Archives For life extension

lab mouse

While studying what effect cell division has on cancer risk, a team of scientists decided to make mice that that produced excess levels of a protein called BubR1 and got results that seem way too promising at first blush. Not only were the engineered mice a third less likely to develop lung and skin cancers after exposure to potent carcinogens than control animals, but they had twice the endurance, lived 15% longer, and were less than half as likely to develop a fatal cancer. So what’s the catch? Well, there is none. It’s as if an over-expression of BubR1 is a magical elixir of good health and longevity. This doesn’t mean that this protein couldn’t become our most potent weapon against cancer with enough study or that it must have some sort of side-effect, which is entirely possible since too little BubR1 in humans is associated with premature aging and some forms of cancer, but this is a signal to proceed with optimistic caution.

Mice may have a lot of similarities to humans from a genetic standpoint, but they are a different species so what works well in mice may not always work as well in humans. Likewise, if we really wanted to be sure of the results, we’d have to test them on thousands of humans over decades, which is a massive undertaking in logistics alone. And since testing the protein modifications in humans would be such a major effort, the researchers need to know exactly how BubR1 does all the wonderful things it does, breaking down its role by chemical reaction and testing each factor on its own. The work may take decades to complete but if it’s correct, we may have found a way to extend and improve our lives in a humble protein. Combined with other ongoing work, there’s some very real science behind extending human lifespans and modifying our genomes for the better. I just hope we don’t get a little too carried away and treat editorials treating BubR1, gene therapy on a massive scale, and cell reprogramming technology as just around the corner with the necessary healthy skepticism, since the research is by no means complete…

See: Baker, D., et. al. (2012). Increased expression of BubR1 protects against aneuploidy and cancer and extends healthy lifespan Nature Cell Biology DOI: 10.1038/ncb2643

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male model

Like the vast majority of men around the world, I’m not an eunuch. And you can probably tell by some of the graphics on this blog that I’m hardly disinterested in anything sexual. But according to a trio of researchers from South Korea, this isn’t a good thing for my lifespan and if anything, my male hormones are actually slowly but surely killing me. They base this conclusion on a study of historical records that detail the lifespans of 81 Naesi servants in Korea, who as you already guessed, were all eunuchs. When their lifespan was averaged and compared to that of similarly well off Korean aristocracy which was not castrated, the difference was 14 years. Royalty had a life expectancy of 56 years, eunuchs could count on living to be 70 and above, some of them reaching well past 100 and doing so at a rate the researchers say is 30 times greater than the centenarians in modern First World nations with access to highly advanced medicine.

Of course if I know my fellow male members of the species (hey, no snickering there in the back row, this is serious business), we’ll trade almost a decade and a half of life for the ability to have sex because after all, a life of celibacy is embraced by only 1% of the entire population and as far as nature is concerned, we’re here to reproduce. So don’t expect a whole lot of castration on the elective surgery schedules at your local hospital, and for good reason. This study shows an interesting anomaly, true, but there are a lot of missing factors. For one, the researchers state that a comparison with eunuchs in other societies is necessary to falsify their hypothesis, and in many societies there were a lot of eunuchs serving royalty and overseeing harems, living highly comparable lifestyles to the Naesi. Another issue is that the research only really accounts for the number of years lived by aristocrats and the eunuchs. It doesn’t really compare their lifestyles in other meaningful ways. Maybe the eunuchs were clean and sober while the blue bloods were all party animals and it’s unhealthy habits that did them in sooner, like with Chinese royalty?

Keep in mind that in many cultures, being an eunuch meant that you had to live to a strict code of religious and social conduct that emphasized purity and spiritual devotion. For example, the Naesi were regularly examined for their grasp of Confucianism, and in other cultures, they were held as transcendent above base human desires like fornication. In the meantime, regular Joes with their penises intact lived fast and hard, going to war, picking fights, drinking, and partying in a constant search of a sexual partner or two. Or three. Depending on their luck. Males who don’t live quite as hard tend to last only a few years less than women on average, something we often tend to attribute to our greater susceptibility to genetic defects. And overall, sex does prolong lives by several years and improve one’s quality of life as seen in many animal models and a lot of humans, so giving up on sex in an attempt to live longer might not be such a great decision in the long run. We don’t know if a lack of male hormones had adverse side effects in old age or if the eunuchs would’ve suffered from shaky health and depression on a regular basis.

