances of life-long rule — of tyrants who die in their beds having quashed all hope of liberty during their lifetimes. Would a 1,000-year lifespan also mean 1,000 years of the likes of Stalin — a Stalin who perhaps uses agelessness (and other biotech discoveries) as a tool of political control?
Even without the threat of vastly extended tyranny, a nation of ageless individuals could well produce a sclerotic society, petrified in its ways and views. Senescence escorts us, more or less gracefully, off the stage, making room for fresh generations. The aging of individuals may be one condition for societal renascence. Fascinatingly, longevity research in animals suggests that one cost of age-retardation is sterility or decreased fertility. If there are trade-offs between long life and new life, then the quest for individual immortality may pose dangers for the well-being of the human collective, whether at the level of the family, the nation, or the species. While frailty and finitude don’t seem such good things, they may be inextricably entwined with other very good things that we would not want to sacrifice.
 The phrase comes from Pierre Manent in Modern Liberty and Its Discontents.
Diana Schaub is Professor of Political Science at Loyola College in Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.
Do We Need Death?
No. Next question.
All right, seriously folks, why would anyone think that that we need death? Pro-mortalists generally fear that longer lives will result in a nursing home world, filled with aging, miserable, debilitated people draining resources from the young to keep themselves alive. Second, they worry about the social consequences of longer lifespans.
In his lead essay, Aubrey de Grey ably demolishes the nursing-home-world dystopias. The point of anti-aging research is not to make us older longer, but to make us younger longer. Enough said.
So what about the social consequences of radically longer and healthier lives? In that regard, Diana Schaub in her reaction essay raises many questions for reflection about those consequences, but curiously she fails to actually reflect on them. Schaub isn’t “willing to say that agelessness is undesirable,” but she simultaneously “can’t shake the conviction that the achievement of a 1,000-year lifespan would produce a dystopia.” She then simply recapitulates the standard issue pro-mortalist rhetorical technique of asking allegedly “unnerving questions” and then allowing them to “fester in the mind.” Sadly, all too many bioethicists think they’ve done real philosophic work by posing “hard” questions, then sitting back with steepled hands and a grave look on their countenances.
So instead of just letting questions “fester,” let’s actually make a stab at preliminary responses to some of the questions posed by Schaub and other pro-mortalists. If people lived for 1,000 years, Schaub asks, “How would human relations be affected? How would monogamy fare?… would there be enough psychic energy for ever-renewed love?” First, the real question is: why has monogamy already begun to fall apart in developed societies? I suspect that the increase in life expectancy over the last century may have had a bit to do with it, but surely the advent of truly effective contraception and the entrance of women fully into the paid workforce are far more significant factors. Schaub worries about declining psychic energy, but so far declining psychic energy correlates pretty well with declining physical energy.
Schaub next asks, “What would the tally of disappointments, betrayals, and losses be over a millennium?” Turn that around–what would the tally of satisfactions, affections, and triumphs be over a millennium? Modern material and intellectual abundance has already offered many of us a way out of the lives of quiet desperation suffered by our impoverished ancestors. The 21st century will provide an ever-increasing menu of life plans and choices. Surely exhausting the coming possibilities for intellectual, artistic, and even spiritual growth will take more than one standard lifetime. Schaub’s conviction that 1000-year lifespans would end in dystopia so distorts her vision that only gloomy questions come to her mind.
Schaub then queries, “Would we love other people more or less than at present? Would we be better partners, parents, friends, and neighbors?” Again she does not attempt an answer to her own questions. As someone who has a “conviction” that an ageless dystopia looms, she surely has an obligation to try to explain why she thinks longer-lived folk may not love as deeply or might be worse neighbors, friends, and parents. Does she have any evidence that shorter-lived people in past centuries and societies loved more deeply or were better neighbors, friends and parents? It is very suggestive that as life expectancies increased over the past century, levels of violence also declined.  Perhaps empathy has a chance to increase as life becomes ever more valuable.
“What would it be like to experience the continued vitality of the body in conjunction with the aging of the spirit?” asks Schaub. Whatever can she mean by “aging of the spirit?” She initially suggests that longer healthier lives might happily unite the vitality of youth with the wisdom of maturity. But being a pro-mortalist, Schaub inevitably must try to direct our attention to the possible downsides. So she worries that instead longer lives would combine the “characteristic vices of age with the strength of will to impose them on others.” Just what are the “characteristic vices of age” that trouble her? Which of the traditional vices — gluttony, anger, greed, envy, pride, lust, indifference, melancholy — does she expect will increase among hale near-immortals?
