December 10, 2007


RONALD BAILEY has an essay, Do We Need Death?, [Thanks to Glenn], that refutes various arguments against anti-aging research and the possibility of much longer lifespans. I haven't time to read the actual arguments con, so I'll just assume he's playing fair. His piece is worth reading and makes sense...

...Schaub isn’t “willing to say that agelessness is undesirable,” but she simultaneously “can’t shake the conviction that the achievement of a 1,000-year lifespan would produce a dystopia.” She then simply recapitulates the standard issue pro-mortalist rhetorical technique of asking allegedly “unnerving questions” and then allowing them to “fester in the mind.” Sadly, all too many bioethicists think they’ve done real philosophic work by posing “hard” questions, then sitting back with steepled hands and a grave look on their countenances.

So instead of just letting questions “fester,” let’s actually make a stab at preliminary responses to some of the questions posed by Schaub and other pro-mortalists.....

However, the arguments "against" are not the arguments that I would make. I think the big danger in this issue is spiritual. STOP! STOP! Before your eyes glaze over and you dismiss this as fuzzy moonshine, let me assure you that I am thinking about something that has practical real-world life-and-death implications. And I'm not just posing questions with "steepled hands," I think we can see around us several analogous situations that actually test Mr Bailey's assumptions, and ought to give one pause in this. Here's one of them.

We have actually experiment run an, on a planet-wide scale, that tests some of the assumptions that seem to underlie the thinking of those who enthuse about life-extension. The experiment used a planet (Earth, about the year 1945) where most people suffered poverty or tyranny or ignorance or war or the threat of war. (Or all five.) The hypothesis of the experiment was that these things are the enemy, and defeating them would be victory and would have almost un-alloyed good results. So we selected nations or even whole continents and give them prosperity, democracy, peace and universal education. And along with these, longer lives, and especially, much more leisure time.

The expected result of the experiment was that people would be happier, and would live better lives, and that we would see a continual upward trend in those things that usually indicate to us a successful civilization. What happened?

Petri dish #1 is called "Europe." (You might also think about Japan and Canada.) Are we happy with the results so far? Do we feel justified in keeping those assumptions, or are there some indications that it may be time to do some hard thinking?

I for one am not happy with what has developed. We see demographic collapse, with every European country reproducing at below replacement rates. (Demographic collapse happens now, population decline will come soon when Europe's baby-book generation starts to die off.) We see economic stagnation, with chronic unemployment often above 10%.

We see a lack of exciting developments in science, the arts, culture and design. (Especially considering that Europe led the world in these things until recently.) How often do you hear of someone planning to go to Europe because that's where the "cutting edge" work is being done in their field? And, we see, shockingly, that Europe is unwilling to defend itself, is unwilling to fight, either internally or externally, in the Global War on Terror.

This is a spiritual collapse. There are no physical limitations that keep Europe from continuing the leadership in all fields that marked it until recently. And, it is mass death. There are probably a hundred-million Europeans who have not been born, because something is lacking in the outlook of their countrymen. A statistic to chew on: By the year 2050, 60% of Italians will not know what it is like to have a brother or a sister or an uncle or an aunt or a nephew or a niece.

And we see similar signs everywhere on Earth that prosperity and democracy have been attained. NO, I am not arguing against prosperity or democracy. Or against longer lives. (If it is scientifically possible, it WILL happen.) But I'm arguing that there is a huge problem stalking the world, one that it is connected with prosperity and freedom. And that it is reasonable to suppose that it is not going to get better if we live longer, and may get much worse.

This is, I think, the question that we should be asking. I think there is a sickness in our world, and I think that people don't want to think about this elephant in our living room, because that would involve looking inside themselves. The anti-aging possibility is, in SF terms, like launching an Interstellar Ark with people who are carrying some deadly plague. You may still want to go ahead and launch it, but insouciance is not the most attractive attitude to exhibit.

And I am almost certainly wasting my electrons in this post, because this is an issue beloved of libertarian techno-optimist types, and I have never been able to prod such people to even go near a spiritual question...

Posted by John Weidner at December 10, 2007 12:34 PM
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