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Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Immortality Problem?

In response to my previous post "Should humans be allowed to live forever?" I received an email from someone named Adam which packed a lot of assertions into one paragraph, and I thought I'd respond to them:

Even if they find a way to allow humans to live forever on the cellular level, that would not stop people from dieing by other factors such as disease, accidents, etc. Therefor living forever is impossible.

Of course humans will still face the risk of dying from accidents or deliberate violence, but I see no fundamental barrier to eliminating disease and aging as biological science advances. "Forever" is a fairly long time, and the probability of living that long is low (although perhaps not zero) even if we were to reduce the chance of death in any particular year to an extremely small number.

But the phrase is only used metaphorically. The real question is whether human lifespans can be doubled, tripled, or extended by orders of magnitude over their current maximums. That would be a good intermediate goal for anyone preferring immortality. "Forever" can wait. Time enough to worry about that in another century or two.

Also I would think that any technology/medication/whatever to allow one to live longer than 100 years would cost so much money at first that only the rich and famous would be able to get the treatment. I want to see how well the general public reacts to that thought. Why should the wealthy live longer than the poor or even middle class? This would cause an uproar with possibly even mass murders out of pure jealousy and other such reasons.
I suppose that could be true if we're talking about a magic anti-aging pill which had to be taken every day and cost $5,000 a dose and hence was only available to the wealthy elite. But there's no reason to expect anti-aging therapies to follow such a trajectory. It's far more likely that treatments will be developed piecemeal to address different portions of the aging puzzle, and it will take awhile to verify that they even work. The early beneficiaries will likely be subjects in double-blind test protocols, just as they currently are with new drugs developed to treat diseases.

Will an anti-aging drug be expensive? Probably initially, just the way an anti-AIDS drug is. It requires a huge R&D effort and a huge investment to get past the regulatory barriers, so the sales price is set high to recover that investment (along with all the failed efforts) and still make a profit. But people are willing to pay that price, since they consider it better than the alternative of dying. In a few years patents expire, generics come on the market, and newer competitive drugs all drive the price down. Health insurance spreads the cost, and often governments step in to subsidize the cost.

How will the general public react? Probably with glee and public pressure to speed up the development of better therapies, not with pure jealousy and mass murder. Remember, for most people there is no immediate urgency. For most people aging is not a critical disease like cancer which can kill you in a matter of months. Most people anticipate many years of continued life, and will be quite content to wait until the bugs are thoroughly worked out of anti-aging therapies.

Now think about other countries reactions if the USA develops this first, and people all across America start using it. This is completely against so many religions, that I believe this would cause a substantial increase in terrorist activities, thereby resulting in even more loss of life.
Ah, the old "heckler's veto" argument: We better not allow something because it would incite violent opposition. Terrorism is our fault because the USA exports lewd movies and magazines and allows women to go half-naked and promotes religious tolerance and doesn't stone homosexuals and tempts young people with a materialistic, capitalistic secular lifestyle, etc. Now terrorism will be our fault because we're developing ways to let people live forever (oops, make that live indefinitely long without aging).

Yeah, there are a lot of religions which won't like the idea of halting the aging process. Most religions revolve heavily around the theme of comforting the dying and the ones they leave behind with the promise of eternal life everlasting in heaven. They won't be thrilled with the competition from eternal life here on earth (or other planets). I suspect that most religions will find ways to adapt, or else they'll find they have a dwindling number of adherents. But they won't be able to stop future medical advances, anymore than they've been able to stop past medical advances. The vast majority of people prefer to live.

Dr. Nuland does not have to do anything to prevent people from living forever, the people of the world, including uncontrolled factors would do the work for him. Humans living forever will never work even if we find out how to allow it.

Gosh, then there's no problem, is there? Dr. Nuland and Adam and anyone else who is frightened or repelled by the prospect of eliminating aging can just stop worrying about it, because it won't happen. We're wasting our time arguing.

But what if Dr. Nuland and Adam and others are wrong, and it begins to look like it will happen? What will they do to try to prevent it? If it's the equivalent of the end of the world, as Dr. Nuland thinks, is there anything they would not do to prevent it?

That is the fundamental question which none of the critics of anti-aging research are willing to address.

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