A sickeningly bad idea indeed

Science and progress hardly ever stop just because a few cuckoos think we’re going too far. That’s what I tell myself most of the times when I bump into depressingly ill-informed articles about ageing and the diseases of old age. I tell myself that the best thing to do is to just let such articles disappear into oblivion and not give them any extra visibility. However, if instead of a few cuckoos we’re faced with an army of cuckoos, then we’re in for troubles.

At the time of this writing, people who are in favour of or oppose rejuvenation aren’t many, and neither are those who know about it but don’t care. Quite likely, most people in the world haven’t even heard about it yet. What I fear is that, when the advent of rejuvenation biotechnologies will be close, people who oppose rejuvenation will do their best to persuade undecided ones that disease is better than health, and ultimately, provoke an us-vs-them conflict that could jeopardise the cause of rejuvenation. The best way to avoid that conflict is to convince as many people as possible to support rejuvenation biotechnologies before they even arrive, so that when they do, those who oppose them will only be a few cuckoos indeed and not an army. Exposing the intellectual misery of deathist arguments is indubitably a good way of reaching this goal; that’s why I chose to respond to this spectacularly stupid article, instead of just ignoring it.

lewis

Lewis doesn’t want to live in a world without diseases.
She prefers living in one where diseases are invented.

I’ll spare you my thoughts on the annoying arrogance oozing out every single word of the article, and I’ll just focus on the rather questionable opinions expressed in it. Recently, founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have announced a philantrophic effort to ‘end all diseases’ and, to this end, pledged an investment of 3 billion dollars for the necessary research. The author of the article I was talking about, Jemima Lewis, argues that ‘we’d better hope they don’t succeed’, and that ‘developing new technologies and medicines to tackle every disease ever invented’ is a ‘sickeningly bad idea’. Rather than living forever in perfect health in the world as it would be if the Zuckerbergs succeeded in their endeavour, she adds, she’d prefer dying of an ‘old-fashioned heart-attack’. Well, you know me: I’m very liberal, and I think Lewis has the right to die in any way she sees fit (including an oddly hyphenated heart attack), but for God’s sake, she should definitely pick up and read a dictionary before she dies. She could find rather interesting trivia in it—for example, the fact diseases are not invented but discovered.

Lewis goes on making up numbers and dire predictions of wars over fresh water a month after ‘curing mortality’, of WHO forcing sterilisation on people, and of starvation. It’s not very clear what sources she’s basing her predictions on or where she got those figures. Apparently, backing up one’s claims is not a thing journalists need to care about. I doubt she actually consulted any source; if she had, she would have noticed that the average number of daily deaths doesn’t even come close offsetting the number of daily births, and that in order to avert potential apocalyptic overpopulation scenarios, we would need to make fewer babies, not kill off more people. What we would need is to decrease the population growth rate—which, incidentally, is happening on its own since the sixties. Her articles might improve a little if she bothered doing some research before talking about a subject she clearly knows nothing about.

Lewis’ masterpiece, though, is the following bit:

To avert global catastrophe, the Zuckerbergs will have to leave us something to die of. But perhaps they’ve thought of that already. Perhaps instead we will be discreetly euthanised, once our online data suggests we are starting to flag. There’ll be a knock on the door, and one of those cute Japanese nursing robots will gently see us off with a painlessly lethal injection.

Let me get this straight. Curing all diseases and preventing all deaths, she reasons (loosely speaking), would lead to catastrophic overpopulation, therefore we shouldn’t cure all diseases. Of course, we can’t not cure all diseases either, so the only option left is to cure only some diseases; after all, as she points out with brilliant witticism, euthanising people to rid ourselves of overpopulation would be unethical. In her own words,

Anything that kills people much too young, or much too painfully, can go. But we need the diseases of old age, however much we may rail against them.

I wonder, though, what’s the age beyond which people aren’t ‘much too young’ to die, what diseases aren’t ‘much too painful’ and therefore should not be cured, who is going to make these decisions, and what we are going to do if people don’t want to die at age X just because somebody else has decided for them they’re ‘much too old’ to live and not in sufficient pain to be cured. I ask in the spirit of pure enquiry: Far be it from me implying that these would be profound and unsolvable ethical problems which Lewis is nonchalantly and irresponsibly overlooking.

(As a sidenote, if I was forced to choose between 1) being perfectly healthy for as long as I’m alive and dying painlessly with an injection, and 2) spending the last 20+ years of my life in a state of increasing decrepitude, illness, and disability which will eventually kill me, I would definitely choose option 1. Both options suck, since they both imply my death, but the first is far less grim. With some luck, though, we’ll be able to pick another option—being perfectly healthy for as long as we are alive, however long that may be.)

Not everyone agrees with Lewis that letting people die is a solution to anything, but perhaps they could be persuaded by the quote by Steve Jobs concluding her article:

Steve Jobs, the original tech giant, understood this – even as he fought the cancer that eventually killed him. “No one wants to die,” he wrote, yet “death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Of course, silly me. Who cares about old people’s lives and well-being? They’re much too old, and we need to get rid of the old to make way for the new. It kind of reminds me of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode by the title of Half a life.

If anyone ever had a sickeningly bad idea, that was Lewis when she decided to write her article.

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