Finally there’s the sample size issue. Over some 600 years there have been thousands of Naesi employed by the royal courts and yet the study covers just 81 of them from a single genealogical tome. It’s a convenience sample, and one that’s compared to over 3,000 aristocrats. Why were those eunuchs included in this tome? What results would the researchers get if they reviewed a few thousand Naesi lifespans? Would it smooth out the differences or solidify them? Less than a hundred eunuchs in one country just isn’t enough to make this hypothesis anything more than conjecture backed up by a few experiments in which castrated mice seemed to live longer for an unknown reason and a few rather vague historical records. It’s not just important to know if men lived longer as eunuchs, it’s also critical to understand their cause of death, something that very old records can’t provide us with any reliability since the medicine of the time wasn’t exactly all that advanced; even pronouncing someone officially dead back then was more of an art than a science. Though one could argue that this problem sometimes rears its head today…

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In the transhumanist lexicon, the word bioconservative is used to describe those who argue that humans will need to accept death as an eternal inevitability and experiments meant to extend human life are folly. While a lot of our current life extension technology is in its early experimental stages and dead ends aren’t unusual, it is important to get people used to the idea that if we work really hard at it, we could prolong our lives and the endeavor is actually worthy. Unlike the critics charge, the end result of radically prolonging life spans wouldn’t be a zero sum game in which the poor are exploited as guinea pigs, and there are valid reasons for wanting to continue to live for much longer periods of time than we do now. We can accomplish more. We can open a new horizon for exploration, medicine, and society, The spinoffs could alleviate suffering for billions and allow us to reach for new frontiers. But what if, the critics continue, you had a dictator who could live more or less for thousands of years? Wouldn’t it be a good thing if he was guaranteed to die at some point and the people he oppressed had a chance to start anew? Wouldn’t the sacrifice be worth it? No, it wouldn’t, and here’s why.

Basically, we’re being asked to give a potential means of extending our life spans so we can be sure that just a small handful of people and their cronies would be dead at some point in time. We can’t always kill them or depose them, so we’ll be outsourcing the assassination to nature. Anyone see the problem here? Of the over seven billion people who aren’t dictators, who do we think is expendable enough to die alongside our targets for the sake of the anti-dictator cause? If I may reach for a little hyperbole, how different is the logic that all the billions who will die in the process are fair game because their death helps the cause from that of all terrorist groups who believe that civilians of the countries they hate can be on the hit list because killing them hurts an enemy and may force him to retreat? This is a rather crass way of saying that the ends justify the means and I doubt that they really do in this case. We could take this logic further and cast all modern medicine as being a dictator enabling technology. Maybe last week Assad would’ve tripped, fallen, hurt himself, then got his wound infected and was soon dead from septic shock, helping to end the civil war in Syria. Does this mean we must now give up our disinfectants and advanced medical treatments to make sure bad people die easier?

And there’s another thing. Dictators do not command a nation without an infrastructure of enablers and aides to do their dirty work. Rather than chopping off the head of a snake, killing a dictator is like slicing off the head of the Hydra. Another three will grow and continue whatever the severed head was doing. Likewise, the SCAF easily survived the deposition of Mubarak and his death, reinstating the old guard though political maneuvers that ensured their stranglehold on the political process, and creating a regime not too different than the one a month of protest forced to collapse. Even the names aren’t all that new. So imagine if we asked a billion or so people to forgo life extension treatments to let nature take its course with Mubarak? For what did they die? An autocratic regime raised from the ashes of Mubarak’s networks of cronies, toadies, and spies? This certainly wasn’t much of an improvement, was it? Would a dictator who could live for thousands of years be bad news for the world? Yes, definitely. But when we’re talking about extending human life, we’re talking about a change that can affect the entire species, not just those who meet our moral standards, and the billions of people for whom we have no good reason to deny more years of life are too high of a price to pay to get rid of a few really bad apples, who, let’s face it, will always be with us and who we’ll always want gone one way or another.

