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Sunday, July 31, 2005


Should humans be allowed to live forever?

Back in its February 2005 issue (which arrived in January), the M.I.T. Technology Review magazine published a long critique by Dr. Sherwin Nuland of the work of Dr. Aubrey de Grey's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), i.e., extending human life indefinitely.

Both Nuland and the Editor of Technology Review, Jason Pontin, made clear that they believe extending the human lifespan is a terrible thing which could adversely and irrevocably effect our species by transforming our nature in dangerous ways.

This topic seems to be growing a lot hotter, now that Jason Pontin has announced a $20,000 (or more) prize for "any molecular biologist working in the field of aging who is willing to take up the challenge: submit an intellectually serious argument that SENS is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate." (Hat tips to Instapundit and Fighting Aging for alerting me.)

I therefore though it would be timely for me to publish an exchange of letters I had with Jason Pontin. (There did not appear to be anything in Jason Pontin's letter which suggested he would want it kept private or which would be embarrassing to him.) I submitted a letter to Technology Review in response to Nuland's article and Pontin's accompanying editorial. Jason Pontin sent back a thoughtful response, and I in turn responded to that. Neither of my letters made it into the Technology Review letters column. But then that's what personal blogs are for....

My January 22, 2005 letter:

To the Editor:

Sherwin Nuland, in his [Feb. 2005 Technology Review] article on Aubrey de Grey, and Jason Pontin, in his related editorial, both insist that transcending human mortality will not happen and would be a terrible thing if it did. Indeed, Nuland considers it a threat at the level of "the ultimate destruction of our planet", one that surpasses his earlier fears of nuclear immolation or a celestial catastrophe.

But their reasons for why human immortality "will almost certainly not exceed" are weak to non-existent, consisting mostly of repeated dogmatic assertions. I doubt that their knowledge of the future is more omniscient than, say, the pre-Wright authorities who once proclaimed that powered flight was impossible.

Nuland claims that many other authority figures share his fear and would "join huge numbers of thoughtful citizens in a counterreaction." But what exactly would they do? Ban immortality? This is the essential issue which both Nuland and Pontin tip toe around.

If they are correct that immortality cannot be achieved, then they have nothing to worry about. If they are wrong, will they be content to say "Oh darn, my mistake."? Will they rely on persuasion alone to convince their fellow human beings that indefinite life extension is a Bad Thing?

I would ask them two questions: Do they believe research into immortality should be forbidden? If such research is successful, will those of us who don't cower in terror at the prospect of living indefinitely have our individual choices closed off so that Nuland's and Pontin's nightmares can be avoided?

Daniel Wiener

Jason Pontin's January 23, 2005 reply:

Thanks for the letter.

I think you have identified a logical problem in Dr. Nuland's article: he thinks that the science is unlikely to be true, and yet at the same time he believes in it enough to be frightened of its implications. I should not speak for Dr. Nuland, but I suspect he would answer: if we could peturb human biology sufficiently to offer indefinite life to individuals it would backfire and destroy the human species.

For myself, I don't think de Grey's theories are science in any meaningful phrase. They are speculations. It might be possible to engineer cells so that they escaped senescence and apoptosis, violating the "Hayflick limit" which governs how many times a human cell can divide before it experiences some kind of genome instability. But I don't see how, in principle, you could reliably repair all the damage to our DNA from oxidative stress.

That said, you raise the issue of personal freedom. Does personal freedom--including the freedom to life--trump all other interests? Societies traditionally limit personal freedom, even the freedom to live, for any number of reasons. I am not saying this is a good thing--but I don't think the argument of "choice" can decide whether or not Immortality is a Good Thing.


My January 23, 2005 response:

Hello Jason,

Thank you for your reply.

Clearly Dr. Nuland is convinced that immortality would destroy the human species. That is a plausible belief, but one I don't share, and one that I doubt is shared by nearly as many other people as Dr. Nuland wishes.

That creates a bit of a dilemma for Dr. Nuland. If the consequences are as horrible as he imagines, then what lengths is he prepared to go to in order to prevent it from happening? Are there any limits whatsoever, considering the stakes?

Perhaps he need do nothing, and trust in his belief/hope that immortality cannot be achieved. This is analogous to the planet-killer meteor-strike default strategy: The probability is so low we can effectively ignore it, and besides there's not much we can currently do to prevent it.

On the other hand, the continued exponential advances in biological and related sciences could soon erode his confidence that immortality is impractical. What then? Will he try to pass laws against it? On what legal or philosophical grounds would our society restrict our individual freedoms and choices, so as to force human beings to die unnecessarily?

Dr. Nuland can speculate all he wants that indefinite life extension will be disastrous for our species, but that's all it is -- speculation. Lots of other people disagree completely, and think it will be a marvelous advance. We won't know for sure which side is right until it happens, and of course by then it'll be too late to prevent it.

Which brings us back to the central, unanswered question: What exactly does Dr. Nuland propose doing, if anything, to prevent his nightmare (and other people's daydream) from materializing?

Daniel Wiener

UPDATE: I've posted my response ("Immortality Problem?") to an email from Adam.

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