The point of rebutting objections to rejuvenation

If you’ve hung around here long enough, you probably know I have two pet peeves: ageing and money. If we assume the saying ‘Only two things are certain in life: death and taxes’ is true, then we’re forced to conclude that I advocate for the (indirect) elimination of the only two certainties in life. So, if you came here looking for certainties, I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place.

I’m (mostly) not joking. Lately I’ve been working a lot on the Answers to objections section, which together with a few discussions I’ve had on the Internet, got me thinking about the point of rebutting objections to rejuvenation. Generally, when I discuss the subject with somebody who’s not at all sold on the idea of rejuvenating people, I get the feeling they expect me to prove beyond doubt that nothing can possibly go wrong, either along the way between here and an ageless world or once that world has been reached. If my feeling is correct, opposers to rejuvenation may expect that my rebuttals are meant to prove that neither a post-ageing world, nor the journey to it, will present any problems or challenges.

This expectation is utterly unrealistic. It’s actually worse than that—it’s completely wrong. There’s no way in hell I (or anyone else) could guarantee that we won’t have a dictator ruling a nation for six centuries, or that environmental problems won’t be exacerbated, etc. The reason I can’t promise none of the above will happen is the very same reason why rejuvenation opposers can’t promise any of the above will happen: Nobody can actually predict the future.

Arguments against rejuvenation only sound reasonable because they appeal to our fears and to the blame-the-humans attitude of so many people. If you trust only your gut feelings and don’t bother examining facts and data, anti-rejuvenation arguments can easily seem obviously true. Accepting an anti-rejuvenation argument requires far less mental work than understanding why the same argument isn’t as sound as it appears, but that doesn’t make anti-rejuvenation arguments any more ‘obviously true’ than their rebuttals. It is impossible to know for a fact whether or not rejuvenation will cause any given problem before we get there.

Proving that no problems will arise as a consequence of defeating ageing is not the point of rebutting objections to rejuvenation. That’s not what any of my answers does. All they do is showing that objections to rejuvenation rely more often than not on fallacious reasoning, ignorance, fears, misconceptions, and wrong assumptions taken for established fact. In short, what we do when rebutting objections to rejuvenation is showing they aren’t valid reasons to let ageing continue crippling and killing us. At the same time, answers to objections show why all those predictions of doom and gloom aren’t as likely as they may appear. There’s no certainty to be found anywhere, but this doesn’t really matter—had we refrained from doing anything that wasn’t proved to be 100% risk-free throughout history, we’d probably still be living in caves.

Remember: Objections to rejuvenation are about hypothetical future problems that are far from being certain. Ageing and all the suffering and deaths that come with it are a very tangible fact, happening here and now. This alone should be sufficient to forget about objections altogether and focus only on putting an end to ageing. However, rebutting objections has also another purpose: It fuels discussion. Apart from raising awareness of the problem of ageing and the feasibility of its defeat, discussion prepares us to face the new challenges an ageless future might bring. The way to a world without ageing is still long, which gives us all the time we need to prevent eternal dictators, overpopulation, and all sorts of dystopian scenarios from ever materialising.

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The MMTP and research on senolytic drugs

I’m a bit late for the party, but this is anyway something really worth mentioning.

If you have given a look to this page, you probably know about senescent cells. If you haven’t, I’ll tell you about them again. In a nutshell, senescent cells are cells no longer able to divide like healthy cells are supposed to do. All they do is stick around your body doing nothing useful, really, and while they’re at it, they interfere in other important processes. Pretty much like grumpy people who aren’t just content with sitting around twiddling their thumbs, but also bother other people and prevent them from carrying on their business. Jerks.

The consequences of having senescent cells sitting around are quite bad, and range from vascular diseases to higher chances to develop cancer to reduced immune capacity. It’s no coincidence that the elimination of senescent cells from the body is a keypoint of the SENS agenda.

Recent studies have shown that eliminating senescent cells from mice significantly improves their health in various ways (See, for example, this, this, this, and this). The way scientists have got mice rid of senescent cells is using senolytic drugs, and this is all great news, but the story is the same as with all other scientific discoveries: Not all aspects of the matter are 100% clear yet, and more research needs to be done. If things turned out well, senolytics could be used to increase human healthspan and lifespan, and get us rid of really bad age-related conditions.

