RE: Medical news

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Tue Jul 03 2001 - 21:35:55 MDT

At 08:29 AM 7/3/01 -0500, Harvey Newstrom wrote:

>The counter-arguments are scary, and even
>suggest that longevity will give another Hitler a better chance to take over
>the world.

Depressingly stupid, isn't it? The fact that Dr Hayflick is prominent in
speaking for this view is even more depressing. Here's what I said about

< A youthful 300-year-old with a fresh body and undamaged brain will
presumably be wiser, perhaps more set in his or her ways than an
adolescent, but nonetheless without the crotchety traits the old exhibit
due to their physical deterioration, and the frustrations and sourness that
can entail. On the contrary - we will have time to learn and attempt all
things - especially, as the optimistic novelist Robert Heinlein wrote, time
enough for love.
        Recall that editorial I quoted earlier. It ended, to my horrified
disbelief: `Dying (we think) is not all that bad.' Frankly, I can't think
of anything to be said in its favour. I was no less taken aback to find
similar opinions expressed in a 1997 Scientific American review by the
fabled Leonard Hayflick, one of the world's premier biogerontologists and
pioneer in cell replication work. When an expert of Hayflick's standing
speaks, one must listen with due respect - but in this case I disagree
powerfully with his conventional opinion:

        "I have always worried about the enormous power that humans will have if
we ever learn how either to tamper with the aging process or to extend our
longevity - it is unclear whether people could cope with the psychological,
economic, medical and cultural changes that would accompany vastly extended
life spans, even should they prove physiologically possible... Although
aging and death put an end to the lives of good citizens, they also make
finite the lives of tyrants, murderers and a broad spectrum of other
undesirables. Much of the continuing massive destruction of this planet and
the consequent ills that this destruction produces for humans can be traced
to overpopulation, a phenomenon that appears to show no sign of abating.
Extending the life of a population that already strains global resources
is, in the view of many, unconscionable. If the price to be paid for the
beneficial results of aging and death is its universal applicability, we
should all pay that price - as we always have."

This is a confused, sadly short-sighted estimate, in my view. True, society
will convulse, in one way or another, as we learn to cope with extended and
then indefinite life. That is no reason to prohibit the technology, or slow
its development. Civilisation has already undergone shocking changes in
mortality with the introduction of clean water and air, antiseptic
childbirth, medicine and surgery, and plentiful nutritious food in the
advanced sectors of the world. Would we be better off electing a kind of
mad social amnesia, burning our medical books, closing all the hospitals,
banning pharmaceuticals? Some say yes - well, let them retreat to their
backward redoubts and live that way, but don't allow them to set society's
health agendas.
        What's more, Hayflick's premises are erroneous. Why should extending the
life of a population, even one that already strains global resources, be
`unconscionable'? Buried in that critique is an indefensible
generalisation: that longer life necessarily means more offspring. In
rabbits or squid, perhaps that would be so. Human have intelligence and
foresight, when they care to use it. As Anders Sandberg, a Swedish
transhumanist and neuroscientist, observes: `This is another of the
"classic arguments", and quite wrong (lifespan only changes the size of the
population, not the rate of increase; if overpopulation is a problem then
it has to be managed by family planning anyway).' We shall return to this
issue of population dynamics at the end of this book.
        Here's a more poignant objection: would it not be morally preferable to
spend research money helping the sick and undernourished in the Third
World, rather than expending a fortune extending the lives of the
already-rich? Geneticist Michael Rose, at the University of California,
Irvine, has nearly doubled Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) life spans
by breeding a hardy variety with improved superoxide dismutase genes, and
argues that we can do the same for humans. Still, Rose has remarked that
while prolonging life is preferable to such audacious scientific feats as
manned landings on the moon, it's `not better than vaccinating all the
children of the Third World'.
        This apparent conflict of interests, I believe, is rhetorical only. Must
health efforts in one place necessarily be at the expense of those in
another, when both could be funded? True, society's resources are limited
(although immense), and need to be allocated with a due sense of
proportion, but is there a more reasonable and satisfying way to spend part
of them than in defeating death? Universal vaccination will save many
millions of lives, and certainly should be funded - but each of those lives
will only be saved for a maximum of a century or so. Life extension has the
potential to save them, and us, for millennia.
        What of Hayflick's cost-benefit analysis based on the prevalence and
persistence of tyrants? Is it a strong argument for throttling the new
science in its cradle? Surely not. Let us all die, to save a few from the
heinous attacks of murderers? Kill everyone, by inattention, to spare us
from the malevolence of dictators? In 1997, cryonics commentator Tim
Freeman made the retort apposite:

        "Suppose all reasonably free people got an aging prevention treatment
tomorrow. So we'd eliminate the meaningless deaths of millions of talented
and productive people in the US, Europe, places like that, but let's
suppose for the purposes of argument that Saddam Hussein and the like would
stay in power indefinitely, and the conditions of their subjects would be
unchanged forever. Would that be a net win? In my opinion, it would be,
even from a global utilitarian viewpoint instead of the obvious selfish
viewpoint of a US resident."

But is it even likely that the conditions of the oppressed could remain
unchanged forever? Dictators and other bullies are always with us, for new
monsters readily spring up to replace the old - who are often slain by the
new, in any case. The remedy for death by terror and war is not involuntary
`natural' death for everyone, however peaceful. It is not universal,
DNA-programmed mortality, but political awareness and action. Freeman
added, astutely, `Hayflick wasn't properly weighing the ordinary horror of
aging that strikes the large populations that are not affected by tyrants.
This is a common psychological error ? people undervalue ordinary dangers,
and overvalue unusual dangers.'
        We're stuck, at the moment, with death's pain, loss and grief, and must
make as decent a fist of it as we can. But in the longest term of the
history of intelligent life in the universe, it will surely be the case -
tragic, but blessedly brief in comparative duration - that the routine and
inevitable death of conscious beings was a temporary error, quickly
corrected. >

Damien Broderick

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Fri Oct 12 2001 - 14:39:41 MDT