Be the Lifespan

I apologise for my long silence (both here and on l4t), but I’m having another of my crazy busy periods. As a matter of fact, I’ve got something going on behind the scenes for Rejuvenaction—major content updates that I’m planning and soon I’ll be working on, but don’t hold your breath. It’s gonna be a long thing, and I probably won’t get to it properly until my busyness is over.

In the meantime, have a look at Lifespan.io’s new campaign:


This campaign has no expiry date, and it aims at getting a decent monthly budget for LEAF/Lifespan.io to fund more and more projects and initiatives to help scientific research against age-related diseases and spread awareness. The base goal is 1000$, but with a higher budget, LEAF may be able to do a lot of cool things, like collaboration videos with big YouTube names such as SciShow and Kurzgesagt and yearly conferences. If you can spare even just a few dollars a month, you can help LEAF make a big difference.

You can also help out by spreading the word on your social media—remember to use the hashtags #aging, #crowdfundthecure, #bethelifespan.

Not all discriminations are born equal

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything new. I’ve been quite busy lately with a lot of things, including rebooting looking4troubles, my other blog. As a result, my topic list for Rejuvenaction has been growing dangerously long, so I decided it’s about time I tackled some of the lengthiest items on my list.

People like talking about justice, equality, and discrimination a lot. I mean a lot. In my experience, though, most tend to focus mainly or entirely on the type(s) of discrimination they’re more interested in for whatever reason, sometimes minimising others or not even noticing they exist in the first place. Some other times, they even end up endorsing one type of discrimination for the sake of warding off another.

As if poor people cared

Take the good ol’ ‘only the rich‘ objection against rejuvenation. Its essence is that, to forestall the possibility of rejuvenation being available only to a few wealthy ones, rejuvenation should not be created at all—if not everyone can have it, then no one should have it.

The core misconception behind this argument is obvious. Given a certain gap between rich people and poor people, if you better rich people’s lives in any way you do widen the rich-poor gap, but you do not change the poor’s quality of life at all. In other words, if you develop any new technology and only rich people have access to it, you make rich people better off than they were before, while nothing changes, in absolute terms, for the poor people. They are worse off than before with respect to the rich, but this hardly matters. Their living conditions are exactly the same as before, for good or bad. Rich people’s quality of life is not the yardstick by which we should measure everyone else’s quality of life. If extreme poverty didn’t exist and the poorest person in the world was as wealthy as a typical middle-class person in the western world, I think we’d have little to complain about the existence of all the Elon Musks and Mark Zuckerbergs. (Except perhaps for some who seem to be unable to lead a happy life if they don’t have something to be unhappy about.)

Even without bothering with rejuvenation, poor people don’t really care if Mark Zuckerberg has one Ferrari, or two, or three, or none—they’re likely more concerned with whether they have food for one day, or two, or three, or none. It could be argued that Zuckerberg could spend more money on the poor rather than on Ferraris (which he probably does—I just needed a rich guy’s name), but while I’m okay with prioritising poor people’s needs over buying Ferraris, I’m not okay with prioritising the lives of starving people over the lives of geriatric patients. They’re both in danger and they’re both suffering. Rich or poor doesn’t matter: Any elderly person is just not as healthy as a young one, irrespectively of their wealth, and they’re possibly closer to the grave than a young starved person is. I’m not saying we should prioritise rejuvenation over combating world hunger; I’m saying they’re equally important, and they can and should be fought simultaneously.

Discriminating discriminations

Ah, but I’m neglecting an important factor at play here, am I not? If rejuvenation was only for the rich, that would be discrimination against the poor. You would have right to good health only if you were rich enough, and that would be unjust. It would indeed, and I am the first to say that we need to make sure that equal access to rejuvenation is granted to everyone as soon as possible. That is why we should discuss these topics already now, when rejuvenation is mostly on the drawing board and partly in the lab: We’ve got all the time in the world to make things work out nicely.

