Extending Human Lifespans

[Couldn’t get any takers for this. Too long, not newsworthy, and The Monthly doesn’t contemplate responses, being in the business of glitterary packaging of its generally substantive pieces.]

The feature article in the September issue of The Monthly, The Fountain of Youth by Ceridwen Dovey, describes Professor David Sinclair of Harvard and UNSW and his biotechnological research into ageing mechanisms and how they might be slowed, stopped or even reversed.

The topic raises profound issues, but unfortunately Dovey’s account is more paean than critical evaluation. There are multiple and diverse concerns, and they are aggravated by academic competitiveness, a not-uncommon technocratic narrowness, the power of global finance, and the potent interaction of those forces.

At the most fundamental level, Sinclair is quoted as saying ‘Anyone who says there is a limit built into our biology doesn’t know what they’re talking about’. Well sexual reproduction and its complement, death, have been around for well over 500 million years and they are well and truly built into the biology of most of the multicellular organisms that have emerged in that time. Cells that reproduce by cell division may experience a form of immortality, save for accidents and mutations, but sexual reproduction yields a new, novel individual, not the continuation of an old one. These new organisms commonly have characteristic life spans. It is not mysticism to presume that there will be good biological and ecological reasons for such a pervasive trait as programmed ageing and death.

Our civilisation is at risk precisely because it hubristically imagines it is immune to biological and physical limitations on this planet. Sinclair may claim that if he can disable some ageing mechanisms then it is no longer a limit, but that would just be playing semantics.

Humanity already seriously overloads the planet’s life support capacity. To add a plague of old farts to this load would be high folly. If our life span doubles to 150 years, as Sinclair boasts, then the population doubles too. Sinclair counters this concern by claiming he promotes increased food production, as if there are not already major efforts to do so. The current difficulties are not just due to a lack of food. In fact there is enough food, it is just poorly distributed. Nevertheless the planet’s food production capacity is degrading because of loss of soil, limitations on fresh water, ecosystem disruption and other fundamental factors. Claiming we can just produce more food is highly simplistic.

If longevity pills become common they will inevitably accentuate inequality and division in our already-fraught societies. The poor will not have the same access as the rich, despite Sinclair’s simplistic insistence the pills will be ‘affordable’. Will Indian villagers be able to afford the pills? Should they even bother, if they can’t get enough food and their wells are slowly poisoning them with industrial effluent?

Sinclair claims not to be an immortalist, nor even a ‘lifespanner’ with the overt goal of indefinitely extending human life spans, but rather a ‘healthspanner’, one who ensures our later years are healthy and enjoyable. Yet he claims people are soon likely to be able to live to 150 years and that there may be no natural limit to human life span. As reported, he seems to be either confused or disingenuous.

Anyway, if we are to live to some nominal age (be it 105 or 150) what is it in Sinclair’s work that will ensure the final decline from vigorous health is brief? Will our organs all suddenly give out in the same week? Will we all, spontaneously, stop taking his longevity pills when we turn 105? Who is to say we will not also extend old age, and spend our last fifty years in increasing senility? Dovey notes there is little evidence that the increase in longevity we have already enjoyed has improved the last years of life.

This concern is accentuated by the acknowledgement early in Dovey’s essay that the causes of ageing may be many. If our organs give out one by one then what have we gained? We already have a problem, accentuated by increased longevity, of a brain clogging up while the rest of a body ticks along for years. Perhaps Sinclair hopes to find a magic bullet that zaps all the ageing mechanisms, even those not yet identified, but that could not be known until enough people have lived out their long lives under its influence. It is, in other words, a conjecture.

Besides, many of the ailments of ageing in our modern consumer culture are self-inflicted. We are overweight due to a confluence of conflicted lifestyles, poor motivations and corporate pushing of unhealthy food. We do not exercise enough. Sinclair is described as a workaholic who doesn’t exercise much. So what is this really about? Do we want to be able to live stressed or slovenly lives and then take a pill to fix ourselves up? If this is about improving the quality of later life there is much we can already do that is being neglected, or actively subverted by corporate agendas.

Sinclair’s ethical stances, as reported, are superficial. To compare an acceptance of the likelihood of decline in old age with a passive acceptance of mothers’ deaths in childbirth is inappropriate to the point of being insulting. To refer, as Dovey does, to our cultural and spiritual beliefs around death as ‘coping mechanisms’, as though they are some kind of misguided superstition, is also close to insulting. Every human being who ever existed in the past has died, as has every pre-human ancestor for hundreds of millions of years. Yes, dying is part of the human condition.