As Georges Minois notes in his History of Old Age: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, the most commonly mentioned fault of old age is avarice.  Roman playwright Terence wrote, “A vice common to all mankind is that of being too keen after money when we grow old.” In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift warned that “avarice is the necessary consequence of old age.”  Swift was describing the immortal, but not ageless, Struldbrugs. I do not doubt that material comfort and security grow in importance as physical vitality ebbs and mental acuity withers. But perpetually vital oldsters would have no need for such security because they can count on having the mental and physical powers to apply to their pursuit of new goals and possibilities. No failure is permanent, but instead becomes a learning experience.
In addition, Schaub suggests that “a nation of ageless individuals could well produce a sclerotic society, petrified in its ways and views.” Hastings Center co-founder, Daniel Callahan (who will be participating in this discussion) makes a similar argument. “I don’t believe that if you give most people longer lives, even in better health, they are going to find new opportunities and new initiatives,” Callahan writes.  To back up his claim, Callahan cites the hoary example of brain-dead old professors blocking the progress of vibrant young researchers by grimly holding onto tenure. That seems more of a problem for medieval holdovers like universities than for modern social institutions like corporations.
Assuming it turns out that, even with healthy long-lived oldsters, there is an advantage in turnover in top management, then corporations that adopt that model will thrive and those that do not will be out-competed. Besides, even today youngsters don’t simply wait around for their elders to die. They go out and found their own companies and other institutions. Bill Gates didn’t wait to take over IBM; he founded Microsoft at age 20. Nor did human genome sequencer Craig Venter loiter about until the top slot at the National Institutes of Health opened up. And in politics, we already solve the problem of clutching oldsters by term-limiting the presidency, as well as many state and local offices.
Schaub offers no data nor even a plausible line of reasoning that longer healthy lives will result in “social sclerosis.” In fact, the available evidence cuts the other way. Social and technological innovation has been most rapid in those societies with the highest average life expectancies. Yale University economist William Nordhaus estimates that the huge increase in average life expectancy in the United States, from 47 years in 1900 to 77 years today, has been responsible for about 40 percent of the increase in our standard of living.
Schaub conjures the possibility of near immortal tyrants–Stalin and Hitler forever. Frankly, I am not persuaded by the implied argument that everyone must continue to die before age 100 in order to avoid the possibility of millennial tyrants. Must we really surrender to the tyranny of aging and death in order to prevent human despotism? Wouldn’t a better strategy be to focus on preventing the emergence of tyrants, either of the short- or long-lived variety?
At the end of her essay, Schaub worries about decreased fertility; that healthy oldsters would be less interested in reproducing. A first response is: so what? Shouldn’t the decision to have children be up to individuals? After all, already countries with the highest life expectancies have the lowest levels of fertility. A lack of interest in progeny could have the happy side effect of addressing the possibility that radically increased human lifespans might lead to overpopulation. No one can know for sure, but it could well be that bearing and rearing children would eventually interest long-lived oldsters who would come to feel that they had the time and the resources to do it right. Since assisted reproductive techniques will extend procreation over many decades, people who can look forward to living and working for hundreds of years will be able to delay and stretch out the period of parenthood.
Pro-mortalist Callahan has asserted “There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death.” In point-counterpoint debate with Gregory Stock, the director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at UCLA about whether or not doubling human lifespans is a good idea, Callahan points that the “problems of war, poverty, environment, job creation, and social and familial violence” would not “be solved by everyone living a much longer life.” He further demands that all problems he thinks might arise from dramatically increasing lifespans be solved in advance. Callahan claims, “The dumbest thing for us to do would be to wander into this new world and say, ‘We’ll deal with the problems as they come along.’”
Callahan’s argument is a non sequitur. People already engage in lots of activities that do not aim directly at “solving” war, poverty, environmental problems, job creation, and the rest. Surely we can’t stop everything until we’ve ended war, poverty, and familial violence. Anti-aging biomedical research wouldn’t obviously exacerbate any of the problems listed by Callahan and might actually moderate some of them. If people knew that they were likely to enjoy many more healthy years, they might be more inclined to longer-term thinking aimed at remedying some of those problems.