To some, however, this is not enough, and they’d sooner have everyone wilt and die than let only the rich benefit from rejuvenation. Sometimes I have the feeling that, in the collective imagination of people, ‘the rich’ are evil incarnate. Are all rich people so bad that they deserve to age to death? Why? And who gets to decide it? Even if not everyone was able to benefit from rejuvenation from the very beginning, as compassionate and caring human beings as we should be, what should we decide about rejuvenation’s fate? That it should be created and save at least some lives in the present, and hopefully every life in the future, or that it should never be created and save no life at all? What about those future generations that we seem to worry about so much in terms of climate change and pollution? They deserve a clean world, but not a disease-free existence?

In case it went unnoticed, the type of discrimination that rejuvenation opposers are trying to fight off with the ‘only the rich’ objection is income/wealth discrimination; the form of discrimination they’re endorsing (whether they realise it or not) is a form of ageism; whatever their reasons may be, whenever people say that rejuvenation should not be developed, they’re saying that elderly people should not have the chance of equally good health as younger people.

Some opposers are not only concerned that rejuvenation would not be available to all; they’re also concerned that being rejuvenated or not might in itself become a discriminating factor. For example, suppose that not everyone wants to undergo rejuvenation treatments and prefer to age and die ‘normally’. What if—I was asked once—an employer denied you a job on these grounds?

This question betrays a lack of understanding of several things—the fact that rejuvenation is not a single-shot therapy that you take now or never, or only once and for all, for example—but anyway the point here is not the answer to this particular concern. The point is that some people seem very concerned about the potential discrimination that rejuvenation might cause, but not very much about the concrete discrimination against elderly people, actually taking place here and now each time we question and postpone the development of comprehensive anti-ageing therapies that could fully restore chronologically old people’s health. While we ponder this and that hypothetical future problem, elderly people suffer from all sorts of ailments.

Equality in a cloak and a scythe

Going back to the ‘for all or for no one’ argument that some people like to make, I wonder if they would still make it if the matter being discussed was something other than rejuvenation. In the case of rejuvenation, they would prefer it not to be developed at all rather than risk unequal access to it. Would they think the same of human rights, for example? Unfortunately, human rights are not respected everywhere. By the ‘for all or for none’ logic, for the sake of avoiding inequality and injustice it would be better to take human rights away from everyone rather than have only some people enjoy this privilege. Even better, perhaps, human rights should never have been invented to begin with. A more fitting example is an evergreen: vaccines. Even today they’re not equally accessible everywhere, let alone when they were first invented. Maybe, if vaccines hadn’t been invented in the first place, we would have experienced less inequality; at the same time, though, a lot of people, rich and poor alike, would have died of infectious diseases before age 2 in the past decades.

Here I’m touching another point that some advocates of ageing like to make: Death is the ‘great equaliser’. If vaccines had not been invented, then not only the poor who could not afford vaccines would die of infectious diseases; everyone would, even the rich. If nothing else, like some authors suggest, the poor can take comfort in the fact that the rich will die too, just like them. If we developed rejuvenation, for example, we’d run the risk of depriving the poor of this ‘comfort’ and would make the world a much too unequal place. I am frankly quite amused at how nonchalantly some people call schadenfreude ‘equality’ or ‘justice’: Be happy, dear poor person, for even if you and your children have suffered many privations, rich people will one day die, just like you will! Wohoo. If that ain’t a reason to throw the wildest party, I don’t know what is.

I would really like to ask a simple question to all the poor people whom the advocates of death like to speak for: Would you rather take the chance that rejuvenation might be available to everyone, including you, or the certainty that both you and all the rich will age to death? I wonder how many would actually find the second option more enticing than the first.

Health before semantics

Update: If you read this post, I recommend you also read this one. It clarifies a few things I got wrong or expressed poorly here.

Whether or not ageing ought to be considered a disease is still matter of controversy, both among experts and laypeople. Particularly, the latter tend to turn up their noses at the thought of ageing being pathological and not ‘normal’, especially if they’re outside the life-extension/rejuvenation community. Clearly, they ignore the fact that ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ aren’t mutually exclusive at all. It’s perfectly normal to suffer from hearing loss in old age; notwithstanding, it is out of the question that hearing loss is a pathology and we have developed several ways to make up for it. It presently can’t be cured, because like all age-related diseases, it can only get worse as long as the age-related damage that causes it keeps accumulating.

