Transhumanism in the crosshairs: The dark side of radical longevity

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CREDIT: Flickr/Patrick Doheny

Greatly increased lifespans are one of the central features of a transhumanist future. What better way to transcend our mortal boundaries than staving off death, at least for another decade or two?

The subject of longevity got an extra spike of attention a few weeks ago when J. Craig Venter, a biotech pioneer who raced the Human Genome Project to a draw and developed the first synthetic life, announced that he was starting a new company with the explicit goal of increasing healthy lifespans.

There are reasons to doubt the practical success, at least in short-term, of Venter’s efforts. At the moment it amounts to little more than another huge genomic data gathering effort (and it is huge, planning to sequence 100,000 genomes each year), distinguished by its utopian goals and the clout of the man behind it.

But let’s assume the success of Venter and other longevity-minded entrepreneurs’ efforts. After all, we’ve already boosted humanity’s average life expectancy by more than double, from the 30 year range for most of human history to nearly 70 since the turn of the 20th century. And this is without the benefit of genetic modification or nanotechnology. We’re in a position not just to butt up against the biological limits of our lifespans, but potentially break through them.

Already, modern nations are struggling with the increasing age of their populations. Japan, for instance, has the highest average lifespan of any nation but this has contributed to economic stagnation as its workforce shrinks due to age-based attrition. As our demographics shift and the modern world gets older and older, there are social and cultural ramifications to consider. Brad Allenby, professor of sustainable engineering and ethics at Arizona State University, writes for Slate:

[Radical life extension] means that decision-making power, and economic and political authority, will be vested in a generation that is already obsolete and growing more so. People who find Facebook’s and Twitter’s popularity incomprehensible and more than slightly spooky will be making employment decisions based on outdated concepts of public and private personas. The young and innovative will be held at bay.

Death, he argues, serves an important societal function of “wiping the memory banks”—yes, we transmit our cultural ideas across generations but the transmission is never perfect. Young people are the arbiters of change, but if there are less of them with less power, will progress slow down?

And what if we used this ability to extend life not as a gift but as a tool of punishment? It sounds twisted, but it’s exactly what Ross Andersen, deputy editor writing for Aeon, confronts when he interviews a team of University of Oxford scholars, led by philosopher Rebecca Roache, that is thinking about the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. Andersen writes:

As biotech companies pour billions into life extension technologies, some have suggested that our cruelest criminals could be kept alive indefinitely… One way or another, humans could soon be in a position to create an artificial hell.

“We might have moved beyond the Code of Hammurabi and ‘an eye for an eye’, but most of us still feel that a killer of millions deserves something sterner than a quick and painless suicide. But does anyone ever deserve hell?” asks Anderson. “That used to be a question for theologians.”

Andersen’s is the darkest take on the big questions of radical longevity I have yet read. It’s scary in a way others aren’t, taking the sci-fi and fantasy trope of a “curse of immortality” and making us face it as a legitimate punishment technique. How many life sentences would Hitler deserve?

But these big questions, scintillating and scary though they may be, may be a distraction from the deeply human reality of old age.

My own grandmother celebrated her 87th birthday yesterday, and since she moved in with us after the death of my grandfather I’ve watched her struggle with hearing and memory loss, not to mention a loss of independence and social isolation. Above all, it’s become clear that the world doesn’t seem to have a place for her anymore; it’s not designed for slower, older, weaker people, let alone the fully disabled.

I’m not the only one to have noticed. This 2009 New Yorker feature by surgeon-journalist Atul Gawande paints a grim picture of how modern medicine has created an elderly population without solving the problem of how to adequately care for the people it has kept alive:

Medicine has been slow to confront the very changes that it has been responsible for—or to apply the knowledge we already have about how to make old age better. Despite a rapidly growing elderly population, the number of certified geriatricians fell by a third between 1998 and 2004. Applications to training programs in adult primary-care medicine are plummeting, while fields like plastic surgery and radiology receive applications in record numbers.

And having specially trained geriatric doctors makes a measurable difference: Gawande cites a study in which some older patients saw a geriatrician and some saw general practitioner, while researchers kept tabs on their health over the years. The geriatricians’ patients were much less likely to suffer a bad fall, become disabled, or end up in a nursing home. In short: geriatricians improve the lives of their patients, not just preserve them. It’s a question of quality of life versus length of life.

This question underpins everything we’ve talked about: Andersen and Allenby’s concerns, the economic trouble of Japan, and Venter’s quest for longevity. Even with sound bodies, will the elderly in general be “unhealthy” for society at large, draining economies and fueling cultural stagnation? How “healthy” should we keep prisoners in a long-lived future? And are we already facing a crisis where our concept of health fails our society’s oldest members?

I’m not arguing against the quest for longevity, but I do think before we can fully achieve the utopian goals of radical longevity we’re going to have to take a long, hard look at the dark side of long lives and pause to reconsider how we define “healthy” lives in old age, regardless of whether “old” is 60 or 600.

Kenrick Vezina is Gene-ius Editor for the Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science writer, educator, and amateur naturalist based in the Greater Boston area.


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