Callahan’s demand that all problems that doubled healthy lifespans might cause be solved in advance is just silly. Humanity did not solve all of the problems caused by the introduction of farming, electricity, automobiles, antibiotics, sanitation, and computers in advance. We proceeded by trial and error and corrected problems as they arose. We should be allowed do the same thing with any new age-retardation techniques that biomedical research may develop.
Finally, the highest expression of human nature and dignity is to strive to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution, and our environment. Future generations will look back at the beginning of the 21st century with astonishment that some well-meaning and intelligent people actually wanted to stop biomedical research just to protect their cramped and limited vision of human nature. Our descendants will look back, I predict, and thank us for making their world of longer, healthier lives possible.
 Steven Pinker, “A History of Violence,” [pdf] New Republic, March 19, 2007.
 Georges Minois, History of Old Age: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, University of Chicago Press, 1990, p 95.
 Terence, The Brothers.
 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels.
Gregory Stock and Daniel Callahan, “Debates: Point-Counterpoint: Would Doubling the Human Life Span Be a Net Positive?,” J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci.2004; 59: B554-B559.
 William Nordhaus, “The Health of Nations: The Contribution of Improved Health to Living Standards,” NBER Working paper, no. 8818, February, 2002.
Ronald Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason and author of the book Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution
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.
Long Live the Unreasonable Man
Ron Bailey has provided so thorough a reply to Diana Schaub’s piece that, at least in this first blog entry, I have decided to restrict myself to commenting only on Dan Callahan’s essay.
I must begin with Callahan’s title, which he repeats in his conclusion. At the risk of inviting the reciprocal retort, I would ask Callahan to do more careful homework before straying into fields in which he is not expert. Had he done so, he would have discovered that the virtually unanimous opinion of credentialed biogerontologists is that Nature did *not* create aging through natural selection. Rather, it created organs (especially brains) that are very useful but which rely for their function on being composed of very long-lived cells, a structural feature that makes the accumulation of eventually pathogenic molecular and cellular damage inevitable. Ever since then, Nature has been striving to have its cake and eat it too by inventing more and more elaborate systems to minimize the rate of accumulation of that damage — but reducing that rate to zero is thermodynamically impossible for structures with no cellular turnover, so the result seems to be that all species with a brain and a fixed adult body size age just slowly enough that only a small minority of them die of aging in the wild rather than of starvation, predation and so on.
If my use of the word “tragedy” is the voice of youth, it is precisely that type of feature of youth that I seek to extend. I can think of no feature of my present condition more valuable to me than the willingness to aim high, and the refusal to accept the status quo as inevitable. I suspect that those who retain that attitude into old age derive great inner strength from it. Yes, St. Francis said: “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” But Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” I say: “Long live the unreasonable man!” — and I mean to give him the chance.
Callahan’s most basic logical error comes with his discussion of the correlation between length of life and satisfaction with life. Someone’s satisfaction with life does not need to keep rising in order to justify helping them to live longer: it just needs to stay above zero. And if it dips dangerously close to zero, whatever the person’s age, if they are in even moderate health we as a society regard them as in need of help and are proud to have organizations like the Samaritans that provide such help.
Actually, maybe his next paragraph rests on an even more egregious logical error. If an extension of lifespan is not the saving of lives, because the person’s age at death will still be finite, then by inescapable extension a treatment that prevented his child from dying in infancy would also not have been saving that child’s life. The phrase “saving a life” means “giving someone the chance to live longer than they would otherwise have had the chance to live.” So, yes indeed, I must and I do claim that a death at age 2,000 would be just as tragic as at age 200, or 20, or 2.
If the fact that people have always died in old age makes such deaths not tragic, then by another inescapable extension the fact that, until 1800, at least 40% of babies had always died before their first birthday meant that those deaths were also not tragic – and, indeed, pre-industrial society pretty much took that fact of life in its stride. But in that case, what happened to make Callahan’s own child’s death tragic? Were babies less human in centuries past? No. Are frequent tragedies less tragic than rare ones (with a nod to Stalin’s aphorism that one death is a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic)? No. What changed was that a frequent and unavoidable tragedy became a frequent and avoidable one, and thus one that it was no longer rational to rationalize out of one’s mind. And yes, sure enough, infant mortality has since become a rare and largely unavoidable tragedy — and the rarity has allowed us to continue to keep our eyes open to the fact that it is indeed a tragedy. The situation with aging is just the same: we are simply at an early stage in the process, with the realization gradually dawning that it may not be as inevitable as it has always seemed.