In my humble opinion of quasi-layperson (I’m nowhere near being an expert, but I do think I know about ageing more than your average Joe), whether or not ageing is a disease is merely a matter of semantics, depending largely on what we want to label as ‘ageing’—not to mention how we define ‘disease’.

If we say that ‘ageing’ is the set of age-related pathologies that affect a given person, then ageing isn’t a disease any more than a box of crayons is itself a crayon. Nonetheless, if you have a box of crayons then you have a bunch of crayons; if you have ageing as we defined it, then you have a bunch of diseases, and the grand total of your ailments doesn’t change whether you consider ageing as a disease as well or not. Quite frankly, I’d pick the box of crayons over ageing any time.

We could define ‘ageing’ differently. We could define it as the damage accumulation processes that eventually give rise to the pathologies of old age. This is a much more sensible definition, because it emphasises the fact ageing is a process that happens gradually over time, starting on day 1. You don’t ‘get’ ageing late in life; you were born with it. When ageing is in its early stages, for example in your 20s or 30s, you can’t really call its effects a ‘disease’ any more than you can call a spec of dust a ‘dust cloud’; when you’re 20, you’re no more ‘sick’ with ageing than a table with a single dust spec on its surface is ‘dusty’. However, during later stages of ageing pathologies are the norm, and the progression of the ageing process exacerbates them further. According to this definition, ageing is still not a disease, but its the cause of many diseases, in pretty much the same way a virus is not the disease it causes: Rhinoviruses are not the common cold; they merely cause it. (This is where the analogy stops. All ageing and viruses have in common is that they both cause diseases. Ageing is certainly not an infectious pathogen!) Notice that, even though HIV, for example, is not itself a disease, we can all agree that we should get rid of it because it causes a horrible disease, namely AIDS. For the same reason, even if ageing did not fit our definition of disease, it is clear that it causes horrible diseases; this should be enough to stop bickering over semantics and just focus on getting rid of ageing already.

We could also think of ageing as an ‘über disease’: A disease whose symptoms are diseases themselves; a ‘disease of diseases’. This is more along the lines of what Aubrey de Grey calls ageing, and he’s not wrong, because what we currently see happening in old age is essentially the sum of different age-related pathologies all happening at more or less the same time.

If you ask me, even without going into the details of the biology of ageing, I’d say that, strictly speaking, it’s probably not a disease (some say it’s neither a disease, nor a non-disease), but it obviously causes crippling pathologies; however, if classifying ageing as a disease may help us get sooner to a world free of age-related diseases, I’m definitely in favour of doing it. I’ll gladly discuss the semantics of the matter after the diseases of old age will no longer be a problem. (*)

(*) Please, do have a look at my first comment below for a further clarification of my stand on the matter.

Reductio ad absurdum

If you’ve ever tried to advocate for rejuvenation, you know it is hard. Usually, people deem the idea as crazy/impossible/dangerous well before you get to finish your first sentence. Living too long would be boring, it would cause overpopulation, ‘immortal’ dictators, and what you have. However, you’ve probably never heard anyone use the same arguments to say that we should not cure individual age-related diseases. This is largely because people have little to no idea about what ageing really is, and how it cannot be untangled from the so-called age-related pathologies. These are nothing more, nothing less, than the result of the life-long accumulation of several types of damage caused by the body’s normal operations. Unlike infectious diseases, the diseases of old age are not the result of a pathogen attack, but essentially of your own body falling apart. As I was saying, people are largely unaware of this fact, and therefore expect that the diseases of ageing could be cured one by one without having to interfere with the ageing process itself, as if the two weren’t related at all. The result of this false expectation would be that you could cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc., but somehow old people would still drop dead around the age of 80 just because they’re old. That’s like saying they died of being healthy.

Back to reality, this can’t be done. To cure the diseases of old age, you need to cure ageing itself. If, for whatever reason, you think that curing ageing as a whole would be a bad idea and it should not be done, the only option is to not cure at least some of the root causes of ageing. Consequently, some age-related pathologies would remain as untreatable as they are today.

