[extropy-chat] FWD (PvT) Luddites. I *hate* those guys.
Terry W. Colvin
fortean1 at mindspring.com
Thu Aug 5 22:55:36 UTC 2004
< http://www.reason.com/rb/rb080404.shtml >
Is approaching immortality immoral?
I'm speaking later this week at the World Transhumanist Association's
annual meeting, Transvision 2004. Below is a short version of my remarks.
What if a biomedical researcher discovered that lives were being cut short
because every human being was infected in the womb by a disease organism
that eventually wears down the human immune system's ability to protect
us? Until that discovery, the "natural" average lifespan was the
proverbial three score and ten years.
Once the discovery is made, another brilliant researcher devises a
"vaccine" that kills off the disease organism. Suddenly the average
lifespan doubles to seven score (140 years). In a sense, this is exactly
where we find ourselves today. There are no "vaccines" yet to cure the
disease of aging. But biomedical researchers understand more with each
passing year about the processes that cause the increasing physical and
mental debilities that we define as aging. Aging is no more or less
"natural" than cholera, smallpox, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, or any
disease that cuts short human lives.
Nevertheless, a number of prominent bioethicists and other policy
intellectuals are arguing that we should oppose any such life-doubling
"vaccine" on the grounds that it would interfere with the "natural" course
of human life.
For example, in the current issue of the journal Gerontology, bioethicist
Daniel Callahan claims in a debate with Gregory Stock that doubling human
lifespans would be a net negative for individuals and society.
Callahan makes three arguments. First, he points out that the "problems of
war, poverty, environment, job creation, and social and familial violence"
would not "be solved by everyone living a much longer life." Second, he
asserts that longer lives will lead mostly to more golf games, not new
social energy. "I don't believe that if you give most people longer lives,
even in better health, they are going to find new opportunities and new
initiatives," Callahan writes.
And thirdly, Callahan is worried about what longer lives would do to child
bearing and rearing, Social Security and Medicare. He demands that "each
one of the problems I mentioned has to be solved in advance. The dumbest
thing for us to do would be to wander into this new world and say, 'We'll
deal with the problems as they come along.'"
Callahan's first argument is a non sequitur. People already engage in lots
of activities that do not aim directly at "solving" war, poverty,
environmental problems, job creation, and the rest. Surely we can't stop
everything until we've ended war, poverty, and familial violence.
Anti-aging biomedical research wouldn't obviously exacerbate any of the
problems listed by Callahan and might actually moderate some of them. If
people knew that they were likely to enjoy many more healthy years, they
might be more inclined to longer-term thinking aimed at remedying some of
Second, Callahan's "longer life equals more golf" argument is not only
condescending, it ignores the ravages that physical decline visits on
people. Callahan, age 73, sees a lack of "new energy" among his confreres.
Even if people are healthy at age 75, their "energy" levels will be lower
than at age 30. They may not begin "new initiatives" because they can't
expect to live to see them come to fruition.
But diminishing physical energy isn't the only problem; there is also
waning psychic energy. "There's a factor that has nothing to do with
physical energy. That is the boredom and repetition of life," he argues.
"I ran an organization for 27 years. I didn't get physically tired. I just
got bored doing the same thing repetitiously."
It doesn't seem reasonable to conclude that, just because Callahan is
bored with life, we all will become so. Modern material and intellectual
abundance is offering a way out of the lives of quiet desperation suffered
by our impoverished ancestors. The 21st century will offer an
ever-increasing menu of life plans and choices. Surely exhausting the
coming possibilities will take more than one standard lifetime. Besides,
if you do want to play endless games of golf and can afford it, why is
that immoral? And if you become bored with life and golf, well, no one is
making you hang around.
Doubling healthy human life expectancy would create some novel social
problems, to be sure, but would they really be so hard to deal with?
Callahan cites the hoary example of brain-dead old professors blocking the
progress of vibrant young researchers by grimly holding onto tenure. That
seems more of a problem for medieval holdovers like universities than for
modern social institutions like corporations.
Assuming it turns out that, even with healthy long-lived oldsters, there
is an advantage in turnover in top management, then corporations that
adopt that model will thrive and those that do not will be outcompeted.
Besides, even today youngsters don't simply wait around for their elders
to die. They go out and found their own companies and other institutions.
Bill Gates didn't wait to take over IBM; he founded Microsoft at age 20.
Nor did human genome sequencer Craig Venter loiter about until the top
slot at the National Institutes of Health opened up. And in politics, we
already solve the problem of clutching oldsters by term-limiting the
presidency, as well as many state and local offices.
Callahan's failure of imagination when it comes to public policy
conundrums like Social Security and Medicare is breathtaking. Folks will
be chronologically older, but not elderly in the current sense. Thus, the
standard age when those payoffs begin will obviously have to rise, as the
healthy aging will be expected to continue to be productive and support
themselves. Assuming that age-retardation is possible, the many illnesses
and debilities that accompany aging will be postponed. If one is going to
live to be 140, one has a lot of time to plan and save for the future.
And his assumption of a child crisis in a world of long-lived people seems
based on the idea that healthy oldsters would be less interested in
reproducing. A first response might be: so what? Shouldn't the decision to
have children be up to individuals? After all, already countries with the
highest life expectancies have the lowest levels of fertility.
This lack of interest in progeny would have the happy side effect of
making sure that doubling human lifespans doesn't lead to overpopulation.
No one can know for sure, but it could well be that bearing and rearing
children would eventually interest long-lived oldsters who would come to
feel that they had the time and the resources to do it right.
Callahan's final demand that all problems that doubled healthy lifespans
might cause be solved in advance is just silly. Humanity did not solve all
of the problems caused by the introduction of farming, electricity,
automobiles, antibiotics, sanitation, and computers in advance. We
proceeded by trial and error and corrected problems as they arose. We
should be allowed do the same thing with any new age-retardation
techniques that biomedical research may develop. And we'll be happy to do
"Only a zit on the wart on the heinie of progress." Copyright 1992, Frank Rice
Terry W. Colvin, Sierra Vista, Arizona (USA) < fortean1 at mindspring.com >
Alternate: < fortean1 at msn.com >
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