Callahan then tries to suggest that we have no evidence that radical life extension would be “good for us as human beings” — and this is where he embarks on the main thrust of his argument, the primacy of society over the individual. First of all, he seems to have a very curious idea of what does and does not constitute evidence for or against a proposition. If the only admissible evidence that something will happen is that it has already happened, I challenge Callahan to tell me why he believes that the sun will rise tomorrow. The true nature of evidence, of course, is that things have happened which have various features in common, and which thereby lend support to a general hypothesis that all things of a particular sort that happen in the future will have a particular property. In this case, the body of evidence is rather formidable: it is hard to find people in good health, of any age, who will volunteer to die tomorrow (and, again, if we do find such people we call the Samaritans).
But, of course, Callahan’s point is not with regard to the individual — it is with regard to “mankind.” This is where he most thoroughly misses the point. Contrary to his assertion, the possibility that we might get bored is perfectly allowed in pro-longevists’ calculations; but we regard it as just that, a possibility, and not a certainty. Callahan is the one who is guilty of the unwarranted assumption — he is so certain that “society” will be worse as a result of having the option to postpone aging indefinitely that the possibility that some people might just buck the trend is not allowed into his calculations.
Callahan’s appeal to Boulding sums up this determination to keep faith — pure faith — in the impossibility of solutions to the societal issues he raises, rather than spend a moment wondering whether such solutions might in fact emerge. It is trivial to outline any number of ways in which the structure of the economy could be adjusted to maintain turnover of personnel within a given industry by sufficiently incentivizing retraining and adult education. Of course such measures would be dramatic — they would constitute a root-and-branch redesign of current economic practice — but that is no less than we should expect in consequence of the elimination of mankind’s greatest remaining scourge. If Boulding really felt that, because he couldn’t see how this might be done, therefore the combined wisdom of the world’s economists will also not be able to do it when the time comes, then he must have had a remarkably high opinion of himself — but I rather suspect that, like Callahan, his thinking on the matter didn’t get that far.
Making Death Optional
I begin by noting that Daniel Callahan at age 77 admits that old age “is not the best stage of life.” He also suggests—and I agree–that adolescence wasn’t so hot either. Of course, there is a difference—an adolescent can look forward to waxing powers and a future of hope. Being old is certainly “not the best stage of life” because an old person dreads waning vigor and the all-too-speedy approach of oblivion.
Here are a few brief responses of Callahan’s reaction essay. He complains that pro-longevity proponents argue that life extension “would make our lives a kind of heaven on earth.” Talk about a pot calling a kettle black! Callahan and his pro-mortalist cohorts can only see radically longer healthy lives producing dystopias filled with people afflicted with endless ennui. “We might get tired of it all or bored,” he writes.
Or we might not. Let’s proceed with the pro-longevity project and find out. If it turns out that most people find it unbearable to face the prospect of hundreds of healthy years, then they can always stop taking the anti-aging treatments and let nature take its usual appalling course. But as even the President’s Council on Bioethics acknowledged: “If effective age-retardation technologies became available and relatively painless and inexpensive, the vast majority of us would surely opt to use them, and they would quickly become popular and widely employed.”
Obviously then Callahan must regard the hundreds of millions of his fellow human beings who would take advantage of cheap effective age-retardation treatments as being somehow delusional—they don’t know their own best interests. I suppose that’s possible, but it is far more likely that Callahan is especially deep in thrall to what de Grey calls the “pro-aging trance.” Let’s turn on its head the infamous argument by Leon Kass, the former head of the President’s Bioethics Council, that we should rely on our gut feelings to reject biotechnological advances. The fact of near-ubiquitous human yearning for longer healthier lives should serve as a preliminary warrant for pursuing age-retardation as a moral good.
