In these six years I’ve spent as a rejuvenation advocate, I’ve had to deal with the traditional objections raised against the idea of longer lifespans. These objections touch a variety of different topics, but they aren’t terribly many: we’re talking about maybe a dozen of them, and these days, I hardly ever hear an objection I haven’t discussed before.
However few or many, and deserving of specific answers, these objections may be, they can all be reduced down to a single, general form: “Rejuvenation biotechnologies would cause [insert problem here], so it’s best not to go there.” And just like there are specific answers for each specific objection, there are general answers for their general form—Aubrey de Grey’s famous “two more general answers”.
These two general answers question the validity of two implicit assumptions contained in all objections, general or specific.
Are these problems actually going to happen?
Dr. Aubrey de Grey would probably summarise this entire section with a single sentence: “We don’t know better than future humanity.” In a nutshell, most if not all potential problems keeping rejuvenation skeptics awake at night would take so long before they have a chance to manifest themselves that, in the meanwhile, the situation may change enough to prevent them from happening. That’s just a very complicated way of saying we shouldn’t cross our bridges before we got there, but an example should help clarify things.
Overpopulation is an evergreen concern: people living longer + people making babies = certain catastrophe, according to some. Even without delving into the details of the overpopulation objection (which you can read here and here, should you like to do so), it’s easy to question the validity of this equality.
Will rejuvenation cause an increase in population? Possibly, but what is the magnitude of that increase going to be? How rapidly will it happen? How long will it take before we could grow to a presently unsustainable population size? More importantly, will such size be unsustainable even we actually reach it, or perhaps technology and science will enable us to support a much larger population with ease by then? We don’t know for a fact. It could go either way, even though our ongoing technological and scientific progress is cause for optimism.
The bottom line is that it makes no sense to oppose a technology on the grounds that, in the far future, it might cause problems which we couldn’t solve today, because by then they may well not be problems anymore. Think about it: we started realizing that infectious diseases were caused by germs around the 1850’s. At the time, the world population was a little over a billion, and technology would hardly have allowed supporting our current 7.4-ish billion. Having figured out that diseases came from tiny organisms, the first simple hygiene measures were taken against them so that diseases could be prevented and lives could be saved.
But saving lives meant increasing the population, so a person of the time could have reasoned that hygiene was a bad idea because, in a mere 150 years, it could help reach a population size of several billion, which was impossible to support at the time! Except now we can do it with much more ease than they could ever dream of in 1850, which shows just how shortsighted this kind of argument is.
Thankfully, our ancestors eventually decided that hygiene was a good idea. Similarly, we should conclude that saving lives through rejuvenation is a good idea, develop the technology as soon as possible, and proceed one step at a time, trying to prevent and solve problems as we go. That’s what we’ve been doing since day one, and it seems to have worked okay thus far.
Are these problems so bad compared to aging?
Here, we’re not going to question whether rejuvenation will cause a certain problem or not; rather, whatever problem we may be talking about, let’s assume that it will happen and weigh it against the benefits of the defeat of aging.
To do so, let’s keep in mind that aging kills about 100,000 people a day; that is, it accounts for two-thirds of all deaths worldwide. Moreover, it causes an indecent amount of suffering, disability, and debilitation, making the last 10 or 20 years of one’s life increasingly miserable. To that, we must add all the problems of an aging society—money and resources spent on pensions and geriatrics with little to no utility, practical and emotional burden on the families of the elderly, too many retired people to be supported by a declining younger population, the lot of them. Let’s also not forget that these are virtually everyone’s problems.
Is the above better than the potential side effects of the defeat of aging and the countermeasures we might thus have to take?
For example, suppose we determined that rejuvenation would cause such an unmanageable population increase that, in order to prevent it, it would be necessary to limit births worldwide, at least until we were able to support a larger population. Is asking all people to become sick and die better than asking those who want children to postpone their parenthood plans?
Another example: imagine that an evil dictator used rejuvenation to prolong his reign of terror by decades. So, on one hand, nobody would suffer and die of aging anymore; on the other hand, people who lived under the dictator would have to endure the dictatorship for longer. Forget for a moment that waiting for a dictator to die of old age isn’t the best way to get rid of him; rather, let’s reflect on this: would the amount of suffering caused by the dictator to a fraction of the human population be worse than that caused by aging to everyone? Would it be fair to ask the whole world to give up on lifesaving medical technology so that no dictator could ever use it to continue oppressing a minority that could be saved by more effective means anyway?
I’ll leave the answers up to you.
Let’s face it—suffering and death are hardly a solution to anything. Will the rise of rejuvenation biotechnology cause unexpected side effects and challenges? Quite possibly, because it is a disruptive technology, and as such, it has the power to revolutionize our lives. But just like other times before, we’ll figure things out as we go.