In order to be able to carry on further research on the subject, Lifespan.io is presently running a crowdfunding campaign, namely the Major Mouse Testing Program (MMTP) which I urge you to support through donations, sharing the news on your social media, or both. Your youthful cells will be grateful—your senescent cells not so much, but they can stuff it.

A matter of chance

One time I was involved in a discussion on whether or not anti-ageing medicine is something we, as a society, should pursue. Granted, the arguments my opponents were making were all too familiar already—naturalness, boredom and the usual suspects that are already dealt with in the Advocacy section. One in particular, though, was somewhat different, and it struck me as a very good example of just how much people are blinded by their own preconceptions about life and ageing, or perhaps their acceptance of ageing as it is.

That argument against anti-ageing therapies was something along the lines of each individual getting only once chance (at life, presumably), in the sense that the right number of chances to get is one and each person should indeed get only one of them. It’s easy to see the basic flaws of this argument, and for the sake of completeness I will deal with them first before going on to the more important one.

The most obvious flaw is that the argument assumes that, somehow, anti-ageing therapies give you more than one chance at life. That certainly doesn’t hold water, because it would imply that once you miss your first chance (situation that would materialize only with your death) you get another one (i.e. you are somehow resurrected). If we accept that you get “more than one chance” just because anti-ageing makes your life longer than it otherwise would be, then the same must be true of anything else that makes your life longer than it would be otherwise, like for example being cured of a life-threatening disease, getting a vaccine, exercising or even just paying attention when you cross the street—or eating, for that matter.
Anti-ageing medicine doesn’t bring you back from the dead, so if your problem with it is that everybody should get only one chance, I think you don’t have a problem at all.

The second flaw is the assumption that everybody should, in fact, have just one chance. Even assuming, for the sake of the argument, that anti-ageing therapies effectively give you “extra lives” (and they don’t), why is it so that everybody should get only one? Who decided that? If that’s your personal philosophy I’m very much okay with it—you decide what to do with your own life, or how many “chances” should you have to begin with, but just like I can’t (and don’t wish to) force anyone to have more than one “chance”, you can’t force anyone to have just one, particularly if you can’t provide any compelling, well-documented reason for which this is how it should be. I’d be content even just with some information on who gets to decide on the number of chances and who gives them, keeping in mind that, since nature isn’t an intelligent agent, it’s excluded from the list, and that God is not an agent on whose existence everyone agrees nor is there any evidence for it.

The main flaw is actually the worst, one that stems from not thinking thoroughly about everything and everyone; I agree that this is hard to do, but you simply can’t avoid it if you want to make generalizing statements like “everyone should only get one chance”.
Let’s consider things in the context of a world without anti-ageing therapies, and thus with age-related death and a quite limited, very well defined lifespan (i.e. our current setting, unfortunately). From a rather cynical perspective, if you mess up your one and only chance by doing something wrong, it’s your fault and on your deathbed you’ll only have yourself to blame. I actually disagree with this attitude, and I’d rather give anyone another chance than proclaim myself judge and deem that nobody should get more than a single one; nonetheless, things can get morally more deplorable than this.
What about people whose “only chance” was ruined by circumstances independent of their will and actions?
Imagine you have car accident because somebody else didn’t see the red light. It’s not your fault if you won’t be able to walk ever again, still your only chance at life is ruined, or severely damaged. Of course you can claim that it isn’t, because you’re full of will power and, in fact, the accident will strenghten your wish to live and your need for accomplishment, and lead you to successes that you probably wouldn’t have gotten to had you not had the accident. I am proving my own argument tragically wrong, it would seem.

Well, I don’t think so. What I have written above is the sort of stuff you read on motivational posters on the Internet, and while it is true that one can gain more strenght out of something as tragic as the accident above, that same stuff doesn’t seem to take into account the ordeals that a severely, permanently injured person has to go through, even in the form of things that are easypeasy for the rest of the people, nor does it change the fact that, regardless of your ability not to let yourself go even in the face of tragedy, it’s always better to prevent tragedy in the first place; and even if you do get super spiritual strength after losing your ability to walk, I’m sure most people would rather not exchange the latter for the former: after all you can always try and improve your spiritual strength, while it’s not so easy to get your legs functioning again after your spine has been snapped.
Accidents are not the only chance-ruiners; some people had their chance ruined from the very beginning, because they were born with a condition that makes their life way harder than it otherwise would, and some others were struck by a crippling disease only later on.

