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Nobody Said Longevity Would Be Easy

Posted on 1 August 2015

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Credit:  Jonel Hanopol

Credit: Jonel Hanopol

You don’t have to look far to find dystopian material; disaster sells better than success and dystopian landscapes far outweigh the utopian. Through cautionary tales in mythology concerning hubris and divine warnings to those who in their ‘greed’ overreach, the Icaruses, 1985s and Brave New Worlds of the past don’t instil much confidence in the future. It may be possible to see the world through rose, or ‘grime’ tinted goggles, but the reality is probably a bit of both. Sure, things go wrong and people suffer, but we’ve also accomplished a great deal we’ve set out minds to. 

The Human genome project would have once seemed impossible Credit:  Tom Purcell     

The Human genome project would have once seemed impossible Credit: Tom Purcell    

For the majority of human history knowledge (or a lack thereof) prevented us from being able to act on more unpleasant realities, or imagine a practical way in which they could be solved. Science and rationality are unique in that they encourage us to observe and theorise according to evidence and reason, and they have done a reasonable job at freeing us from many constraints we previously believed to be simply ‘our lot’. By observing challenges as hurdles to overcome, we have been able to expand our horizon and perception beyond anything deemed feasible in the past.

The scientific method offers a more reliable, pragmatic approach to resolving problems, but the process requires both time and resources. Science needs its risk takers and dreamers to push the boundaries, and it equally needs painstaking care to determine the difference between quackery and reality. This line is regularly extremely fine and so there will always be debate on what is and is not possible. There is definite value in caution; worriers and prophets of negativity often act as a societal antenna of sorts, warning us of potential potholes ahead. It’s virtually impossible to predict what the world will be like in 50 years nowadays, let alone 100, and new technology can be immensely disruptive, so debating progress is integral to actualising advancement effectively. Debate can become unhelpful however when it relies on knee jerk cynicism and moralisation. Unrelenting optimism may make some of us queasy, but the luddite eeyores of the world equally don’t really help anyone achieve anything. If all we did was sit around talking about things, nothing would ever be done at all.

Turritopsis dohrnii, 'the immortal jellyfish' is evidence that conventional aging is not necessarily inevitable

Turritopsis dohrnii, ‘the immortal jellyfish’ is evidence that conventional aging is not necessarily inevitable

From our current platform many projects appear logically possible, but their time frame is notoriously hard to predict. This was certainly the case for the moon landings and longevity, judging from current evidence, likely comes under this category too. Aging is far from uniform among the tree of life, with lifespans ranging from the so called immortal jellyfish to the mayfly, which rarely makes it over 24 hours. Aging is also vastly different even within similar family groups. Delaying aging significantly will absolutely take a robust, concerted effort; that’s undeniable. It represents a big challenge, but isn’t that the case with most things? Few developments in history have been provided to us on a silver platter; proponents have generally had to toil day in day out to accomplish and change a paradigm.  

While we shouldn’t be under an illusion that there is necessarily a distinct time frame, wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge that all science is a little uncertain and quibbling about the time frame doesn’t improve anything? Even if it takes longer than expected, the cause itself loses none of its poignancy, and hope gives vital pace to research. Many people might not prescribe to the value of longevity and that is respectable, but humans are a massive mish-mash of characters with different hopes and ideas about how the world should be. We shouldn’t shy away from debate about challenges such as the threat of overpopulation, instead coming up with a coherent argument and planning how we’d deal with it. 

The real problem with general debates arguing against longevity is that they’re often rooted in the past. When longevity activism first started out aging research was relatively fringe science, and while it’s not perhaps ‘mainstream’ yet, it’s certainly expanding rapidly.  We’ve established that living forever with bad health would be pretty miserable, so that’s not really on the cards here. Aging research for the most part isn’t about extending years with no thought about their quality; it’s completely the opposite. We’re already in the nightmare scenario set out in fables, in which people suffer for a long time with poor quality of health. The anti-aging movement is mostly about addressing fundamental biological aspects in order to first improve healthspan. An extended lifespan would really come as a welcome side effect of being, well, healthy. If you tackle the underlying mechanisms producing age-related disease, then you most likely begin to impinge on aging itself. If you don’t want Alzheimers, heart disease or cancer, then you probably have to accept living a bit longer and healthier as a side effect.

There are any number of inspirational quotes about the value of trying that could have been placed here, but the simplicity of ‘If you never try, you’ll never know’ resonates most when debating both the desirability and feasibility of longevity efforts. No one really knows how long it’ll take to achieve longevity and it could come sooner or later than expected, but this in no way devalues the effort in itself. In a mobile world of gene editing, particle accelerators and a multitude of organisms which buck aging trends, is it really so unrealistic after all to believe we could achieve a reasonable and healthy extension of lifespan? As for whether it’s desirable, if you took a bunch of people who’d lived to 150 in the future it’s probable they’d have as mixed opinions as the elderly do now; some might be ready to go, but many wouldn’t. Is that really so different to today? 

Written in part as a response to this article in the New Statesman

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