The Case Against Aging

(c) 2000, Nick Bostrom

[script used for polemic in Heart of the Matter, BBC 1 Television , 4/3/00]

More and more researchers now agree that radical human life extension is only a matter of time. Aging is a biochemical process and humans will learn how to intervene in it and slow it down. Abolishing aging is theoretically possible. It is a goal that is not quite within reach yet, but it will be one day.

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 is much longer today than it was in the past. A thousand years ago it was 25 years. Now it is over 75 years in Britain. This progress has been due mainly to a reduction in premature deaths, such as by infectious diseases, rather than to any slowing down of the aging process itself. Being able to cure specific diseases is wonderful, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Aging breaks down your health and vitality, and eventually you get so weak that no amount of health care and medicine can prop you up. If it’s not stroke today, then it’s cancer tomorrow.

Just as you have begun to acquire a modicum of wisdom and experience, old age sets in to sap your energy and degrade your intellect. And then death swoops in to deliver the final insult. Now, there is real hope of ending this; that the last chapter of every human story need not play out this way.

In the last few years scientists 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 healthier 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. Human ingenuity will have to solve some hard puzzles. Yet several promising research avenues are currently being pursued.

  • Stem cells. Human stem cells – cells which can be made to grow into any other type of cell – can now be cultivated. Even in adults there are some cells that can be made to grow into almost any kind of cell. 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 sit 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.

Many people, including especially the group of futurists and technologists known as "transhumanists", are now asking how extended life spans will affect society. For the individual, 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 be normal for 50-year olds to go back to school and for 70-year-olds to start new careers. Consider the positive effects on society of a host of people with the wisdom of 150 years of life, and the vitality to bring that wisdom into action.

Having lots of 150-year olds around will no doubt change society quite a lot. But consider that even if we could stop aging today, it would still take seventy years before there were a considerable number of 150-year olds. In seventy years many other things will have changed. The whole technology basis will be totally different and unimaginably more advanced than today. One can’t look at life-extension in isolation from these other developments that will take place.

It is true that overpopulation must 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. It seems clear already that prosperous and well-educated people choose to have smaller families and to have children later in life.

If it really became necessary to control population growth, it is more feasible and ethical to do this by limiting the rate of new births than by forcing people who are already alive to die. It would not be selfish of us to hang on to life and reduce the number of new births. No one accuses a couple of being immoral if they decide to only have one child.

Finally – and perhaps before too long – our successors will learn to use the infinite resources in the universe outside our planet. In the meantime, a whole host of new technologies are already providing means to let us "walk more lightly upon the earth": More efficient and less ecologically damaging manufacturing, energy and transportation technologies make it possible for humanity to live in greater harmony with nature.

Life-extension will not place a burden on health care, because it will 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.

With a longer life expectancy, people will also have a personal stake in the future. This will lead to more responsible and sustainable policies.

I sometimes hear people say, "Wouldn’t it be boring to live forever?" But would it be more exciting to be dead? Indefinite life spans – just like the lives we have now – will be as boring or as exciting as we make them.

Transhumanists hold that at least some key parts of human nature are mutable. Much of what we now accept as inescapable is not an eternally given. On an evolutionary time scale, we haven’t been around for that long. Over the next few decades, we will develop technological tools that will enable those who so wish to change at least some of the fundamental attributes of their human nature. We transhumanists want to live longer and healthier lives and increase our intellectual, emotional and physical capacities. Humanity looks to me like a magnificent beginning but not the final word.

It’s irrelevant whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. The only way to find what the world will be like fifty years hence is to be there and see for oneself. If we manage to avoid wiping ourselves out through accident or abuse of some military technology, then people may look back at the present and pity us for being so limited and subjected to so much suffering and ill health.

To stay alive is a basic human drive. It is a precondition for all other activities. Life-extension is the 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. The concept of cryonics is optimistic, but it is not irrational. 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!

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