It might seem that I’m wandering from the topic, but I’m not. The people I talked about above didn’t just end up with the shortest straw without even getting to pick; unfortunately, as time goes by, their condition is going to go from bad to worse, because biological ageing doesn’t just bring along diseases that you didn’t have before, but it also makes virtually every pre-existing disease or ailment worse. It seems quite unfair and myopic to say that “everyone should get only one chance” when there are people out there whose only chance has been ruined by forces out of their control, and before you reply that life’s not always fair, let me remind you that making it more and more fair is all human progress is about.

Rejuvenation biotechnologies wouldn’t just cure billions of people of age-related diseases, but would prevent the life of severely injured, sick and disabld people from getting considerably worse with age; and on top of that, anti-ageing therapies have the potential of making them live long enough to see the day when the condition that has been afflicting them for so long can be cured. They could see the day they can walk again, and undo the damage done to their only chance, which will hopefully last for yet very long.

In the end, it isn’t all that wrong to say that we have only one chance; that’s exactly the reason for which we shouldn’t take any chances with it.

Annual fundraiser by ‘Fight Aging!’

Chances are that, if you know of my website, then you already know of Fight Aging!, one of the most well-known websites advocating for the development of rejuvenation biotechnologies, and for SENS in particular. The website hosts a number of resources on the topic of anti-ageing science, but what I would like to focus on here is FA!’s annual fundraiser. The campaign aims to find philantropists who are willing to contribute to anti-ageing research by means of charitable donations. In year 2014, FA! managed to put together a matching fund of 100.000$, which together with the individual donations of people like you and me reached a total of 150.000$ that went straight to SENS Research Foundation’s budget. The remarkable thing is that the last 50.000$ were collected in the last three months of the year—as you can see, people are getting more and more interested into rejuvenation research, and it is even more evident when you consider that the same campaign in year 2013 had reached only about half of what was reached in 2014.
At the moment, the matching fund is 45.000$.

Do you think you could be a matching funder? Do you know anyone who could be? Please get in touch with Reason of FA!. Even if you can’t be a matching funder and don’t know anyone who could, I suggest you spread the word about the campaign, to increase the chances of finding new donors. Also, you can still contribute to SENS research with even a very modest donation—every cent matters. You can make your donation through SENS’s donations page. Thanks!

Which age-related disease would you like to die of?

If you’ll have a look at this article, you’ll find out that doctors and researchers are trying to get a supposedly ageing-delaying drug to be approved approved for clinical trials. Forget about the science for a moment: it doesn’t matter if it’s about just delaying ageing or reversing it, or if it’ll work or not. I would like to focus on two other aspects of this instead.

The first aspect is indubitably positive: as the researchers themselves put it, it’s as clear as the day that “current treatments for diseases related to ageing ‘just exchange one disease for another'” and that the best way of avoiding age-related diseases is to avoid biological ageing altogether. You can’t have the latter without the former, and it’s about time that people got over this. Therefore, pushing for ageing to be finally officially recognized for what it is—a collection of diseases amenable to medical intervention—will most definitely help to break through the wall of ignorance and prejudice that is thus far hindering the development of anti-ageing medicine. People don’t think that ageing is a disease because they’re used to think it’s just a stage of life, and will only start to finally accept that this is not the case only when a sufficiently large number of other people, scientists and organizations will come out and say it out loud.

That’s one sad truth: people get used to things way sooner than they understand them, and if, at some point, news from the anti-ageing world will populate often enough their TV screens, social media feeds, newspaper articles and even casual talks, they will be more keen on stopping ignoring the problem of ageing and opposing its resolution. Nobody likes to advocate for an unpopular cause: it doesn’t feel nice to be the only person in a group to support a certain claim and being fiercely opposed by all the others, but it does feel nice to be on the winning side of an argument. That’s why most people with whom you’ll discuss about rejuvenation will be against it right off the bat. They’ll feel there’s safety in numbers and tell themselves that if the cause isn’t that popular there must be a good reason; in order to resolve their own cognitive dissonance and to spare themselves the trouble of thinking, they’ll choose to dismiss the whole issue as something that isn’t worth any attention.

