Sunday, January 19, 2020

Arresting Aging: An Existential Threat

Scientists are closing in on the Holy Grail of aging research: the capacity to arrest aging and extend the lifespan to hundreds of years. Recent genetic studies have identified mutations in a pair of genes that humans share with roundworms, each of which modestly extends the lifespan of the roundworm, but which work synergistically to magnify the effect. Drugs are in the early stages of development to alter the cellular pathways governed by these genes. If successful, people could remain youthful and healthy for centuries, with reduction or elimination of a host of age-related diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Among the benefits would be the capacity for long distance space travel and the ability to accumulate vast knowledge with extended lifelong learning.

But with noble pursuits often come unintended consequences with dark implications. An early effect could be a striking increase in the divide between the rich and the poor. Such treatments are likely to be costly and, at least at the beginning, available only to the wealthy. So added to differences in quality of life would be a priceless difference in longevity. This raises both moral issues and the likelihood of intensifying class warfare and social disorder.

Extending the lifespan of even a fraction of the population would eventually lead to unsustainable demands upon resources and the environment. Even with advances in food technology, feeding everyone would eventually become impossible. The poor would be the first to suffer, but eventually everyone would be at risk of starvation. And as we continue to consume all manner of goods, the mountains of waste we create will grow huge, even if we master the arts of recycling and creating biodegradable products. We will increasingly risk polluting our waters and food sources, impacting health in unforeseen ways that could introduce terrible new chronic diseases and disabilities that could last as long as we do.

Assuming that we don’t all agree to stop reproducing, an outcome with its own dreadful implications, the population will inevitably find ways to curb itself. One obvious outcome would be a drastic increase in violent conflict, including international warfare, civil wars, class wars, and genocide, perhaps inflicted by the privileged upon the poor in order to retain the resources to sustain their vastly extended lives. And if we fail to keep our numbers in control, the earth will inevitably develop an immune response to fight our infestation, perhaps in the form of more robust infectious diseases to which even the superhuman among us would succumb.

Even if we succeed, against all probability, in navigating the solutions to these problems, how would we adapt to life without end? Would there be some point for most of us, once we’ve run through our “bucket lists” to our satisfaction, that we would decide that enough is enough? Endless life might not be all that we would envision and could eventually become a burden that we would yearn to end. In the prescient 1973 science fiction film “Soylent Green,” teeming humanity has outgrown the limits of its resources, euthanasia has become the universal prescription for ending lives, and recycling human bodies as food has become a key strategy for preventing starvation.

Our capacity for innovation is increasing exponentially. Are we about to outsmart ourselves into oblivion or will we learn to predict the consequences of our discoveries and choose wisely what we pursue?