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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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When it comes to the realm of Singularity skepticism and transhumanism, you’ll often see skeptics telling you not to look at the human body as a machine, this skeptic included. Sure, our bodies have systems that work in concert with each other and with a lot of stretching and  simplification we can compare them to machinery. But unlike purpose built devices, our bodies are just sort of there, overburdened with complex processes on every level and possessing brains that are predisposed to believing the idea that we are immortal children of an invisible deity rather than bizarre accidents of evolution who are quite frankly, lucky to exist. However, here’s a thought we may want to consider. What if we do borrow some transhumanist terminology and talk about how our bodies work the same way we talk about machines? It’s the smallest transhumanist misconception, and while we as skeptics tend to have a drive to nitpick and force a distinction between machines and products of evolution because they are scientifically separate, why not let this point go? Maybe letting people think of their bodies as machinery would actually be a net positive because it will let them consider radical new ideas?

Obviously the purely functional approach to our bodies would be disturbing to religious adherents who believe that the human form is just a vessel which an immortal soul occupies for a set period of time before it moves on. It would mean that humans are not a special creation and we’re not immortal beings trapped in flesh and struggling to rediscover ourselves as such, but merely elaborate connections between specialized cells. You, this approach would posit, are whatever the collection of neurons in your brain made you and any notion of an immortal or special soul simply doesn’t fit in without proof that the neural activity that goes on through our lives can somehow be preserved. But that may not be a bad thing. If your body is a self-aware machine, why should we consider our life spans to be some sort of infinitely wise natural edict on when it’s best to die? Why not try to modify it? Why not remake it to whatever we see fit and treat aging and death like diseases? Why should we not rebuild our bodies as they grow older instead of having debates about whether we’d really want to live past our 80s or 90s or 120s, and pretending that drastically extending our lives through technology would end in a zero-sum game? Why not think beyond the our planet as well when considering life extension?

Just like we modify our robots to go to other planets, why not encase our bodies in synthetic materials, modify our genomes through specially designed viruses, and quite literally set out to colonize space? Without a body that can only withstand a narrow range of gravities, mixes of gases, and atmospheric pressures, the process would be far easier and we could accomplish far more than we would as purely organic entities. If you think of yourself as a product of a deity who would’ve been able to live on other planets if your creator wanted you to do so, or if you believe that humans are forever trapped here as products of natural selection and are destined to vanish into extinction, savoring their existence as a short-term gift from biochemistry that can’t be challenged, of course you would be trapped on one planet and play a zero-sum game with our finite resources. If however you think of yourself as a creature which has the rare opportunity to dream big and modify itself outside of the forces of biology, you don’t have to confine yourself to one planet and a fixed lifetime. If Earth starts to get a bit overcrowded over hundreds and hundreds of years as modified humans stay alive and well, there’s an option of going to Mars or Titan or even Triton, and exploring alien landscapes. Your updated body can do it.

And it’s that idea of looking at human limitations and asking why not simply overcome them that really drives a lot of transhumanists. True, the technology is many years away and unlike Ray Kurzweil predicts, it won’t just get there on its own. But we’re making strides towards tackling groundbreaking technologies that could really revolutionize medicine, and if taken to their ultimate limits, even challenge what it means to be human. And as we develop cybernetic organs and make more and more of our bodies machine to survive disease, accidents and war, and organ failure, we think of our bodies as being elaborate machinery that can bring us a whole lot of enjoyment and be used to radically broaden our horizons with good science and smart engineering, maybe that will finally provoke us to stop living in the mundane ruts we often find ourselves, and abandon the selfish mindset that as it doesn’t really matter what we do because we’ll all die anyway. Why reach for the stars with a conservative outlook and consign ourselves to be the generations that will never make it to space if we could fine-tune ourselves and make that leap? After all, if enough generations say that they won’t live long enough to travel to other worlds and place the burden on their grandchildren, we may never really go beyond where we’ve already been, deeming our bodies too precious to modify, and keeping our life spans too short to to it…

