Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Life Eternal

As genetic sequencing and molecular biology make technological strides, it seems clear that techniques to extend the human lifespan are not far off. Led by researchers like Cynthia Kenyon and companies such as Elixir Pharmaceuticals, discoveries around the daf-2, daf-16, and other genes, and understanding their effect on the insulin and IGF-1 pathways should allow the identification of compounds in humans that not only extend natural lifespan, but make that lifespan one of youthfulness and vigor. (Although given the FDA process for drug approval, even compounds identified today may be a decade away from actual commercial use).

I happen to think this is a good thing, which I'll elaborate on in a minute. What is somewhat disappointing (although not a surprise) is that none of these mutations or compounds discovered so far appear to reverse the effects of aging. They only slow down a number of the processes which cause the decline and cellular damage associated with aging. Which brings up an interesting question - which generation will be the last to have to suffer the decay and depredation of aging?

In fact, it is likely that there will be three categories of people once anti-aging treatments are available: those who are young enough that they can life a very long lifetime with youthful bodies; those who are too old for the treatments to do much good, since the majority of the damage has already been done; and those in between, who must decide if it is worthwhile to live another 100 years if you have to do it in the body of a 50-60 year old. (Knowing the way we already spend inordinate amounts of money to medically extend life of those who are nearing its end, my guess is that everyone - even those who really wouldn't benefit much - will want the treatments).

There will be the inevitable debate about who should get the treatments (are you sponge worthy?) and whether anyone should get the treatments (I can't wait to see the heads exploding among those whose belief in the "sanctity of human life, regardless of quality" conflicts with their beliefs against genetic engineering and that "man should not play god" in extending lifespans. Poor Pope - he may long for the good old days of abortion, birth control, and child rape issues.)

Like all such treatments, in the beginning it will only be available to the wealthy (because that is just how capitalism applied to medicine works). Depending upon the power structure in place at the time, this could easily tilt into an inverse power curve, where the few who are wealthy and powerful get the treatment and have the wealth and power to ensure that only they get it (and because they don't die anytime soon, continue to accrue wealth and power until there is an enormous disparity between the 1% oligarchs and the rest of the world).

But given the emotional charge associated with wanting to live (after all, evolutionary biology selects for those who have a strong will to live), even if this sort of power play were attempted, the sheer numbers of those who would demand the treatment would ensure that it's use would expand, even if it were at the point of a revolutionary's gun. I recognize that using examples from today, where large parts of the world don't even get access to cheap life saving vaccines and antibiotics, it is very unlikely that everyone would get this treatment. But the percentages would probably be in the 40-60% range at least.

So what would it mean to live in a world where many (most) of the people could live twice as long as they do today, where all 150-200 years are youthful, potentially productive years? There are a lot of good science fiction stories which explore the possible scenarios that could unfold here, from the dystopic...
The chairs were puffy, overstuffed, and swaddlingly comfortable. Old people's chairs. They were the kind of chairs that top-flight furniture designers had begun making back in the 2070s, when furniture designers suddenly realized that very old people possessed all the money in the world, and that from now on very old people were going to have all the money until the end of time.
-Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire (1996).
to the optimistic...
Although long-life can be a burden, mostly it is a blessing. It gives time enough to learn, time enough to think, time enough not to hurry, time enough for love.
- Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love (1973)

There are a lot of non-fiction books on the subject too (like Fantastic Voyage - Ray Kurzweil et al). Heck, this theme has been around forever it seems (see Tithonus from Greek Mythology).

I've blogged before about the possibilities inherent in a longer lifespan. And given my theories about the purpose of life being more life, more complex and intelligent life, then a longer lifespan should only add to those possibilities.

A longer lifespan means more time and experience to bring to a problem. Imagine if some of the greats of the past (scientists, artists, inventors) had longer to work on their ideas, and more time to work through the mistakes.

A longer lifespan relieves the pressure to do so much in so little time. Who knows how differently some of the most ambitious men of the past might have felt if they didn't feel they only had a limited time to make their mark on the world? Who knows how many of those that turned out evil would have made their way into power if they were in the company of those who had memories long enough to see and remember the results of demagoguery, fear, and incitement to violence.

A longer lifespan allows for second (and third, and forth) chances in life, to learn from mistakes, to improve.

A longer lifespan means a continuity of civilization, the ability to build on the shoulders of contemporaries as well as those who came before, the chance to move into a new phase of human growth and maturity.
It's a good thing.
- Martha Stewart

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