At the end of his essay, Callahan writes: “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.” Well, I wish I knew too, but the plain unvarnished fact of the matter is that humanity advances by trial and error. Even the smartest people cannot figure out how scientific and technological advances will play out over the next few decades, much less centuries. In 1960 the optical laser was described by its inventor as an invention looking for a job. By 2005 ubiquitous lasers routinely cut metal, play CDs, reshape corneas, carry billions of Internet messages, remove tattoos, and guide bombs. It is likely that age-retardation technologies will develop incrementally. So humanity will have lots of opportunities for course corrections as we go along.
The very good news is that the history of the last two centuries has shown that technological progress has been far more beneficial than harmful for humanity. I see no reason why age-retardation will not be another, albeit very big, step along that beneficial trend line. We should all have the right to choose to use or not use new technologies to help us and our families to flourish. If our descendants don’t breed like us, feed like us, or need like us, then that’s because they will have decided that they have better alternatives. Is humanity ready for radically longer lifespans? We’re about as ready as we’ll ever be.In other words, yes.
 Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, President’s Council on Bioethics.
 Leon Kass, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” New Republic, June 2, 1997.
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.
The Distaste that Dare Not Speak Its Name
Diana Schaub’s latest contribution begins with an example of something frequently seen in the writings of conservatives when on
the ropes: a retreat from disapproval to mere withholding of approval, combined with an admonition of opponents for having made
the accusation of disapproval in the first place. Let us be quite clear: in her reaction essay Schaub states, and I quote, “I can’t
shake the conviction that the achievement of a 1,000-year lifespan would produce a dystopia.” It is quite hard for me to distinguish
this from a call to stop research that would bring such lifespans about. If Schaub is now persuaded that such a world has sufficient
potential merit that those who desire it should indeed be allowed to hasten its arrival, I am delighted. But if that is the case, she should own up to the fact that this is a bona fide shift from her previously declared position.
The Immortals Won’t Have Alzheimer’s But They Will Have Forgotten Much
To de Grey’s last post: One can disapprove of all sorts of things without calling for the force of law against them. I would have thought that was a distinction familiar to libertarians.
Readers might find it more interesting if we were to engage in a consideration of the merits and demerits of the project to conquer death. To that end, let me return to Ron Bailey’s incredulous question: “All right, seriously folks, why would anyone think we need death?” Maybe Bailey is not aware that Jews, Christians, and Muslims (who together constitute a substantial portion of the world’s population) not only believe that the children of Adam need death, but actually deserve death. So, Bailey’s question does have a serious religious answer, an answer that includes an alternative route to a deathless existence. But, we can dispense with all that since the scientific faith now promises heaven on earth — and at such small cost: the scientific priesthood only requests our money not our dedication to the moral struggle of living well.
So, if we limit ourselves to this-worldly considerations, why would we need death? In my last post, I suggested a linkage between the fullness of our erotic lives and the fact of mortality. The notion is not novel, but runs through the texts of love, from Plato’s Symposium to the poetry of John Donne. It is also on display in the ordinary experience of mothers and fathers.
The bonds of political community may also depend on death. For anyone interested in pursuing this thought, I recommend the essay by Joseph Bottum, entitled “Death & Politics,” in the June/July 2007 issue of First Things. He argues for three propositions:
1. The losses human beings suffer are the deepest reason for culture,
2. The fundamental pattern for any community is a congregation at a funeral,
3. A healthy society requires a lively sense of the reality and continuing presence of the dead.
If deathlessness ever arrives for human beings, I would cast my lot with the elephants who are said to gather and grieve over the bones of their departed. Elephant culture might already have surpassed the culture of immortalists. Based on the posts so far, cultural ignorance — of the history of religion and love and politics — is one clear cost of the quest for a non-transcendent immortality.
The Elmer Gantrys of Scientism
Over a long career I have argued on all kinds of issues with all kinds of people. Aubrey De Grey and his colleagues are among the most frustrating to have a serious debate with. They are single-minded believers, and like the tribe of them, they paint their cause as splendidly noble. DeGrey, humanitarian to the core, is trying to save us from “mankind’s greatest remaining scourge.” Their opponents, by contrast, are “stunningly irrational.” For their part, the humanitarians stand comfortably, even blissfully, on the side of science and reason; their enemies (so says Bailey) favor repression and bans. They know where we should be going and not a trace of uncertainty seems allowable in their tidy, well-lit room. Though they have not been there themselves, they know that aging is a great scourge. And they want to save us all.