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Last time I mentioned transhumanist Kyle Munkittrick, he was in the middle of a blog exchange regarding the ethics of designer babies, a topic I just so happened to call comic book science for several reasons. Now, he’s quite literally using comic books to describe the psychological impact of transhumanism, recruiting a quartet from The Avengers to represent four archetypes of superhuman enhancement. It’s actually a really fun read so I would definitely encourage you to take a few minutes and head on over to Science Not Fiction, but it really seems to be another instance of transhumanists talking about how creating super-humans would be a world changing event but not really narrowing things down and focusing on the practical steps to getting from thinking about enhancement and actually making it happen. So why don’t we try to cut through the futurism to take a look at what’s achievable and what will be likely to happen when humans can augment themselves on a more regular basis than they do now? By Munkittrick’s analogy, the most likely scenario for future humans is the Iron Man one, in which humans are mechanically modified and use technology to overcome the problems of failing organs, limited limbs, or just aging, and when something falls out, we’ll replace it with machinery.

Why would I confidently invoke the mechanical path? Because it’s easier. We know how our bodies work, but only to a certain degree. Technology is something that we know how to build from scratch and we already can and do customize it to work with our bodies, and there’s a very real medical need to create better and more complex interfaces between humans and machines since they could make all the difference between getting on an organ transplant wait list and receiving a mechanical substitute that will either hold you over, or let you get on with your life. Artificial neurons could heal paralyzing spinal cord injuries and restore partial function to damaged nerve clusters or parts of the brain, and wireless links to computers already help patients who are left mute or locked in to communicate with the outside world. Slowly but surely, we’re headed towards very mechanical solutions to organic problems, and with robotic limbs or organs will come new opportunities and the potential to do things we’ve only seen in science fiction. It will take many decades to get there, if not a few centuries, but all the ingredients for it are already in place, even books which worry about our future as frail shells of what we once were, utterly dependent on machinery to stay alive. Far from being a nag, they will actually help us keep in mind the balance between being in control and surrendering control to the devices of which we’re supposed to be in charge since the latter is a recipe for trouble.

And here’s the important thing to keep in mind. We need to treat all this is if it’s no big deal because when we really get down to it, it’s not. We’re just using technology to fulfill our needs, which is exactly what technology is meant to do, and the needs we’re addressing are immediate and pervasive enough to justify the trillions and trillions of dollars we’ll spend on research, development, and testing in the coming decades. Breathless talk of how we’ll change the world and live forever, or lectures on why we shouldn’t be afraid of changing how we’ll see the human species in the future miss the point by addressing abstract desires instead of what’s actually important and immediate. People’s fears of devices they don’t understand or trusting a technology which was sold to them as nearly miraculous are actually quite healthy and useful. Just like those aforementioned books detailing our potential downfall through over-reliance on technology (and I’m talking about introspective works here rather than simple scaremongering based on watching too many sci-fi movies or plain old fogeyism), skepticism about the performance, safety, and reliability of hardware that will be installed inside humans is a necessity that will lead to better, safer, and more reliable cyborg technologies. And again, it’s really not a huge deal and shouldn’t be made into one. So what if in the future we may build an Iron Man suit and have cyborgs piloting it? Why do we need to gather in meetings about the philosophical and ethical implications of this idea instead of just seeing if it could be done and addressing concerns about existing technology rather than the stuff we still only see in the comic books from which Munkittrick got his transhuman archetypes?

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The Singularity Institute’s media director, Michael Anissimov, is apparently fed up with transhumanists whose desperate focus on tuning into immortal robots was recently satirized on prime time TV, and wrote the kind of lengthy and detailed rebuke to their worldview you might easily expect from me on his blog, even citing a key point about the future of cyborgs I’ve been emphasizing to the Kurzwelian crowd. I wouldn’t say I’m all that surprised that Michael and I see the situation in very similar ways because where transhumanists and I tend to disagree are implementation details rather than overall principle, and I’m not going to claim that this post is some sort of a sign of a schism between Singularitarians and Kurzwelian transhumanists because this isn’t an official position paper from The Institute, but Michael’s opinion. But I can’t resist from pointing back to what may be attempts to cool overzealous disciples of the Nerd Rapture from the scholarly side of the movement.