Now, the typical objections raised against rejuvenation tend to sound reasonable at first. To some, the statement ‘We should not cure ageing because it would lead to overpopulation’ sounds self-evident. However, if we consider the implications of this statement, things start getting crazy. As said, not curing ageing implies not curing some of its root causes, which in turn implies not curing some age-related diseases. Therefore, the sentence ‘We should not cure ageing’ implies ‘We should not cure [insert age-related disease here]. What happens when we reformulate typical objections to rejuvenation in this fashion?

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because otherwise fewer people would die and this might lead to overpopulation.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure Alzheimer’s disease, because otherwise fewer people would die and this might lead to overpopulation.

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because it would be unnatural.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure atherosclerosis, because it would be unnatural. (The f*ck did I just read?!)

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because it would be only for the rich and cause inequality.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure cancer, because it would be only for the rich and cause inequality. (THE F#CK DID I JUST READ?!?!)

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because there are more urgent issues.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure type 2 diabetes, because there are more urgent issues. (Right. Now let me watch this new Hollywood mediocre blockbuster whose making was an absolute priority.)

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because longer lifespans would be boring.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure cerebrovascular diseases, because longer lifespans would be boring. (Well, I can see how an ischemic attack would spice your life up.)

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because the future looks too grim to live.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure arteriosclerosis, because the future looks too grim to live. (We should not cure all age-related diseases—effectively making the future worse than whatever it looks like right now—because some people think the future will be so horrible that THEY won’t want to live any more and for some weird reason specifically prefer to be killed by an age-related disease, even though all of this incidentally implies that most of the rest of the world too will die of age-related diseases, including those who disagree with this crazy argument. Sounds reasonable.)

I don’t think I need to point out why the statements listed under ‘specific’ are utterly ridiculous. (Which, in case you were wondering, is the reason for the title of this post. It’s latin for ‘reduction to absurdity’ and it is a type of mathematical proof, also known as proof by contradiction. What I did here is not a proof by contradiction, but the ‘reduction to absurdity’ bit is definitely there.) I’m all for discussing potential problems brought about by the defeat of ageing, so that we can prevent them from ever happening; however, I’m not going to buy a pig in a poke and accept blatant nonsense as valid objections to rejuvenation. Also, choosing which age-related diseases should be left untreated for the sake of not curing ageing as a whole is not an interest I’m planning to pick up any time soon.

New objection answered: The Tithonus error

I’ve just added a new answer for the objection commonly known as the Tithonus error, i.e. that living for a longer time/indefinitely in a decrepit body would be bad. If you’re already familiar with rejuvenation, you know that this is not what rejuvenation is about, but some people do misunderstand, so I decided it would be a good idea to illustrate why this undesirable scenario isn’t going to happen.

Enjoy!

Diseases don’t give you super powers

Yesterday I read a Facebook post that I deeply agreed with. The post lamented the attitude of some people who seem to almost glorify horrible diseases, infirmities, and disabilities, crediting them for achievements and accomplishments, and subtly downplaying their symptoms and all the distress they cause to patients.

This attitude is not uncommon. We all have seen titles along the lines of ‘How blindness changed my life for the better’, or ‘My disability made me achieve more than ever before’. Sure enough, at least some of these titles are meant to be clickbaits, but I don’t like attributing everything to malice.

Sometimes, when you’re ridden with an incurable disease, a certain way of downplaying your condition can help you cope, which is good. If your disease has taken the ability to walk from you and there’s no hope of getting it back, there’s little to be gained from wallowing in despair and focusing on your symptoms and on what you’ve lost. Focusing on what you haven’t lost and on what still is under your control, though, may help you make the best of a really bad situation. (This doesn’t apply to disabilities only, but to life in general.) Some people manage to do this very well and they end up achieving a lot despite their disability, and that’s awesome, but I think it’s wrong to attribute their successes to the disease.

Say you lost your sight. Suddenly, a ton of things you used to do with ease become very difficult or even impossible to do on your own or at all. You could throw in the towel, or you could muster up all of your inner strength and make the best of the situation. I’m not saying this is easy: I’m lucky enough not have any first-hand experience of it, but I’m sure it’s not easy at all. However, if you do manage to not give up, you might resolve that, although you can’t see any more, you still can hear, so fuck it, you’re going to become a musician. Maybe it’ll work out, maybe it won’t.