However, when the number of supporters of anti-ageing therapies will be large enough, hiding in the crowd of the opposers won’t be so easy anymore. The subset of people who, in a group discussing the matter, nods approvingly at the stereopyped and long-dismantled arguments against anti-ageing medicine won’t be big enough to easily put an end at the discussion by sheer whim of the majority, and at that point people will be forced to finally think about the problem before deciding which side they really stand on. As the number of supporters grows even larger, the roles will reverse: opposing anti-ageing will become the unpopular viewpoint, and this very reason alone will be enough for some people to abandon it—eventually one day they will understand the real reasons to abandon it, but for the time being we’ll be content enough with their non-opposing.

The second aspect is still something I’m debating about. With the exception of SENS Foundation and a few others, researchers of the field are quite hesitant about their goals. It clearly shows in the linked article, from which I quote the following paragraph:

Barzilai and his colleagues eschew claims of a quest for immortality, because they think that such assertions have led to a perception that the field is frivolous and irresponsible. “The perception is that we are all looking for a fountain of youth,” says Stephanie Lederman, executive director of the American Federation for Aging Research in New York. “We want to avoid that; what we’re trying to do is increase health span, not look for eternal life.”

Sure enough, this isn’t about immortality: immortality means zero risk of death from all possible causes, and curing ageing doesn’t make you immune to shotguns. Still, I don’t see anything wrong with looking for a “fountain of youth”. Actually, I don’t see how can you want to just “increase health span” without looking for a fountain of youth or eternal life. If they want to increase the current health span it’s clearly because they think that the current one isn’t enough. So they’re not okay with getting sick of the diseases of old age at 80. Now just how much do they want to increase this health span? Till you’re 100? 120? When is it okay to get age-related diseases? Unless you increase health-span indefinitely, at some point you are going to get age-related diseases, and they will kill you. And say that one day they manage to extend health span so that you don’t start experiencing age-related decay until you’re 120. Then some other researchers come along and say that “they just want to extend health span” so that ARDs are delayed until you’re 140. Are we saying no to that? Extending your health span up to when you’re 120 is fine but up to when you’re 140 is not? Why? You do understand that this game is rather silly, particularly when you think about the obvious fact that unless you have a health problem of some sort, you do not die: yes, being shot, poisoned, electrocuted, eaten by a shark and whatever violent death you can think of counts too, because they all cause you health issues that eventually (rather fast, in fact) kill you. So, if you’re not looking for eternal life, it means you’re explicitly and intentionally leaving around some health problem of which people can die. In the case of age-related diseases, which ones should we leave around? What ARDs are okay to die of? Alzheimer’s? Cancer? Cardiovascular disease? Make your pick—I’m okay without any of those, thank you.

I’m willing to concede that, perhaps, the researchers are playing it safe: they  know that, if you dare saying that you want to get rid of biological ageing altogether, people will jump down your throat and thus it’s better to slowly get them used to anti-ageing research before making bolder claims. However, I disagree: curing ageing is an urgent humanitarian problem, and there’s no time to fool around to please the masses. We need to educate people, get them understand that curing ageing and immortality aren’t the same thing at all, that age-related diseases are an extremely serious and compelling problem that needs to be addressed right now, before it gets from bad to worse, and that all the objections to the defeat of ageing make no sense whatsoever.

Ageing, meet Liz Parrish

Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of BioViva Sciences, gives an interesting talk on how her company plans to put an end to ageing: engineered genomics. I seem to understand that there were other talks at the same event, I think at least one held by Bill Andrews and possibly Aubrey de Grey; I will post them if I find them.

On foxes, grapes and cognitive dissonance

Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes.’ People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.

You probably are familiar with the story above. It is a translation of a latin version of the fable of the fox and the grapes, written by Aesop something like 2500 years ago. The bottom line of the fable is that “any fool can despise what he cannot get”, and it is impressive, I think, how certain aspects of humans haven’t changed one tiny bit in such a long time.

