RE: BBC Polemics: Help needed!

From: Bostrom,N (pg) (
Date: Sun Jan 16 2000 - 12:09:18 MST

> Thanks to those who have make suggestions, on- or off-line! For curious,
> the draft for the polemics piece is included below. I'm especially
> grateful to Greg Burch, who made some excellent editorial changes to an
> earlier version.
The Case Against Aging

Life is good. Far more often than not, death comes too early, with pain and
loss for the one who dies and those who are left behind. Every human being
alive - or who has ever lived - knows that these statements are true. And
yet, they have been the inescapable ground of human life since its
inception. We have all asked "Can't we make more of what is good in life,
and make it last?"

Well, what if we could?

More and more researchers now agree that radical human life extension is
only a matter of time. Abolishing aging and disease is theoretically
possible. It is a goal that is not quite within reach yet, but will soon be.

The question is, will it arrive in time? Or will you perish on the threshold
of the era of much longer and healthier human life?

Human life expectancy has been increasing slowly but surely over the past
hundred years. Extrapolating this relatively slow progress would be a
mistake. In the last few years we have begun to catch glimpses of the
biochemical processes underlying aging. Researchers are currently developing
tools that will give us unprecedented control over basic biological
processes on the cellular and genetic levels. These tools point to the
realistic hope of greatly extended and much more healthy human life spans.

Scientists have already extended life span in other species: in mice by over
30%. By changing just two genes, scientists have enabled nematode worms to
live up to six times their normal life span.

Preventing aging in humans is complicated, yet several promising research
avenues are currently being pursued. These include

* Stem cells. In November last year, human stem cells - cells which
can be made to grow into any other type of cell - were detected and
cultivated for the first time. This opens enormous possibilities for
regenerative medicine. New nerve cells can be grown and used to treat
Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, or aging related dementia. Failing organs such
as hearts and kidneys may be replaced by organs grown outside the body from
the patient's own stem cells.

* Telomerase. Individual cells can be "immortalized" by replenishing
their telomeres (small DNA caps that sits at the end of the chromosomes).
This removes the limit to how many times a cell can be made to divide, and
therefore, how long it will live.

* Gene therapy. Somatic gene therapy will insert beneficial genes in
the cells of adults, not only curing many hereditary diseases but also
potentially offsetting the changes that occur with aging.

* Nanomedicine. When mature molecular nanotechnology is developed,
maybe 20 years from now, it will be possible to manufacture and program
small molecular machines that can enter individual cells and repair damage
to DNA and other structures. Nanomedicine will eventually give us much
greater control over the biochemical processes in our bodies.

Life extension and at some point the abolition of aging will have great
consequences for society. The traditional "linear life" paradigm in which
people migrate through education, then work, then leisure/retirement, may be
replaced by a "cyclic life" paradigm, in which education, work and leisure
are interspersed repeatedly through the life span. It will become normal for
50-year olds to go back to school and for 70-year-olds to start new careers.

Life-extension will not place a burden on health care, because it should
increase people's health span, not just add some extra years in a care home
in a state of dementia. When 80-year olds have the same physique and mental
agility as people in their forties, they will be among the most economically
productive members of society.

Some people might say, "Wouldn't it be boring to live forever?" But would it
be more exciting to be dead? Indefinite life span - just like the lives we
have now - will be as boring or as exciting as we make them.
Overpopulation needs to be avoided. However, in technologically advanced
societies, couples tend to have fewer children - below the replacement rate.
By spreading the benefits of technology, education, and women's rights to
countries that are currently poor, fertility rates will decline there too.
People choose to have smaller families and to have children later in life.

If one took seriously the idea of limiting life span to control population,
why not be more active about it? Why not encourage suicide? Why not execute
anyone reaching the age of 75? - That is clearly absurd. Instead, if it were
necessary, a better way of limiting population growth is by limiting the
rate of new births. And in the long run, our successors will learn to use
the infinite resources in the universe outside our planet.

To stay alive is a basic human drive. It is a precondition for all other
activities. Life-extension is natural progression of medicine from curing
diseases and the effects of aging to preventing them altogether. It follows
the dictum laid down by many religions: that human life is sacred and should
be cherished and preserved.

Let's not be in the last generation to die of old age! We can improve our
odds by demanding adequate funding for anti-aging research (which is
currently pitifully underfunded). On an individual level, we may adopt a
healthier life style and keep our fingers crossed. Some foresightful persons
may consider a cryonics contract as a last resort. If your body is frozen in
liquid nitrogen after you are declared legally dead, it can be preserved
indefinitely without further tissue degradation. At some point in the
future, medical science may progress to the point where it becomes possible
to reverse the freezing damage and the original cause of death. Too many
times in the past have people declared something technologically absolutely
impossible - only to see it done a few years later. Indeed, many leading
experts on nanotechnology anticipate that it will make it possible reanimate
cryonics patients. Of course there is no guarantee. But being cryogenically
suspended is the second worst thing that can happen to you!

Nick Bostrom
Dept. Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method
London School of Economics

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