Scandalous, Shameless

Here’s an article about the same presentation.

I am quite annoyed with one of the speakers in the presentation, specifically by Ian Ground. Here is his academic page. I am not especially bothered with the condescension of Ian towards Aubrey in the opening statements, markedly refusing to acknowledge or even mention his name. That is quite impolite by itself.

In essence Ian accuses proponents of the idea of life extension, in particular extending lives in to the “unnatural” ranges, is selfish, tantamount of irresponsible consumerism. I wish to expose this argument at how deceitful and prejudiced it is.

Essential Ian states that there’s a normal human existence, and that with this normalcy comes an allotment of time, He does not clarify where this allotted amount of time originates from, in terms of someone somewhere having made a decission. He simply states that there is a thing such as “normal” and there is a state we demarcate as “human” and that it is polite, responsible, respectful to limit one’s lifetime to a certain set number of years, of which he states that “about” 120 years (and arguably less) would be a sane limit to how long humans ought to live. He thus opposes measures that directly (life extension research) allow humans to grow substantially older, making the argument there to be severe side effects for society and the planet. He alludes to these arguments more than anything else. He makes the often heard “immortal rich people” argument. Note however that he doesn’t say life extension is impossible, he merely implies it is (highly) undesirable. He does not state what the implications would have to be, i.e. (example) he does not openly advocate legislation to make seeking an “unnatural” lifespan as illegal. He simply states to the audience it is bad, and we shouldn’t want it.

I see four problems with this

1 – there are many people who didn’t live their lives in full. I’d argue that the vast majority of humans had deeply flawed, unfulfilling lives. Very few people are even at age 30 full well capable of living fully, and not long after 30 start losing major sets of experiences and qualities they will soon deeply regret losing. To say that a single two score and ten should be enough for everyone is to condemn the vast majority of humans of having only very limited joy in life and quite often not at all. Aubrey’s values have as core goal to make people systemically healthier. Take for instance children who die from a disease. If we strive to make all people healthier and live longer, we can treat a lot of afflictions, such as progeria. I would go even further and state that right now the vast majority of humans remain stuck in pointless lives, as alluded to by Ground in his Taxi driver example. Ground says that a Taxi driver wouldn’t actively desire to live much longer, largely because his life is so miserable. So the actual misery of people is a reason to not want to live longer for someone like Ground.

2 – there is a certain argument to be made that life extension would be disruptive. It no doubt is disruptive if life extension would emerge. But is that a compelling argument by itself? I think not. I would argue that the vast majority of people world wide are fairly happy with the disruption of previous eras by technological advancement. No doubt agricultural fertillizers\ caused human numbers of the planet to swell significantly. Can we therefore conclude that it would have been better no agricultural revolution should have taken place? People such as Borlaug, Haber, Bosch arguably “saved” a billion human lives from a premature death by starvation. Likewise people such as Karl Landsteiner, Richard Lewinsohn, did the same in the medical field. The numbers are staggering and we never doubt for a second that the world is a better place if not for medical, agricultural and various other scientific advances that make not only human lives experience a better quality, as well as keep a lot of people from dying prematurely. All these advances were, yes, “disruptive” and “unnatural”. Yes we have overpopulation, but in a previous era there wans’t overpopulation by and large because most children born died horribly, often at a very young age. Thus Ground makes an argument opposing advances that are intrinsically not much different from the advances Aubrey and similar bio-gerontologists advocate and struggle for.

3 – making such a definitive statement against life extension is insulting. The majority of humans on the planet is driven towards religious morality by the promise of a pleasant afterlife. Hence, the majority of people on the planet want to live beyond a natural lifespan. The fact that Aubrey de Grey is seeking certain improvements in quality of life, health that (as he claims) incidentally are plausible to have the side effect to make people significantly longer lives is just one example of where people allocate their hopes and expectations. Certain people hope Aubrey will be right is being regarded as immoral by Ian Ground. Hence he is implicitly stating to people of faith that they are in his opinion not welcome to enjoy their everlasting life on this planet.

4 – even if this judgement were valid, there is no way to legislate or effectively argue against life extension. Ian Ground has a range of arguments against life extension and none of his arguments would make one iota of difference. His polemic against life extension only means that these treatments might come about “a little later”. Let’s go with the assumption that life extension is one day possible, that would mean that at some point in the future some people would get to enjoy significantly longer (or as he says, “unnaturally longer”) lives. Every year we do not have a universal system that allows people to live significantly longer (or indefinite) is a year where on average 56 million humans die … about two thirds across the globe and 90% in industrialized countries die of the directly attributable side effects of aging. Every single year tens of millions die a sad, often lonely, often miserable and painful death. Most those people are terrified to do so, and many have regrets. Ian Ground is arguing for public beliefs and values that postpone extending lives, and by virtue of his opposition is postponing an era where people can in fact live longer. He will in some future era be complicit in condemning hundreds of millions to a premature death.

All of this is pretty awful if you think about it.