Longer lives would lead to better living

December 3, 2013

Last week, the United States Food and Drug Administration ordered the Google-backed genetic testing company 23andMe to stop selling its home testing kits, arguing that the possibility of false positive readings for potentially fatal or debilitating conditions could prompt people to take unnecessary and potentially fatal medical action. The FDA should now work quickly to develop standards so that 23andMe and companies like it can get back to their vital businesses of working to extend the human life span.

Looking at the challenges facing us, you’d be forgiven for thinking that long lives are a problem. Humans face food shortages, the effects of climate change, and potential overcrowding on a global scale, as well as developed world retirement and healthcare systems that are ill-equipped to serve the needs of too many Methuselahs. But these problems might be more the result of short-term thinking rather than long-lived lives. The economist John Maynard Keynes once remarked, “In the long run, we are all dead.” We may have taken that too much to heart.

Meanwhile, powerful forces are working on a cure for aging that could result in the radical extension of human life so that people can live at least to the outlier age of 120, if not beyond. Google, with clout and cash to burn, has funded and nurtured numerous projects meant to extend the human life span, perhaps indefinitely. Google co-founder Larry Page views death as a problem to be solved. Futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil serves as an adviser to Calico, a Google project meant to cure aging, as if it were a disease rather than a fact of life.

It is time for the U.S. government, both as a regulator and supporter of life sciences research, to start making policy as if death were a solvable problem. Problems like global warming, with effects measured over centuries, might mean more to today’s policymakers if they knew they were going to personally face the consequences. The longer people expect to live, the more abstract concepts become practical concerns.

Economist Lester Carl Thurow, former dean of the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology compared the history of humanity on earth to an around-the-world plane trip, “Do I care what happens a thousand years from now? Do I care when man gets off the airplane? And I think basically I came to the conclusion that I don’t care whether man is on the airplane for another eight feet or if man is on the airplane for another three times around the Earth.”

Philosopher Brooke Alan Trisel, who quoted Thurow in his essay “Human Extinction and the Value of Our Efforts” for the Philosophical Forum, went on to argue that, “Most of people’s goals can be accomplished within their lifetimes….people do accomplish many of their goals: they graduate from college, they get married, they pursue various careers, they write books, they travel, and so on — all without future generations.”

Such an outlook makes spending to mitigate climate change or to blast an errant asteroid out of the cosmos at some undetermined point in the future a difficult proposition.

Environmental economist Bjorn Lomborg has argued against much climate change mitigation by using the same type of methods that a chief financial officer uses to determine where to direct a company’s research and development spending — he applies a discount rate to determine the present value of money spent for future benefit. This has led him to argue for spending on mitigating the more immediate effects of climate change (disease outbreaks, extreme weather response, food shortages) rather than on the long-term problem.

Humans are notoriously bad forecasters, particularly over long periods. In a 2000 discussion paper for Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C. think tank, Richard Newell and William Pizer argued that for very long-term forecasts, even the discount rate is uncertain. Studying two centuries of interest rate forecasts led them to believe that such rates are a “random walk,” much like stock market movements. Adding that uncertainty to Lomborg’s work on climate change, they estimated that he had undervalued the worth of money spent to deal with climate change now by five orders of magnitude. Perhaps a longer life span would help us deal with the longer view.

The idea of biological immortality is real enough that Leon Kass, formerly the chair of George W. Bush’s bioethics commission, argued against even trying to achieve it, believing that it would fundamentally alter the human condition. This is, of course, the point.

Our short life spans not only impede our ability to deal with long-term challenges, they allow us to tolerate present day injustices. The people with the most influence over current affairs are elites who tend to be socially and economically better situated than most. They generally have little reason to believe that their circumstances will change and they know their children will share their advantages. But the longer one lives, the more turns of fortune they will face. An immortal person would be likely to experience a bit of everything, from the highest fortunes to the lowest destitution, if only by chance. Our immortal bureaucrats, when making policy, would be trapped in the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance.” They would have to expect they will some day have to live, even temporarily, under the policies they enact for the very poorest.

All of this starts with our current biosciences. The FDA did what it had to do with regards to 23andMe, but taking the long view, the government needs to be a full-throated supporter of genetic testing and engineering. Without hyperbole, the future of the human race depends on it.

PHOTO: Panelists Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of 23and Me Inc. and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus (R), managing director, Grameen Bank from Bangladesh take part in the Revolutionizing Health Care and Research in the Developing World panel at the Global Overview panel at 2008 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills California April 28, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser



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My opinion only: Mankind was designed (by Chance or Gods) to walk the earth for a certain period. To meddle here may bring what at first glance is great progress but in the greater picture will be a mistake.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

The author of this tripe should go out and get a real job.

