You might remember the post I wrote back in September after sending an email to Dr Aubrey de Grey, the controversial theoretician who claims there is a 50/50 chance that we will, within 25 years, achieve "longevity escape velocity", meaning that people who are alive and in a reasonably robust state at that point would be able to live on for centuries. I had queried the credibility of this 25-year timescale on the basis that it seemingly hadn't moved forward an inch in the seven years since it was first mentioned, and de Grey's research assistant Michael Rae wrote back to confirm that it was predicated on the assumption that there would be sufficient funding for research. This seemed to me a hopeless dream given the huge sums apparently needed, and it reinforced my suspicion that the chances of meeting the target date in the real world were more like zero than 50/50. Dr de Grey later left a comment here explaining that the position was essentially somewhere in between the two extremes, and that in his view significant progress had indeed been made in the last seven years - but roughly equivalent to the progress that would have been achieved over two years had full funding been available.
This whole field of research burst back into public view a few days ago with dramatic reports of the aging process being "reversed" in mice - claims that, ironically, de Grey and many others regard as being wildly overblown. But one upshot is that it's sparked off a flurry of debate about the potential consequences of the research, and one of the ten most-read articles on the BBC news website at the moment is a piece by Joan Bakewell suggesting that greater longevity may not be desirable. It's a superficially thoughtful commentary, but in truth it just runs through a series of standard knee-jerk reactions, most of which don't stand up to much scrutiny.
Firstly, there is the implicit assumption that any extra years of life are bound to be of extremely low quality, due to physical and mental frailty. But one thing that actually unites almost all scientists in this area - from the mainstream ones like S Jay Olshansky who seek to slow the aging process by a few years, to the "heretics" like de Grey who seek to conquer it entirely - is that they don't think an increased lifespan would be beneficial unless "healthspan" is boosted to an equivalent (or more likely greater) degree. There's always the danger of unintended consequences, of course, but there's no reason to fear the stated goal of the research.
Bakewell also raises the problem of overpopulation. This is, in principle, a fair objection, but when you stop to think about it, it also applies to just about every other medical advance in history. The eradication of smallpox boosted average human lifespan, and thus left us with a greater global population than we would otherwise have had - does that mean it was intrinsically undesirable? The principal objective of aging research is to head off the horrific diseases of old age, and therefore precisely the same cost/benefit analysis should be applied to it as to any other medical research - meaning, surely, that the potential benefits must be given precedence in the first instance.
Finally, there's the general sense in Bakewell's article that "a fuller life is better than a longer one". This is a superficially attractive philosophy, but once again, it looks somewhat different if you just tweak the implicit parameters a little. What if the "fuller life" lasted a mere twenty years, and the "longer life" lasted eighty? Would anyone seriously suggest that the fullness of the twenty years entirely makes up for the tragedy of the lost sixty years? Some might, but it would be a far tougher case to make, simply because of our perceptions of what a 'natural' lifespan is. And yet the span we fetishise as being optimal is just a random quirk of the stage of evolution we happen to be at - some species live much shorter lives than we do, other species much longer. If we do absolutely nothing, maximum human lifespan is likely to carry on gradually increasing of its own accord (global catastrophes permitting) - are we supposed to believe that process will be an 'unnatural' one, leading to a 'sub-optimal' outcome?
Mind you, if you're looking for a really over-the-top example of knee-jerk reactions, Bakewell is no match for this hysterical profile of the mild-mannered Dr Cynthia Kenyon at Mindfully.org -
"We sincerely hope that anything close to what Kenyon is looking for is ever (sic) found. Distinguished professor or not, this is an extremely myopic view of life on earth — to forget about those who already live an eternal life, albeit in damnation, to extend the lives of the rich who are able to afford such pseudo-science.
We hope that one day Kenyon and others with similar quests will see the futility in their actions. If they truly want to make a contribution to life on earth, then they should find a way to increase equality rather than searching for things that will undoubtedly increase inequality.
We will all be in a very troublesome situation if life is extended beyond what it already is."
Which begs the obvious question - if this really is 'futile pseudoscience' with no chance of succeeding, why the need to fret about such purely hypothetical horrors? It seems they doth protest a little too much. In any case, it's a transparently bogus argument to suggest that aging research is "at the expense" of improving the health of the world's most disadvantaged - they might as well say that funding for the arts or for astronomy is self-indulgent nonsense that is costing lives in Africa. It is actually possible - or at least it ought to be - to do more than one good thing at a time. Moreover, without a crystal ball, who can actually tell whether any anti-aging therapies that come along will be so prohibitively expensive that they will only be available to a wealthy elite? And even if that's the case for a transitional period, doesn't the same problem apply to many life-saving drugs at present? The idea that those drugs should never have been invented in the first place in case they temporarily increased inequality seems utterly risible.
All the same, Mindfully.org's display of doublethink neatly brings me full circle - my own question mark is not about the desirability of the goal, but rather its feasibility in anything close to the foreseeable future. Only time will tell.