Say it does work out, and you become a great musician. Whose merit is it? Blindness’? Certainly not. Sure, maybe the thought of becoming a musician would never have crossed your mind if you hadn’t lost your sight, but you didn’t magically turn into Beethoven when the lights went off. You must well have put some effort into it to become a great musician, and it was that effort—not your disease—that took you where you are now. The merit is yours, not your disease’s. Couldn’t you become a great musician all the same, even without going blind first, had you put in the same effort? It certainly doesn’t take blindness to be a great musician, and not all people who go blind become great musicians. No disease is a default motivation for anything. It is up to you to find motivation to do anything. (Now don’t think I’m saying that in every situation you can find a plus side and it’s your fault if you can’t find any; I’m not. It may well depend on circumstances beyond your control.)

Give to Caesar what is due to Caesar: Diseases suck. They limit your independence, they make you feel like crap, and sometimes they even kill you. They’re not good, they’re not a blessing, they don’t give you super powers, they don’t make you wiser and they don’t hold the secret meaning of life. Whatever you may be able to accomplish despite your disease is your merit, not your disease’s. That’s why we have words like ‘despite’ in the first place.

People struck by diseases aren’t the only ones who may sugarcoat their condition. As said, article writers and the media in general do this fairly often. My guess would be that, perhaps, they’re trying to give a positive view and encourage people who suffer from debilitating conditions. Maybe they’re trying to show them that all’s not lost. I commend that, but there’s way and way of doing it. Don’t frame it as if the disease was the cause of somebody’s achievements. Don’t depict it as a blessing in disguise. That is disrespectful of the suffering of countless people, not to mention an outrageous lie. Instead, try to show how we can succeed even against all odds, if we put our minds to it. If you want to give people hope, remind them that science is working day and night to cure all diseases, and one day we will get there. Remind patients that, even as we speak, someone somewhere is working to understand their disease and find a cure to it.

I may have gone off at a tangent this time around, but only slightly. Remember that age-related diseases are as horrible, crippling, and lethal as some non-age-related diseases, and the reason not everyone realises this isn’t any different from the attitude I’ve described here. Calling old age the ‘golden years’, with all the many plagues that inevitably come with it, is the same as calling a spinal cord injury a blessing; attributing to ageing one’s wisdom and accomplishments is equally cheap and misguided. Biological ageing is no more, no less, than a vast set of diseases, and as such, there’s only one thing to do about it: Bring it under comprehensive medical control.

Conforming to the majority, however wrong they may be

A few weeks ago I was ranting on my Facebook author page about Ghostbusters: Answer the call—i.e. the new Ghostbusters movie. I loved the movie and I was rather pissed to see all the gratuitous hatred towards it not only after it was released, but well before. As the Latins said, de gustibus non est disputandum (‘you don’t argue over matters of taste’), so while I had nothing to say about people who genuinely disliked the movie, in my rant I conjectured that the negative criticism on the movie after it was released might (and I emphasise might) be mostly a product of all the conditioning that people underwent in the months prior to the movie’s release—in other words, since everybody around you on the Internet kept talking shit about the movie, you were negatively influenced by the predominant opinion, even if nobody expressing it had seen the movie yet, so that after you went to see the movie (if you did) you eventually joined the choir of haters, either because of the ‘brainwashing’ that actually convinced you the movie was bad or because you didn’t want to break from the crowd and dare saying the movie was not so bad after all.

This was all just wild speculation, but then my girlfriend pointed out a series of studies about the influence of the majority’s opinion on individual judgement—the so-called Asch conformity experiments—which seemed to hint there might be some truth to what I conjectured. You can read the page I linked, or even look up the original studies, but here’s a brief account of the experiments anyway.

