Imagine that a terrorist organization created an airborn
e virus that infected the entire human race. Suppose that if we did not develop an antidote, an eighth of the world population – one billion people – would die every thirty years because of it. How much money would you urge world leaders to put into research to develop an antidote? What is the price tag for the prevention of a death toll on the scale of World War II every two years?
In the face of this imagined death toll, most people tend to answer the question with a very large figure – usually ranging in the trillions of pounds. However, when one reveals that this number is not the mortality rate of a fictional virus, but is the actual amount of people that die due to aging every thirty years, then the money people allocate to developing an antidote, for aging, decreases dramatically. Why this harsh double standard?
Aubrey de Grey, a transhumanist philosopher and editor-in-chief of the academic journal Rejuvenation Research, thinks that our species’ priorities are fundamentally skewed and that most of us are simply in a “trance”. De Grey is not only an academic but also an activist who promotes interest in the importance of rejuvenation research. In 2000, he co-founded the Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to extending healthy human life by creating financial incentives to accelerate biotechnology research.
De Grey’s argument is straightforward; once you notice how few fatal diseases are common among younger people, it follows that the best way to prevent these diseases, and the suffering that old age causes, is by eradicating aging altogether. This doesn’t mean, as some people mistakenly believe, that he is looking into ways of keeping us old for longer, but, on the contrary, that he is looking into methods for us to stay young for longer – perhaps even indefinitely. That being said, de Grey is keen to point out that although rejuvenation biotechnologies may lead to indefinite lifespans, it is only an added bonus; the central goal of his work is to eradicate the suffering that comes along with aging.
He predicts that some of the people living today are going to survive until their 1000th birthday, most likely not because of a single “antidote”, as was suggested in the hypothetical scenario, but by the slow development of therapies that will extend our lifespan – perhaps thirty or fifty years at a time. De Grey believes that if the rate of improvement of these therapies is faster than our aging process, we should be able to demote death to a personal choice, or in his own words, “we should be able to fix the things 200-year-olds die from before they become 200”.
Most, if not all, technologies are a double-edged sword, and one doesn’t need to be too imaginative to think of the negative consequences of an ageless population. Indefinite lifespans would quickly lead to over-population, which in turn would place extreme pressure on our planet’s resources. In response, de Grey argues that rejuvenation therapies will be voluntary and that each of us may have to decide whether to have children or to live indefinitely. In other words, we will have to choose between living in a world with a high death rate and a high birth rate, or one with a low death rate and a low birth rate. Which one produces the least amount of suffering?
Some critics are concerned that, if developed, ruthless and tyrannical individuals would also have access to these technologies, allowing them to potentially stay in power indeterminately. Consider all the 20th century strongmen, such as Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot, who died peacefully in their beds. This concern is a valid one, though probably isn’t a good enough reason not to fund regenerative research. Needless to say, aging isn’t the only way to get rid of dictators, and, frankly, the existence of despots hasn’t stopped us from doubling human life expectancy throughout the past century. Ultimately, in response to many of these worries, de Grey thinks that if we step back and look at all the drawbacks of an ageless world, they are heavily outweighed by its benefits.
De Grey’s message is that we should start thinking seriously about preventing 100,000 people from dying every day due to aging, and that we should do everything we can to prevent the loss of great scientists, artists and other thinkers from perishing. Today, we have the minds and the equipment to develop these technologies, but still lack the will and the financial support to do so. Most of us have grown so accustomed to the idea of growing old that we don’t think that aging – the greatest cause of fatal diseases in the western world – is something we can ever have control over.
Aubrey de Grey is coming to speak at Sussex University on 8 November at 18.30 in Chichester 1 Lecture Theatre.