Recently I read Ross Andersen’s “Radical Life Extension Is Already Here, But We’re Doing It Wrong” with The Atlantic. This research is apart of my Philosophy class—thinking deeply about the ethics of life extension. We are challenging ourselves and the preconceived notion that life extension is impossible.
Within the article, Andersen proposes the American outlook on life extension is flawed by our overall acceptance of natural selection. Andersen alludes to the “American Lobster, which, despite living as long as fifty years, doesn’t seem to age much at all.” Some suggest evolution has not only the end-say but knows the reasons for relatively “premature” death: “If our bodies grow old and die, the thinking goes, then there must be a good reason, even if we don’t understand it yet.” Philosopher Bennett Foddy from Oxford University suggests life extension, or enhancement, is prolific throughout human history such as steroids, cloning, children, testosterone, vaccines, surgeries, pasteurization of milk and cheese, sewers, and, in recent years, Viagra and Cialis.
“Lobsters seem to have evolved an adaptation against the cellular lifespan…[T]he DNA in our cells basically unravel after they’ve divided a certain amount of times, but lobsters have this enzyme that helps them replenish their telomeres—the caps that hold DNA together. “
Foddy hypothesizes that the extraneous movement throughout the one’s life contributes to the aging process due to a long history of hunting and gathering—basic survival. However, unlike humans, lobsters’ lethargic-seeming movements, while being productive, inhibit the extraneous burning of calories and cell death and regrowth. He infers, “But it could have easily not turned out that way.” He continues by alluding to our “incremental” fight against cancer. He also observes, “The second thing to say is that aging usually happens to an organism after it reaches menopause.” Foddy argues against Frances Fukuyama who presumes all derivatives of natural selection are beneficial,
“The thing that I disagree with him about is his presumption that if we have a trait that’s evolved, that it must be beneficial to us in some way, and that we have some good reason for allowing that trait stick around.”
Whether it is menopause or some vestigial cellular process, though natural selection has determined a set number of years, it does not mean we must accept the results.
Furthermore, there are other arguments postulating death and aging as a disease. In “Live forever: Scientists say they’ll extend life ‘well beyond 120’”, Zoë Corbyn with The Guardian writes, according to Silicon Valley hedge fund manager Joon Yun,
“the probability of a 25-year-old dying before their 26th birthday is 0.1%. If we could keep that risk constant throughout life instead of it rising due to age-related disease, the average person would…live 1,000 years.”
Partnering with numerous research centers, “In September 2013 Google announced the creation of Calico, short for the California Life Company.” Chief scientific officer of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (Sens) Foundation, Aubrey deGray, is fighting the worldwide “pro-ageing trance.” Accompanied by billionaire investors delving into the scientific arena founding and funding projects to not only extend life but health as well, deGray, Joon Yun, and many others are attempting to conquer the misconception that life is finite. Moreover, this far-sighted goal will cure prevalent diseases along the way (e.g. heart disease, cancer, strokes, and Alzheimer’s). By inhibiting the progress of biotechnology, one is constraining the potential eradication of diseases.
However there is an ethical dilemma. Many adhere to the egalitarian/communitarian train of thought: redistribution. If successful, not everyone will be able to attain these life extending drugs. Pharmaceutical companies currently increase costs exorbitantly. Therefore, only the elites, the capitalists reigning in their “ivory towers,” the oligarchs, the plutocrats will be able to purchase the miracle medicine. For example, former President Jimmy Carter announced in August 2015 he had melanoma (i.e. cancer). By February 2016, physicians had successfully “cured” his cancer with experimental, highly effective, and very expensive (i.e. $150k a year expensive) immunotherapy treatments.
This process will continue. It isn’t unethical. It’s only unethical if it is prohibited for specific socioeconomic classes. For example, powder cocaine, which is more expensive, carries a less harsh sentence than crack cocaine, which is cheap. In recent years, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to mitigate racial disparity and curb “institutional racism.” I digress.
Nevertheless, the debate over life extension continues. These advancements in biotechnology are astounding. This is the new Space Race. Whether we have the materials at our fingertips via the animal kingdom (e.g. lobsters, hydra, jellyfish) or not, humanity will persist to discover new avenues to prolong life. In my opinion, this is the new frontier.