Aubrey’s trump cards

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, the father of SENS, always likes to answer to all objections to/concerns about rejuvenation with two general arguments. I think it is actually worth taking the trouble to answer each objection separately (which I did), but Aubrey’s answers are very good as well. I will discuss them here and add my own considerations. (If you’re interested in Aubrey’s pure thoughts, unpolluted by mine, you might want to try this short book.)

Trump card 1: Sense of proportion

The core of this argument can be expressed quite succinctly: Is any of the potential problems that might be caused by rejuvenation in the future worse than the actual problem of ageing we have today?

We’re treading on a bit of a slippery terrain, because whether a problem is worse than another, or thing A is more important/serious/grave than thing B, is not an entirely objective matter. We might disagree on which problem is worse than which and on why a given problem is supposedly worse than another, and there might be no way out of this disagreement. However, by and large, the yardstick by which we measure a problem’s magnitude is typically the amount of suffering, misery, and death it inflicts on people. For example, when war breaks out we do regret the destruction of landmarks and infrastructure, but that’s hardly how we measure how bad the war was—rather, we speak of how many lives it has claimed or how many people it has maimed.

Around 100.000 people die every day of ageing—that is, of the pathologies of old age and/or their complications. This is a huge number, and it is a whopping 2/3 of the deaths that occur every day (around 150.000). In a year, that adds up to around 36.500.000 deaths. According to the most conservative estimates, around 50.000.000 people died in World War II (1939-1945); on average, that is about 8.400.000 people a year. Thus, in a year, ageing kills about four times as many people as WWII did in the same timespan, and almost as many people as WWI (1914-1918) killed in about four years (around 40.000.000). The 9/11 terrorist attacks to the New York World Trade Center, the deadliest in history, killed 2.996 people in a single day; in the same amount of time, ageing kills over 30 times as many people. Of course these horrific wars and attacks didn’t just kill people, but have caused an astronomical amount of suffering, both physical and psychological. Similarly, ageing causes physical suffering, debilitation, and disabilities; given the progressive, chronic nature of age-related diseases, these ailments tend to significantly worsen with time, and they plague the elderly for the last decade or two of their lives. The health problems caused by ageing produce psychological suffering as well: Not only do the elderly lose their independence, but—and this is among the most common and worst concerns of the elderly—they also become a burden on their children. Which, of course, means the children of elderly parents too suffer because of ageing, even though they’re not old yet, in a similar way as the families of people killed or injured in war suffer indirectly because of it.

By this measure, the problem of ageing is really bad, killing everyday more people than all the other causes of death put together, and causing enormous suffering. If we successfully implemented a comprehensive rejuvenation platform, the problem of ageing, and all the misery it causes, would disappear altogether. Now, to come back to the main question, do we think that the potential side effects of defeating ageing may be so bad that we would be better off not doing it at all? Would the downsides of defeating ageing be more negative than the upsides would be positive? It is impossible to answer this question with absolute certainty, because we cannot predict with absolute certainty the magnitude of the side effects. However, there is no reason to think any of the possible side effects of defeating ageing are unsolvable. In fact, careful planning may even prevent some side effects from ever happening, in which case it would be stupid not to eliminate the problem of ageing only to avoid side effects which we could have obviated anyway.

Take the concern of population growth. My personal view is that we will not witness an unmanageable growth because of rejuvenation, but say I’m wrong (which may well be). At such point, we could either decide to forget about rejuvenation and let everyone eventually come down with the diseases of ageing and die (including future children), or we could limit our birth rates, which is something we’d better do already now. What is worse? Asking everyone, present and future, to get sick and die for the sake of babies that aren’t even in the making yet, or simply making fewer babies, at least until we find a way to manage a larger population?

Similarly, if we are afraid that rejuvenation could allow tyrants to live for centuries, let us think again: Would this be really worse than the problem of ageing? Would the tyrant kill as many people in a day as ageing does? Would he cause the same amount of suffering? If we didn’t develop rejuvenation, he would only cause misery for a handful of decades, but what if he left a heir around to continue his work, equally if not more brutally? And what about the people who didn’t live under his tyranny to begin with? Is it fair that they all should suffer and die because of ageing, for the sake of ensuring the death of a single tyrant who’s likely to be immediately replaced by another anyway?