Dovey, to her credit, quotes Hannah Arendt on the need for us to have the grace to get out of the way of younger generations who may reinvigorate human affairs. That, we may infer, has been the purpose of death for half a billion years or more. The dead hand of the past is bad enough, when we fail to break its grip, without it becoming the living hand of the past.

The conflict of interest between ethically highly sensitive research and the enticements of high monetary profits has plagued modern biotechnology from the beginning. Sinclair’s cavalier charge into that minefield is compounded by the failure of governments to keep up with developments, so the life-extending dietary ‘supplements’ fall in a regulatory gap between highly regulated medicines and somewhat regulated foods.

The longevity research would already be strongly driven by personal curiosity and the often-intense rivalries of researchers striving to be the first to make historic discoveries. Those drives are hyper-charged by the lure of multi-billion-dollar profits in an essentially unregulated international environment of global capital.

Dovey does note a failure to come to grips with implications of incrementalism in the ageing work, in other words if we can live to 110 then we will just want to live to 120. She notes in passing the same flaw in related reproductive work. Colleagues of Sinclair want older women to be able to give birth, but only, say, 45-year-old women, not 80-year-old women. But what will halt the incremental extension of fertility? Sinclair is reported to have some ethical concerns regarding extended fertility, but why not also extended life spans?

Sinclair and others are proceeding to dose themselves and others with the potent substances they produce. As Dovey notes, no-one has any idea of the long-term effects of such dosing. It is an open experiment on people. Given the financial incentives and the lack of regulation, it is likely to become (yet another) open experiment on humanity, and beyond (the pills are already being administered to pets).

The reality in which we have all lived, that one day we will die, is a central factor in our emotional maturing. As we grow we, mostly, learn to be less self-centred, to discover the benefits and pleasures of cooperation, to accept our limitations as our youthful vigour begins to wane and, potentially, to gracefully yield our place to the young, however regretfully. Traditional cultures tend to be better at this than our death-averse modern Western culture. Many of us become stuck somewhere along this life path, and it is fair to say we are then, in some respect, emotionally immature.

Sinclair was distressed by the decline of his vigorous, much-loved grandmother. He is not alone in wishing it otherwise, but his solution is not the traditional getting of wisdom but a search for a technological fix. However by focussing on ageing mechanisms he is reaching beyond alleviating age-related ailments to the extension of life spans, and that is a fundamental confusion.

There is no simple recipe for or agreement on what constitutes ‘the good life’, but the accumulated wisdom of humanity tends to emphasise loving and being loved, helping others, awareness of and connection with nature and a healthy physical lifestyle. Acceptance of decline and death has been a large part of traditional wisdom, and the epigenetic extension of life spans will not dispense with that need. Also we are far from creating societies in which everyone has a fair shot at these ingredients of a good life. We therefore have to question the need for a technological intervention that will not change the fundamentals of human life, will plausibly exacerbate divisions and may actually amplify misery for significant numbers.

Our mortality will continue to be the reality for a great part of humanity for some time yet, regardless of the Frankensteinian machinations of the various technological evangelists, be they in biotech, nanotech, ‘artificial intelligence’ or whatever. I venture to conclude that the world would benefit far more, in the long run as well as the short run, if the likes of Sinclair focussed more on developing their emotional maturity than on their wild rush to create a fountain of youth.

Finally, anyone who objects to any aspect of scientific research is prone to attracting the charges of being a reactionary Luddite, a religious nutter or an ignorant tree-hugging fruit loop. The resulting often-heated cacophony makes it difficult to have carefully considered, scientifically-based concerns heard. However these topics are of profound importance. They deserve to be given careful consideration, and those who raise concerns of any kind deserve to have their concerns treated with respect.

4 thoughts on “Extending Human Lifespans

  1. Dick England

    Modern medical research is dominated by the desire of rich old farts to live for ever. It’s where the money is. There is a close analogy with the Europe of the Middle Ages, where money came rolling in for the great cathedrals, in return for promises to get them out of purgatory. Subsequent generations got a better deal out of the culture of the Middle Ages that they are likely get from us. Those who inherit a devastated earth will be wishing our death rate had been higher.

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  2. Anthony Zappia

    Hi Geoff, all valid points you’ve raised. I highly recommend the Mars trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson where this scenario – vastly extended human life-spans – is played out with disastrous consequences. Very prescient man – Robinson – writing this series in the early 90s, he foresaw multi-nationals becoming meta-nationals and eventually buying up or controlling entire nations. He also foresaw the discovery of water in underground reservoirs on Mars. I believe this was confirmed just recently.

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