As mentioned before, big name transhumanists are very politely distancing themselves from Kurzweil and as they sing praises to the man seen as the Singularitarian-in-Chief by the media, they also revise his claims and provide far more realistic and academic overviews of his more outlandish sound bites, like his notions of reverse-engineering the human brain in a million lines of code. And now, after reading an op ed by one very enthusiastic and overly optimistic transhumanist, Michael suddenly left his usual script of saying that while a myriad of problems still have to be resolved for complex technologies to work, scientists and institutions are aware of them and are trying to fix them, and let loose with a stern dressing down to those who down enough supplements to ensure a happy and healthy life for a mature bull elephant in hopes of living forever just after they become superhuman. His advice? Work out. Go for a run or a hike. Sign up for cryonics if you want to. An almost worshipful reliance on technology to solve all your problems is unrealistic until we can build nanotech that will manipulate our bodies on a molecular level. Though it’s very unlikely we could ever manipulate living organisms, or anything, on a strictly molecular level with nanotechnology due to the limits imposed on us by physics and the cost of making trillions of such complex machines, the rest is all sound advice.

While we should also note that nanotechnology will be just the first step in radical human enhancements and that the kind of enhancements we’re talking about may remain science fiction for almost a century, this highly grounded strain of transhumanism being voiced more and more often sounds encouraging. Sure, I still have my doubts about a general artificial intelligence system and really don’t see why we should build one, but this is miles better than the typical proclamations I was seeing on a regular basis two years ago, saturated by an obsession wth reaching digital immortality by 2045 and fury at those who note why mind uploading won’t be a viable means of achieving that goal. If George and Michael kept this up, I could end up finding fewer and fewer material for those classic WoWT-goes-to-town-on-Singularitarians posts. But I’d be willing to mark that down as a positive, especially after having my posts included in Singularitarian debates along the way…

[ illustration by John Liberto ]

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Skepticism, no matter how snarky or critical, is not the same thing as naysaying. While the differences could be mentioned again and again in abstract and high level posts by science and skeptical bloggers for the next century, the stereotype of a skeptic as a cynical contrarian out to kill everyone’s buzz still persists. So, instead of trying to argue why that’s not the case through metaphors and analogies, I thought I’d show you a very real case of skepticism vs. naysaying to demonstrate the difference between technical objections to an idea and just being a cynic. The part of the cynic will be played by Paul Carr of TechCrunch and his post about why we need to abandon all hope of life extension technologies and embrace death as something that’s supposed to happen in about eight or so decades. Yes, that’s right, this time I’m going to be defending transhumanists.

Normally, there’s not a whole lot of post material for me on a blog about tech startups, but the transhumanist and Technological Singularity trends, both of which I’ve covered pretty extensively, have quite an impressive following in Silicon Valley. So it only makes sense that those who closely follow big shots in the world of tech and their newest projects would also at least mention their lively interest in transhumanism and the ideas of Ray Kurzweil, who established Singularity University in the heart of the famous tech corridor, and is offering a course in futurism/networking opportunities to paying clients. In a roundabout and muddled way, Carr hits the key notes about the mindset of those who think that technology is a panacea and that the answer to every problem is more technology, just like hammers see every problem as just another nail. But where he quickly goes off the rails is in saying that our bodies are only supposed to last about 80 years and we probably don’t have a shot at changing that. That statement simply isn’t scientifically valid.

Aging is a very complex process, one that we don’t yet really understand as well as we should, but there’s no law of nature that caps lifespan and it’s theoretically possible for an organism with an unlimited lifespan to evolve if given the chance. True, as explained in the link, these creatures would probably find it pretty difficult to live in a world that evolved around cycles of birth and death, but since there is no killer gene or a big ticking time bomb in our cells that acts like nature’s kill switch, it’s remotely plausible. Of course, because there’s no one exact cause of death we could try and bypass or mitigate, life extension is a very complex endeavor, and more of an art than a science at this point since testing treatments on human subjects would take centuries, while the discipline itself is just getting off the ground. It simply hasn’t finished the basic research needed to develop really promising life extension techniques. To dismiss the entire concept solely because we haven’t had time to find something truly viable just yet is awfully short-sighted. But Carr seems to have zero interest in the science of the subject matter he chose to tackle, and quickly jumps into the realm of philosophy.

