Documenting the Coming Singularity

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Anti-Anti-Aging Crowd

Thanks go to my friend Louie Savva from Everything is Pointless for pointing me to Aubrey de Grey and Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). According to the SENS web site:

SENS is a detailed plan for curing human aging. SENS is an engineering project, recognising that aging is a medical condition and that medicine is a branch of engineering. Aging is a set of progressive changes in body composition, at the molecular and cellular level, which are side-effects of essential metabolic processes. Many of these changes are eventually bad for us -- they are an accumulation of damage, which becomes pathogenic above a certain threshold of abundance.

The traditional gerontological approach to life extension is to try to slow down this accumulation of damage. This is a misguided strategy, firstly because it requires us to improve biological processes that we do not adequately understand, and secondly because it can even in principle only retard aging rather than reverse it. An even more short-termist alternative is the geriatric approach, which is to try to stave off pathology in the face of accumulating damage; this is a losing battle because the continuing accumulation of damage makes pathology more and more inescapable.

Instead, the engineering (SENS) strategy is not to interfere with metabolism per se, but to repair or obviate the accumulating damage and thereby indefinitely postpone the age at which it reaches pathogenic levels. This is practical because it avoids both of the problems with the other approaches: it sidesteps our ignorance of metabolism (because it does not attempt to interfere with metabolic processes and their production of side-effects) but also it pre-empts the chaos of pathology (because it repairs the precursors of pathology, rather than addressing the pathology head-on).

Sounds like a worthy project to me. But what I found most fascinating was Dr. de Grey's comments on the anti-anti-aging crowd (my terminology), those folks who defend aging.

I have bitten my tongue and given earnest, sympathetic answers here to the many concerns I encounter when the prospect of defeating aging is raised - but I don't pretend that it has been easy to do so. I make no secret, here or elsewhere, that I have a low opinion of the reasons people give for defending aging - and an even lower opinion of the fear that people seem to have of thinking about the topic even faintly rationally. I think that apologists for aging are in a "pro-aging trance" - that they are victims of a mutually-maintained collective hypnosis on the topic, a flight from normal rationality that resembles nothing so much as the behaviour of participants in a stage hypnotist show. When I'm feeling charitable I remind myself that this is a relatively defensible coping strategy for putting the horror of aging out of our minds and getting on with our miserably short lives free of a preoccupation with how they will end. But let's remember that this logic makes sense only so long as aging really is inevitable for the foreseeable future. Today, now that we're at last able to embark on the rational design of strategies that may truly defeat aging - strategies that may succeed within the lifetimes of many people alive today - that attitude is an enormous part of the problem.

Dr. de Grey goes on to list and answer the most common reasons he encounters why curing aging would be bad. He divides these reasons into Societal Arguments; Biomedical Arguments; and Personal or Philosophical Arguments. I'll mention only a few.

The Overpopulation Argument

This is always the first one I hear whenever I bring up the subject of radical life-extension. First, de Grey points to precedent. Suppose you were the ruler of France in 1870, when Pasteur was proposing that if people started following a few simple hygienic practices, infant mortality would fall dramatically. Would you withhold that knowledge for fear of an exploding population? No. The most important thing in that case was to "end the slaughter" and deal with any population concerns separately.

Again, previous statistics clearly show that population growth slows as a society becomes more wealthy. The impetus for having many children (I am speaking very generally here) in less developed counties has a lot to do with a desire to be taken care of in one's old age. As this need is lessened, so does the need to have large numbers of children. In developed nations, people have generally tended to raise the standard of living they would have to achieve before having children. In many developed nations, the population growth has already stopped. (Most of the continuing growth of the U.S. population is a result of immigration.)

The "Only the Rich Will Get It" Argument

Our history of technological development has demonstrated time and time again the same pattern. When a technology is new, it is prohibitively expensive (the first-adopters are the rich and the powerful), and doesn't work very well. Later on, in its midlife, it is less expensive and works fairly well. In its mature stage, it costs almost nothing and works very well. Do you remember when TVs first came on the scene? How many did your family own? How many do you own now? We have 5. What about cell phones? Remember the movie Wall Street, when the Michael Douglas character, Gordon Gekko, walks on the beach talking to Sheen on his cell phone? The thing must have weighed 10 pounds an cost a fortune. You knew the man was wealthy just by seeing him on a cell phone. Today you can get them for nothing. That's how it will be with rejuvenation therapies.

I won't go on. You might do a bit of research on your own to see what's coming. But what gets my attention is the question: Why are some people so instantly against the idea of radical life-extension? OK, you see potential issues that need to be addressed. But why not address them? I'm not sure that I understand where these folks are coming from. If you can help me understand, I'd be grateful. Leave your thoughts in the comments. I thank you.

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5 comments :

Spaceman Spiff said...

Dr. de Grey seems to assume that immortality has always been the goal of medicine, but of course it hasn't. The accepted goal of medicine has always been to heal and present disease, disease being an abnormality , so that people can be free to have a "natural" human life as it would be without the disease. The next step, augmenting human abilit or lifespan, is *clearly* a qualitatively different thing.

Medicine exists to promote health, but health is only good insofar as it is good for human beings. But physical health is clearly not the highest good, since cruelty to others in the name of prolonging my own life is an evil. So one cannot assume a priori that immortality would be good unless someone proves it bad. The whole question of whether it would be good or bad is open.

Also, aging doesn't just include the physical difficulties that old people complain about, it also includes growing from infancy to childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood and adulthood to maturity. And people rarely say "I wish I could be ignorant again like I was as a teenager."

Lastly, I really resent Dr. de Grey's condescending and arrogant tone here. On the topic of aging, I'd rather take the ethical and reflective judgment of someone who has come to terms with it and learned how to live well in life as it is than someone who is so afraid of it that they devote their lives to preventing it. We've all met people like that. The type who are meticulous about what they eat to the point of rejecting what is set before them by hosts, who spend way too much time exercising, who are always in fear of gaining a pound or an inch.

People like that haven't figured out how to live with life as it is, and I somehow doubt they'd be much better off if death were somehow no longer a factor.

And Dr. de Grey seems to place him/herself in the latter category with language like this: "putting the horror of aging out of our minds and getting on with our miserably short lives..." I wonder if Dr. de Grey has considered the possibility that s/he uses science and the hope that aging can be eliminated as a coping mechanism? Somehow I doubt the good doctor has subjected his/her own beliefs to the same scrutiny the "anti-anti-aging" crowd seems to get even in a "charitable" moment.

Dr. Leonid Gavrilov, Ph.D. said...

Thank you for your interesting post!
I thought perhaps you may also find this related story interesting to you:
Longevity Science: SENS
http://longevity-science.blogspot.com/2007/01/sens.html

manley pointer said...

spaceman, barry, leonid,

check out "quantity vs. form" in wendell berry's the way of ignorance. no doubt you'll find it interesting, and hopefully instructive.

(spaceman, just holla if you wanna borrow my copy. barry, ask spaceman for it this weekend, if you're interested)

Selena Mcbride said...

That's interesting write-up. I would definitely agree that "Aging is a set of progressive changes in body composition, at the molecular and cellular level, which are side-effects of essential metabolic processes". All of us would experiencing this stage but nowadays, people do anything just to maintain healthy skin. I just read a skin care review about organic skin products that are also effective in taking care of our skin to prevent aging. This is organic so it might not harmful to our skin.

Mike Anderson said...

Good thing scientist now a days found a way to stop aging. Now I can rely on those products.

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