I take a different stance toward schemes to radically remake our lives and improve our future. I agree with Ron Bailey that science has, on balance, done more good than harm. But when it is used to do harm, deliberately or inadvertently, it can do so in a devastating way. That does not, thankfully, happen often, but enough to keep us on the alert. In Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s Communism we got a good dose of utopian true believers, both of whom–as David Overy documents in his book The Dictators–believed that science would be our savior, and who went on to use its inventions to kill millions of people.
In the creation of poison gas and modernized warfare in World War I, and nuclear weapons and fire bombing in World War II, we learned about the evil uses to which scientific knowledge can be put. With global warming we can see what scientific progress and commerce-driven societies, addicted to endless material growth, can bring us. The George W. Bush administration shows us the dangers of messianic schemes to promote democracy and save us from terrorists. And with the anti-aging contingent we can see a group eager to take us into the future–the future of their scientific devising, not one most of us have been pressing for-and willing it seems to bring it about whether we like it or not.
I repeat my main complaint, to which I get no serious response. Please give us a road map, even a rough one, about what our future will look like with greatly extended life expectancies. How might procreation and childbearing look in the future, what kind of promotion and retirement policies might be put in place, what might happen to population size and the environment–and what steps might be taken to reverse course if it all started turning sour?
I use the word “might” because, as DeGrey and Bailey like to point out, no one can foresee how the future, or new scientific developments, will turn out and to demand precision on that is not only impossible but harmful to reform and progress. I ask for no precision, only that the topic be raised and talked about in their circles and a few answers provided for the rest of us. If we have learned anything about science, progress, and utopian schemes, it is that we should look before we leap, trying to make reasonably certain we are not setting the stage for bad outcomes. If the social impact of scientific developments is uncertain, as Bailey and DeGrey seem to concede, then it does not seem to me irrational to suggest that things can go bad as well as go good.
For some reason, the anti-agists do not want to tackle questions of those kinds. They wave at them, scoffing at those who worry. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, they seem to be saying. But unless they take them on we would be foolish to follow them. As Schaub points out, none of us who oppose their utopia want to ban the research. All we ask is for a good dose of public and scientific skepticism, the kind many people in recent years should have had when offered large mortgages with no down payment and (initially) low interest rates.
Anti-aging sounds like that kind of deal, too good to be true. The devil, it is often correctly said, is in the details. The anti-ageists love to dwell on the scientific details and how promising they are. It is now time to dwell on the social details to see whether they are equally promising.
Most important we need a level playing field. I consider it the moral responsibility of those skeptical of their schemes to say why, but no less the responsibility of the proponents to be self-critical. Tell us just why the world will be a better place if everyone lived much longer lives. Since there is no domestic or international health agency that has seen fit to declare getting old and dying a great scourge, nor has any economist or social scientist said that we will be better off economically and socially with much longer lives, tell us what we have all missed noticing. DeGrey, I suppose, would say they are all in a pro-mortalist trance, of course are a few billion others. But it is not self-evident that a utopian anti-aging trance is any better, at least from the arguments I have heard here.
Also tell those of us who are old, and see great social benefits for younger generations in our dying, just why we are wrong, why those of us who have led a full and satisfying life have a mistaken self-understanding. In short, just stop telling us how great it will be. We’ve heard that message. Now get serious about our qualms. The Elmer Gantrys of scientism are no more attractive than those of religious evangelism. Actually, it is not easy to tell them apart in the salvations they offer us. They sound eerily alike.
The Mary Shelleys of Fearmongering
Daniel Callahan thinks prolongevists are frustrating! Then he accuses pro-technology proponents of “scientism.” And finally he pulls out the argument of the desperate and compares his opponents to Hitler and Stalin! At that point one wants to quote the great philosopher (and comedian extraordinaire) Steve Martin: “Puh-leese!” Since I am traveling and without internet connection except via Blackberry I will be brief. My vision of a future in which effective longevity treatments are available is one in which individuals get to choose to use them or not–no government gets to decide how long its citizens will be allowed to live. That would truly be tyranny. In the meantime, if Callahan chooses to go “gentle into that good night” I wish him well of it, but his job is to warn us the dangers he sees arising from radically extended lives and that’s all very well. He should allow the rest of us to ignore his advice and find out for ourselves whether he is right or wrong. Let us learn freely from trial and error as people always have done.
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.