You get the gist of this. For each problem that you think the defeat of ageing might cause, you can ask yourself if it would be worse than the problem we have today—the misery, suffering, and death caused by ageing, not to mention the socio-economical problems it causes as well. Of course the solution to potential problems caused by the defeat of ageing wouldn’t necessarily be easy to implement, but not easy doesn’t mean impossible. Speaking of overpopulation, for example, to many people the idea of population control (if we ever needed it) sounds outrageous, probably because they imagine the government poking its nose in their bedroom or, worse, commanding the execution of surplus babies. That kind of population control would be horrible, but are we sure that’s what it would be like? What if it worked differently, for example using more resources to ensure widespread contraception and sexual education; providing various incentives, financial or otherwise, to families with fewer children and, in a worst-case scenario, taxing more heavily those with more children; working to lift developing countries out of poverty (which we’re already doing, though not too fast), fostering the well-known ‘contraceptive effect’ of prosperity (people in more prosperous regions tend to have fewer children)? I’m not saying it’s going to be cakewalk; I am only asking you to think about whether the benefits of defeating ageing wouldn’t be worth the efforts required to solve any potential side effects (if any).

^ Go back up ^

Trump card 2: We don’t know better than humanity of the future

I like this argument very much, even more than the previous one, because it rebuts an essential part of most objections to rejuvenation—the ‘what if’ objections.

I refer to all objections concerning potential future problems. What if the Earth became overpopulated? What if the world became such a horrible place that you’d rather be dead than alive? What if a dictator lived for centuries? What if this or that problem happened? More often than not, the subtle implication of these questions is that they’re not questions at all: People tend to take for granted that overpopulation will be an unsolvable problem, made worse by never-dying centenaries; that the future will be grim, and indefinite lifespans would only be a disservice we’d be making to our descendants; that something will necessarily go wrong, so we’d better leave ageing alone.

However, the truth is we know very little about the future, especially compared to humanity of the future. We could sit here all day and argue over whether resource scarcity is or not an insurmountable barrier that will forever force our numbers below a certain threshold (which people seem to assume being somewhere below our current number); but at the end of the day we just don’t know, and it would be arrogant to assume that a problem today will necessarily be a problem in the future as well. Just imagine if our forefathers two hundred years ago had reasoned: ‘Vaccines could cause the population to spiral out of control! They would save a lot of lives alright, but those very lives would go on increasing our numbers, in a way or another, and in a couple of centuries billions of people would be walking the Earth! How could we possibly feed so many mouths? Better to forget about vaccines and let nature take its course. It’s a necessary evil.’

Thankfully, this thought doesn’t seem to have crossed our ancestors’ minds; if it had, we might still be dying of smallpox because of their lack of imagination. Vaccines did help increase our numbers significantly, but at the same time we have become able to feed more people. Our ancestors couldn’t have known it, and it would have been arrogant of them to assume that the problem they had back then (inability to feed billions of people) would be just as problematic two hundred years later. (Yes, world hunger is still a problem, but not nearly as much as it used to be.)

Today, we are in the same situation as our ancestors in the example above. We don’t know for a fact what the future will be like, and we don’t know if our problems of today that might be exacerbated by the defeat of ageing will still be a problem in the future. By the time the defeat of ageing will cause a significant population increase (if it will), will we be able to support more people with ease or not? Will everyone’s life depend so strictly on having a job, so that unemployment will still be an issue, or will the economy look different? Will we have new technologies that reduce our carbon footprint, or will we still be burning coal? When you consider that it will take a few decades before effective rejuvenation therapies are developed, and that even then there won’t be many unusually long-lived elderly before yet a few more decades, the answers to these questions seem rather encouraging, especially when if you remember that key technologies and ideas that can help us along the way are gradually becoming reality.

If we said ‘no’ to creating rejuvenation today, we would be condemning not only ourselves, but the people of the future as well, to the diseases of ageing; worse still, we would be doing so on the questionable assumption that we know enough about the world of the future to decide rejuvenation would do it more bad than good. If we develop rejuvenation, we will give our descendants (and possibly ourselves) the option to use it; if we don’t, we will deny them this option and force them to suffer from the age plague. One day, our descendants may either be thankful that we gave them a choice between health and disease, or regret that their arrogant and unimaginative forefathers didn’t think the matter through before deciding on behalf of humanity of the future.

^ Go back up ^

3 thoughts on “Aubrey’s trump cards

  1. With a few exceptions like Franco, dictators and tyrants rarely get to die of age-related reasons, anyway. Either their enemies (in or out of the country, and possibly long-lived themselves) do something about it, his potential successors speed up the process (guns, bombs, knives,nooses still work. Et tu, Brutus?), or they understand that the game si up, take whatever national treasure they can, and get out of Dodge.

    And there was that German fellow who saw to it that his enemies wold not take him alive…

    So, insuring that bad people die relatively soon, by insuring that *all* people eventually die relatively soon, is not only an unethical solution, but it’s hardly even necessary. Life-extension or not, like the classic cartoon with the two vultures, you don’t have to patiently wait.

  2. I like the way you think, Nicola! Very stimulating…and It is clear that you CAN think…and that you like to write!

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