Aesop certainly didn’t know that his fable would have become an example of what, today, is known as cognitive dissonance: the mental distress of an individual who holds contradictory beliefs or whose beliefs are challenged by contradicting evidence. There are tons of examples that I could refer to, but I’m not going there for the sake of avoiding useless controversy. In a nutshell, when we really think that things are in a certain way but there’s proof of the contrary, or when we really want something but that something just isn’t obtainable, we experience feelings of distress that can get us quite uncomfortable, and we humans don’t like feeling uncomfortable: thus, when the dissonance strikes, we take countermeasures to put an end to, or at least reduce, our distress. There are different ways to do that. Quoting straight from the Wikipedia article linked above:

 

In an example case where a person has adopted the attitude that they will no longer eat high fat food, but eats a high-fat doughnut, the four methods of reduction are:

1. Change behavior or cognition (“I will not eat any more of this doughnut”)

2. Justify behavior or cognition by changing the conflicting cognition (“I’m allowed to cheat every once in a while”)

3. Justify behavior or cognition by adding new cognitions (“I’ll spend 30 extra minutes at the gym to work this off”)

4. Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs (“This doughnut is not high in fat”)

 

Now, our fox clearly held the belief that the grapes were good enough to satisfy its hunger (why would it try to get them in the first place otherwise?), but the fact that the grapes were far out of its reach—the conflicting evidence—wasn’t something the fox could ignore. So, to justify its giving up on the grapes, instead of ignoring the bleeding obvious conflicting evidence (4), the fox changes the conflicting cognition (2): the grapes go from good to sour without any valid reason to think so.
Well, all in all the fox still does well. It does behave somewhat irrationally, but at least it does that only once.
When it comes to the desirability of defeating ageing, humans fare way worse.

Humans do not want to age biologically (and I’d add they don’t want to die, either, but let’s stick to ageing), because when they do, they get fragile, sick and they lose independence. Unfortunately, for the time being, ageing is not something that can be avoided.
So we have the wish not to age one one side—the cognition—and the conflicting evidence that everybody ages, no matter what you wish.
Now how do your average humans behave with respect to that?

Until they’re young, they can afford ignoring ageing altogether and behaving as if the problem will never touch them (ignoring conflicting evidence, 4). At some point it dawns on them that they will age, like everyone else, and they’re quick to give up on the wish not to age (changing the conflicting cognition, 2), undoubtedly helped by the fact that their predecessors have had the exact same problem and came up with a collection of entirely groundless pro-ageing justifications that nowadays are basically part of the collective subconscious. This is attained by means of more applications of 2 , 4, and 3: first people will convince themselves that ageing isn’t all that bad—which is again number 2, changing the conflicting cognition—ignoring the bleeding obvious fact (4) that getting old implies getting sicker (they still think that not everyone gets the diseases of old age, which is crazy nonsense), and then they will sugarcoat it, by throwing into the mix (adding new cognitions, 3) either completely unrelated things (e.g. “with ageing comes experience”, except that experience bears no connection whatsoever with biological ageing) or by disqualifying the defeat of ageing with alleged reasons (3) that’d make it undesirable (the usual suspects we have dealt with in the Advocacy section: overpopulation, meaning of life, everliving tyrants and the lot. As a sidenote, how often is everlasting youth—let alone immortality— depicted as invariably having nefarious consequences without the smallest shred of first-hand evidence? I’ve lost track). It’s interesting to note that in order to be able to bring forward these “reasons”, they need to ignore the evidence that shows that they’re not valid reasons at all, i.e. they fall back again onto number 4.
That’s one intricate mess of logical fallacies right there.

Now, don’t get me wrong: as reiterated elsewhere, as long as we had no clue as to how can we defeat ageing, this still made some sense—it helped us coping with the inevitable. Today, though, we’d better flush 2, 3 and 4 down the toilet and embrace number 1: change behaviour. Admit that ageing is terrible, realize that there are no excuses for it, stop defending it and stop trying to convince oneself that ageing is desirable; start supporting rejuvenation research and push to make things happen.
At that point the wish for everlasting youth won’t be a conflicting cognition anymore—its fulfillment will be just a matter of patience.