Should we cure aging?

Contributed by Gemma Milne, Science & Technology Writer; Co-Founder of Science: Disrupt

Evolutionary Biologist Julian Huxley first coined the word ‘transhumanism’ in 1951. At a Washington lecture titled ‘Knowledge, Morality and Destiny’, he spoke about his idea that humanity would attempt “to overcome its limitations and arrive at fuller fruition.” In the 1950s, translating this sentiment into the ‘let’s all live forever’ vibe felt closer to science fiction; something that only future generations could — maybe — attempt.

But it’s 2018 now — we are those future generations — and suddenly the idea of creating longer lives for humans using the power of advanced science and technology has become a reality.

Dr Aubrey de Grey — Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation and VP of New Technology Discovery at AgeX Therapeutics — is one of the figureheads of the modern transhumanist movement. He has been claiming since the turn of the century that the first humans to live to 1000 are already alive. He, along with others focusing their work towards living longer, believe that aging should be thought of as a disease to be cured, much like cancer, Alzheimer‘s or Parkinson’s.

As such, many new institutes, funding sources and corporate teams have sprung up to tackle aging. From the Palo Alto Longevity Prize of $1m to end aging, and Google’s life-extension company Calico partnering with pharmaceutical giant AbbVie to create a $1.5bn research centre, to more question-led ventures such as Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Future of Life Institute set up by Co-Founder of Skype Jaan Tallinn and MIT Professor Max Tegmark.

The amount of money, time and big name collaborators involved in these kind of initiatives paints a positive picture when you consider whether or not extending life is a good thing — particularly for those who are impressed by Silicon Valley. But the question of whether we should extend life and cure aging is one that has many strands, and which should not be clouded by fame or hype.

The most obvious concern around extension of life is around overpopulation and the effect more, older people will have on the planet. With population numbers set to hit 10 billion by 2050, the worry centred on ‘too many people’ is understandable. But current trends also show that population in first world countries is stable, attributed to the idea that those who are wealthier and better educated actually have less children. So there’s the possibility that with the economic status of more African, Asian and Eastern European countries increasing, global population would then stabilise. The other side of this, though, looks at migration: with political unease comes changing flows of populations, further complicating the task of predicting the human weight on the planet in the future. Add in the idea that many are working to extend lives beyond the normal evolutionary curve, and you have a very unpredictable model for how the world will work.

It’s not just the logistical concerns about how to feed everyone and how much more of a burden will be put on the climate, but there are many questions around how society itself would have to adapt its structures.

What happens to public health system funding if the model is more ‘sick-care’ than prevention of ill health? What happens to standard career lengths and financial contracts like mortgages and pensions if we are end-loading our existence? What happens to education — should we front-load our lives with more learning if we know we’ll have longer to execute our findings?

The questions arising around what happens tend to link back to whether the longer life is the more able life. It’s one thing to simply fend off death for a longer period of time, but we must consider what the quality of that extra time looks like. Will we be able to do more and think clearer and continue to contribute as we age longer, or will we simply be extending retirement? If we work to eradicate the usual causes of death, won’t we then condemn ourselves to die by another? In the past, people died from causes we can now control, such as bad infections, whereas now, people don’t just die from being old, but rather from ailments like heart attacks, pneumonia or falls. In the pursuit of living longer, surely we’d have to also know how to cure these ailments alongside ensuring that extra time is lived well.

Another concern goes back to the love of Silicon Valley. It’s those early adopters, those with great educational backgrounds, those which much higher levels of wealth, who are leading the charge. Not only are costs and barriers to entry sky high, but the design of the science and technology is being done by a pretty non-diverse segment of the global population. In the same way that early research on pharmaceuticals was predominantly performed on white males, meaning lots of our understanding of medicine has foundations inappropriate for the masses, what if the work being done now on transhumanism prevents the broader populous from benefiting later down the line? Many advancements in health tech are designed predominantly for the privileged — not in deliberate manner per se, but as a result of using technologies not all can access and costing money not all can afford.

The quest to extend life is an exciting one — the scientific advancements in the field are indeed impressive, and showcase human potential at its finest — but in the pursuit of everyone living longer, better, we must not let our naïve optimism and privileged blinkers cloud out the bigger questions we’ve not yet answered.