You see, his thesis is that our short lives drive us to achieve as much as we can, as soon as we can, and the exceptional and creative individuals who accomplish immense projects before they hit middle age are simply trying to make every day count. Take away the threat of the Grim Reaper, he warns, and where’s the motivation to succeed? Again, an interesting argument from a philosophical perspective, but scientifically and logically unfounded. As noted before, humans would certainly be able to adjust to longer lifespans without the huge dystopian disruptions predicted by naysayers of life extension research. As far as personal accomplishments go, that depends on the person. Just like some of us are driven by relentless energy and zeal, others couldn’t be bothered to find a lost remote. Those driven to achieve, will. Those who are content with their routines will simply continue their routine for a longer span of time. And funny enough, it’s the driven and ambitious whose interest and money are propping up the quest for life extension because they want to accomplish more than a typical human lifetime will grant them. They want to reach for the stars, in some cases, quite literally.

Instead of telling entrepreneurs and angel investors who have a very real passion for science and technology to embrace their mortality, Carr should be encouraging them to pursue their lofty goals. Yes, ask them pointed questions, ask them to show you their thought process, and try to steer them from fantastic, pseudoscientific, or wishful thinking, but encourage their ideas because these people can take us to new places with the right support, motivation and a guiding hand from biologists, chemists, physicists, and hands-on researchers. No one has ever made a breakthrough by refusing to aim above mediocrity, and that’s why we shouldn’t be trying to promote the gospel of “eh, it’s good enough,” among those who love to think outside the box.

[ illustration by Martin Lisec ]

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Perhaps the most powerful force in the universe is entropy. According to modern cosmology, in the beginning of time and space, the cosmos was incredibly organized and as it began to age, increasing entropy allowed a whole host of phenomena responsible for stars, planets, galaxies, black holes and us. But according to Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist working to explain time, entropy also plays a significant role in aging. After all, if our bodies accumulate damage and will quite literally wear out after a century or so, doesn’t it make sense to think of aging as another manifestation of the disorder we see in the universe at large? Not so fast says Jerry Coyne in his post about aging and biology. Sure, entropy has a role to play but genetics and selection have a much bigger and more important role to play, so much so that they could postpone and even prevent aging.

As we’ve discussed in a post about DARPA’s endeavors in creating immortal life forms in the lab, there are creatures that seem to achieve something similar to physical immortality and postpone senescence in large scale structures like tissues and organs. That, Coyne argues, provides very compelling evidence that entropy doesn’t have much to do with aging as far as organisms are concerned. Not only that, but immortality isn’t an impossibility in the biological world and we can take creatures which can repair damage done by radiation, or salamanders able to re-grow their limbs as an example of potential adaptations that may lead to full blown immortality. Their abilities wouldn’t violate the second law of thermodynamics because they’ll exist in an open system while the universe’s overall entropy is actually increasing. The problem with immortal organisms in normal environments, however, would be their susceptibility to extinction and limits to the resources they need to survive. If you have organisms living for thousands of years, they’ll consume a lot more than ones living for just a few decades. Their population would have to be small to account for the limits of the food supply, and if a volcanic eruption, an outbreak of a fatal disease, or a predator struck, they could be facing the possibility of extinction in the blink of an eye thanks to their small numbers.

On top of this, organisms with limitless lifespans would evolve very slowly since the evolutionary process has to depend on large populations and new generations. The more individuals and the more offspring, the faster the rate of evolution. This is why humans are evolving at a breakneck pace. There are a lot of us and we’re in ecological niches all over the world, consuming all sorts of different diets. It’s simply more efficient for species to keep death around. Of course we need to remember that there is no on/off switch or gene in organisms so the entire aging process and the subsequent end of life depend on a confluence of environmental and genetic factors to weaken the organism enough to be killed off by something, anything. This is why life extension isn’t an impossible dream. If we find how to keep our bodies thinking that we’re young and need repairs, updates, replacements and continuing maintenance without running the risk of triggering cancers, there’s absolutely no reason why we couldn’t live well past several centuries, if not more. After all, some organisms found ways to live for a very long time and at least one creature known to science is practically immortal, as we mentioned already. Yes, this is far, far easier said than done and the biology of aging is very complex, but it shows that an entropic Grim Reaper isn’t out to get us when our time is officially up according to a physical law.

