stealing a dystopian sci-fi plot to bash science

January 28, 2012 — Leave a comment

It seems that more and more people are turning towards the idea that we can indeed see aging as a chronic disease to be treated rather than a predetermined outcome leading to death. Seeing our bodies as more of a biomechanical implement than something sacred, and tackling the fallacies of fatalists who see death as simply too important to give up along with recent advancements in key stem cell therapies that open a brand new method of treating degenerative conditions, are certainly helping the trend. However, the urge not to stray too far into our wildest scientific ambitions remains strong and manifests itself as presentations warning us of runaway Frankenstein projects, and now, an argument which says that to defeat aging, the rich will abuse the poor and disenfranchised to test the treatments that will allow them to live forever. Just like a plot of many science fiction movies trying to teach a lesson about social equality, an article by philosopher Nicholas Agar casts life extension as a deal with the Devil for the poor, who will be paid to die so the wealthy can live.

True, it’s hard to argue with the logic that the wealthy will be able to afford the kind of life extending treatments that the poor will not. It would also be difficult to dispute that even with universal healthcare and life extension mandated to be offered and given to all those who ask, only the citizens of wealthy nations and the wealthy in the developing world will reap the benefits. But considering that Agar is a philosopher who wrote a book that opposes many transhumanist ideas, and whose interest in this topic has little to with the science involved, he plunges into class warfare with very vague and generic statements about the risks involved in techniques for radical life extension justifying the exploitation of the poor by the rich and their doctors. How this can happen if the trials will have to be announced to the public and when there will be plenty of volunteers who want to get in on a possible cure for aging itself is left to the reader to deduce. Agra just wants us to be shocked by the cruel doctors and the vain business tycoons driving them to sacrifice the economically disadvantaged…

I suspect, then, that human guinea pigs for anti-aging trials will come disproportionately from the poor and disempowered. A recent [2011] report by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues called for stronger protections for participants in clinical trials. It seeks to block Big Pharma’s old practice of finding jurisdictions less finicky about their subjects’ rights in respect of clinical trials. (For instance, American doctors purposely infected more than 700 Guatemalans with syphilis in the 1940s.) The prospect of a cure for aging will create more powerful desires than did the prospect of a better treatment for syphilis. The rich and powerful will be looking to do away with rules that they perceive as denying them millennial life spans.

Now let’s review. According to Agar, since life extension treatments will be risky, he doesn’t want to be among the first humans to try them and the American government did authorize cruel medical experiments more than half a century ago. Therefore, he puts these two ideas together and gets rich people who want more than one lifetime getting the government to entice the poor and oppressed masses into cruel experiments. To support his argument he lists only one somewhat scientifically controversial claim behind what he says are dire risks involved, and totally forgets about the very likely role of complex robotics in life extension which could save countless patients suffering from nerve or muscle damage as well as give those who are locked in the ability to communicate with the outside world rather than stay trapped in the nightmare of a living death. He’s scared and not willing to contribute to extending human lifespan with his work, or allow science to use his body for a scientifically justifiable life extension technique or two, he justifies his attitude by framing the medical science of the future as a kind of dystopian body farm for the rich. It would be one thing if he warned us that abuses of power can happen in this context and we must be on the lookout for them, but that’s not he does.

He declares that it will happen as surely as the sun will shine and implies that if we do develop technology to live indefinitely or for hundreds of years, we should all be ashamed of ourselves because we will only get this advancement through our cruelty and the corpses of those who don’t make enough to be well off. Not only did he pull this entire line of reasoning out of his lower intestine and wields it like some sort of moral hammer, he is actually trying to shame those who would want to help all humans live longer, and who want to develop the kind of technology that can be used to save lives and improve the world for all those who will inhabit it longer, casting us as overzealous and poorly informed mad scientists either unaware or dismissive of the supposed death toll we’ll leave behind. Meanwhile, he can barely summon a single scientific objection and even then it’s an issue still being debated in detail by biologists and based on his vastly oversimplified reading of one idea by a famous gerontologist presented alongside many others. I suppose this is what happens when one tires of constantly gazing into his navel and decides to explore other cavities for "profound insights."

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