Groups of eight subjects were presented with two cards: One bore a single vertical line, while the other had three lines of different lengths labeled A, B, C. One of the three lines was the same as that on the first card, while the other two were clearly of different lengths; the subjects were supposed to say which of the three lines matched the one on the first card. Now, seven out of the eight subjects in each group were actually actors who had been given prior instructions on how they should answer the question in each run of the experiment, so that the number of actual test subject each time was in fact one. The seven ‘confederates’ were instructed to always unanimously nominate one of the three lines. In some cases they were instructed to give the right answer; in some other, they were supposed to give the wrong one. The point of the experiment was to see whether the test subject would dare giving the right answer even when all the other supposed test subjects gave the wrong one.

While in the control group the error percentage was ridiculously (and understandably) low, in the remaining groups results varied: 36.8% of the real test subjects conformed to the (incorrect) answer of the majority; 5% of them always gave the same answer as the majority. One-third of all the responses were incorrect, matching those of the majority, and overall 75% of the test subjects gave at least one incorrect answer out of 12 trials. During the post-experiment interviews of the subjects, Asch spilled the beans and told them what the experiment was really about. He got some rather interesting responses, for example from the ‘independent’ subject who did not follow majority, who said: ‘I do not deny that at times I had the feeling: “to go with it, I’ll go along with the rest” ‘; and the ‘yielding’ subject, more prone to aligning with the majority, who said ‘I suspected about the middle – but tried to push it out of my mind.‘ Some of the conforming people gave the same wrong answer as the majority because they doubted their own judgement and concluded the majority had to be right; some others didn’t want to go against what the majority was saying, even though they knew what the right answer was. Even though the majority of subjects did not conform to the wrong answer just because it was what the majority of the participants was saying, it is still impressive that nearly 40% did. We’re not talking nuclear physics here: We’re talking about which line was longer than which other.

Before you complain that you don’t give a flying about the new Ghostbusters movie or which line is the longest, let me come to the point of this post. If people are hesitant to disagree with the majority even in cases where they could easily prove the majority wrong, I would imagine they are even more so when the majority is very entrenched and disproving them is not so easy, as in the case of people maintaining that ageing is a good thing and that all kinds of shit would hit the fan if we tried to change it in any way. The fact your health goes downhill as time goes by is something nobody is too fond of and probably not too many people like admitting that they’re not very healthy any more. Denialism is often the first reaction to something unwanted and inevitable, and while you can’t deny the fact you’re ageing, you can deny it is a bad thing and attempt all sorts of pseudo-philosophical acrobatics to convince yourself and others that ageing is a good thing after all. Since everyone has ageing, this reaction is exceedingly common, and we end up with seriously large groups of people all agreeing that ageing is good (despite the fact it makes you sick and kills you) and that if we stopped ageing we would be struck by all the catastrophes you can imagine—regardless of the total lack of evidence in favour of these claims and of all the arguments (if not evidence) against them. After all, often all it takes to make a lie true is to repeat it long enough and to get others to repeat it too. Considering that the issue of biological ageing is at least as old as humanity itself, the first attempts to rationalise and sugarcoat it are probably very old as well; therefore this cycle of communal reinforcement has probably been going on for centuries if not millennia, earning the alleged desirability of ageing a place in folk wisdom. As the Asch experiments suggest, even if some people may in fact privately think that ageing is not so good after all and they’d rather not age if they had the choice, there’s a good chance that in public they’ll stick to the majority opinion, no matter how questionable it may be. If you’ve ever tried to bring up the topic of rejuvenation with other people, you’ve probably seen this phenomenon in action many times. Before you know it, you’re covered in a tidal of overpopulation, eternal boredom, and everliving tyrants; then, when you start patiently dismantling each objection, the conversation is turned into an exchange of witticisms and eventually killed. Hardly anyone will ever dare changing their mind and admitting to it, especially in front of other people. The reasons may be several—fear of breaking from the majority, fear of appearing silly, fear of deluding oneself, you name it. Some people may be genuinely convinced of their position on ageing, but I wouldn’t be too quick to trust anyone who claims to think ageing is a good thing. Especially when you think about how people’s negative reactions to rejuvenation are all so quick—too quick, in fact, to believe they’ve actually given the matter any thought—and all eerily similar to each other, chances are good their wish to align with the majority has taken over. Just my two cents.