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Imagine yourself in a future which allows you to live far beyond your normal lifespan. Since there’s technically no kill switch in your body, it’s hypothetically possible for scientists to slow down the aging process and as a result, extend your life well beyond its current potential, and even past its theoretical maximum. Now, think of putting an upper limit on how far that life extension will go. No, I’m not talking about setting an arbitrary limit on the technologies of the indeterminate future. I’m talking about a legal decree which determines the maximum age of any living human, sort of like the 160 age limit in Futurama. Live past the limit and robots dressed like the Grim Reaper come to take you away. Only they would really do that. Sound a bit disturbing? Well, this limit might be a potentially necessary future law according to the writers of a Cracked.com article. Should we live too long, they note, not only would overcrowded hyper-cities become the norm but society will break down…

future metropolis

Now, why would anyone bother to do a post on an article by comedy writers? So what if they’re talking about a future law to limit people’s lives? Well it would be one thing if only Cracked.com had an opinion of the subject, but when it comes to extending human lifespans, there are a number of books and editorials which paint any attempt at significant life extension as potentially ruinous for our society in general and a number of futurists, even optimistic ones, expressed misgivings about trying to achieve immortality since we would physically run out of space to live in several centuries of rapid population growth without a significant number of deaths that normally keep our population in check. We’d devastate the planet and eliminate jobs for hundreds of millions of people by keeping those with a century of experience in positions that would ordinarily be switched several times over and provide a path into corporate life for younger generations. Those concerns are real and they’ve been expressed many times over, which is why the writers of Cracked are putting their spin on it.

However, there are a few caveats with all these arguments for limiting the human lifespan even if we do finally find a way to radically surpass our natural limitations. Humans are not going to get a magic pill and live for an incredible amount of time overnight. It would be great, but the plausibility of this turn of events is very, very low since aging is a very complex thing and treating it involves a whole array of tools. By drastically improving our healthcare with new medical technology and cures for a host of age related diseases, we could be reaching a theoretical maximum lifespan of 125 to 130 years on a regular basis. If we want to go beyond that, we’re going to have to slow down the entire process of age and maturity. During the last drastic improvement in our overall life expectancy, the pace of life drastically slowed down. Thanks to industrialization, better infrastructure and a working understanding of germ theory which gave us antibiotics, vaccination and much of modern medicine, families became smaller and the pace of reproduction slowed down. In the 19th century, it wasn’t uncommon for teenagers to be married parents. Today, it’s a societal abnormality in developed nations.

By the same measure, if humans start aging into their third century, it will have to happen over time, with ever improving treatments spanning generations. Education could be extended into the late 20s, early 30s and the average time for starting a family could be in the mid 40s to early 50s. In experiments which prolong the lives of organisms like fruit flies, this is exactly what we see. The entire cycle of life slows down to accommodate a new life expectancy. Rather than unleashing a barrage of seemingly immortal people who obstruct the entire flow of society, we’ll most likely be facing a general slowdown of life as we know it over several generations. It would also come with an interesting side effect. The population of Earth would actually start to decline. Why? Any life extension technology is going to be expensive and available to either developed nations, or those with the money to afford it. Just like today there’s a huge difference in life expectancy between those living in Japan and those who live in Sub-Saharan Africa, the disparities in income and access to medicine would limit how many residents of developing nations would be surviving longer and longer.

It’s grossly unfair and it seems to be very cold and merciless to consider them as being left behind as citizens of wealthy nations grow older than ever, but unfortunately it’s a sad fact of life that those with more resources always lived longer then those with few. Over several hundred years, billions could vanish by what amounts to a form of attrition. Hopefully, through charitable interventions, the numbers could be lowered and the result of the shift would be a healthier, longer living population. However, it still seems all too likely that there would be disparities in lifespan as long as there are disparities in wealth and access to technology and medicine. But of course, we need to note that all this musing relies on our ability to combat aging. Until we have a real way to reliably extend our lifespans, this is all just speculation and only existing technology could dictate what would happen and how in a world where humans could live longer than ever.

[ illustration from a work by Ryan Quackenbush ]

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