Posted by HamsterHerder | Report as abusive

Longer life = more overcrowding. Let’s all use our 80 years wisely and get the hell out of the way.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Man must eventually choose between the mutually exclusive goals of quantity of life and quality of life. Those who argue on behalf of covering every unoccupied space with humanity can only bring about a Soylent Green future.

The “other side” of the argument is the hope represented by Gene Roddenberry and so many other optimistic “futurists” that see mankind expanding into “space, the final frontier”. Few seem to realize that computers and the exploding possibilities their increasing capabilities are being applied to will inevitably bring about a “new world” in which lives will be very, very different.

The first modern person to live to be one thousand years of age may have already been born. And yes, death is very much a problem worthy of solution. Far, far better to become a race known for wisdom, patience and restraint than for petty, predatory, permanent warfare.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

OneOfTheSheep, I agree. Many of these exercises in ‘health and longevity improvements’ are analogous to sending fertility pills….. to Haiti. You can crank out more puppies and squeeze out more pill years, but the the earth can only carry what the earth can carry. The systems may not crash all at once, but they will crash if you overload the planet.

Over the past 10 years, 2,000 people a day have been hospitalized in Mexico City due to lung infections from ‘caustic airborne particulates.’ That’s been our future, staring us in the face. The consensus of the world, now that it has had this glimpse of humanity literally choking on itself there: “Have more babies, put more smoke on the air. Mexico City is a fluke.”

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“Our short life spans not only impede our ability to deal with long-term challenges, they allow us to tolerate present day injustices. The people with the most influence over current affairs are elites who tend to be socially and economically better situated than most. They generally have little reason to believe that their circumstances will change and they know their children will share their advantages. But the longer one lives, the more turns of fortune they will face. An immortal person would be likely to experience a bit of everything, from the highest fortunes to the lowest destitution, if only by chance.”

Maybe, but would extending the average human life from 80 to 120 really make that much of a difference in terms of changing people’s calculations?

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive


120 years of life is NOT “an immortal person” by ANY definition.

As we learn how to grow replacement organs from a person’s own cells, thus avoiding the body rejecting them, it isn’t rocket science to extend human life well beyond 120 years. The present expansion of human understanding and knowledge already approaches the straight up “curve” of infinity.

In the relatively near future there will exist the option of moving active, lucid human brains from worn out bodies into protective and nurturing chambers in mechanical/hydraulic “exoskeleton suits”. Our military has already passing the proof of concept stage on “exoskeleton suits” that extend the physical capabilities of mere humans, and testing and development has commenced. Along the way the question must be answered as to what is and is not “human”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Although the philosophical argument is attractive, I don’t think it has much practical use.
We tend to think crisis situations, catastrophic scenarios always happen sometime in the future, or perhaps “somewhere else”, when in truth climate change has been with us for years and is escalating (and I am not opening the debate “who is to blame…”), the global financial and economical crisis has been raging without stop since 2008, growth has stopped or significantly slowed down, and only superficial, cosmetic measures (kicking the can)keep the financial system liquid while the “bottom half” of the human pyramid is falling off.
The increasing social tensions, simmering geopolitical conflicts with WMD all over the globe, and imminent, ongoing environmental catastrophes I do not think we can wait until medical sciences make us live until we are 120.
The rate the changes have been happening even just in the last year means that humanity will reach an existential crossroad within our lifetime.
Thus we have the negative incentive to act right now.
On the other hand we have all the scientific information, the “field data” from the ongoing crisis to start learning and understand how humanity should adapt to the global, integral human network within the closed and finite natural system.
Our quality of life does not depend on the number of years we live, but on the purpose of that life and whether we live instinctively, automatically driven by our inherent nature and the brainwash of society, or we live a fully aware, conscious life knowing and fulfilling our role in the general system.

Posted by ZGHermann | Report as abusive

Even if we could extend life wouldn’t something else take us out? The chance of someone dying in a car crash is somewhat remote but if you live long enough you will almost certainly get into a car crash which might take your lights out.

Posted by jorge62 | Report as abusive

So not being able to control the climate… that’s a bad thing that will doom us all. But doing things that will increase the population exponentially, in a world where we can barely get it together as it is… that’s a good thing?

The fact that this would makes sense to someone, indicates one thing… Some people are just scared to death of everything… We must control the weather, or we are all doomed. We must control life… We must control death… We must control everything.

Rather than turn the world upside down over 1/4% of a gas that has been here forever, maybe some people should just get a therapist. It would be a lot cheaper.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive