Browsed by
Tag: Overpopulation

Will Increased Lifespans Cause Overpopulation? – Article by Elena Milova and Steve Hill

Will Increased Lifespans Cause Overpopulation? – Article by Elena Milova and Steve Hill

Elena Milova
Steve Hill

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Transhumanist Party features this article by our guests Elena Milova and Steve Hill, originally published by the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF) on October 30, 2016. In this article, both authors provide evidence that if aging was cured, then overpopulation would not be an issue. Not only is there a common trend among industrialized nations, in which, when the citizens become healthier, wealthier, and educated, they have fewer children, but there are also projections showing that global population growth is gradually falling and will come to a halt around the time the world’s population reaches 11 billion people.
***
~ Bobby Ridge, Assistant Editor, July 3, 2019

Any discussion of rejuvenation biotechnology almost certainly includes the subject of overpopulation and the objection that medical advances that directly address the various processes of aging will lead to an overpopulated world. Such dire predictions are a common theme in many discussions involving advances in medicine that could increase human lifespans.

Overpopulation is a word that gives the simple fact of population growth a negative connotation. It implies that an increase in the number of people will harm our lives in different ways, such as famine, scarcity of resources, excessive population density, increased risks of infectious diseases, and harm to the environment.

This concern, first raised by the work of 18th century reverend and scholar Thomas Malthus, has been a constant theme in both popular fiction and early foresights related to population growth. However, is it actually well-founded? We will be taking a deeper look at the historical and present population data and showing why overpopulation is unlikely to happen.

To get you started, this video with Bill Gates summarizes some of the key points about population and why a longer-lived and healthy society is good for keeping population growth in check.

What is the population, and how will it grow in the future?

Since the 1960s, both birth rate and population growth have been gradually falling. This will probably lead to a complete halt at 11 billion people near the year 2100. Here is a chart from the United Nations Population Prospects 2015 edition showing the corresponding projections [1].

Fig 1. Population of the world: estimates, 1950-2015, medium-variant projection and 80 and 95 percent prediction intervals, 2015-2100.

Here we can see the continuous, red trend line gradually leveling out into a straight horizontal line. However, before talking about why population growth is predicted to stop, let’s investigate why the population is even growing.

In order to ensure population growth, the number of children born per year must surpass the number of deaths in a given country. Typically, a fertility rate index equal to 2.1 is enough for the population to renew without growing in numbers, but a higher birth rate will lead to stable population growth.

In the illustrations below, you can see the global map of fertility and the projection of population growth by major regions [2]

Fig 2. World Population 2010-2100 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Data Booklet. ST/ESA/SER.A/377.

Fig 3. Total fertility 2010-2015 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Data Booklet. ST/ESA/SER.A/377.

The biggest contributors to the present level of population growth globally are India and several African regions, while many countries (especially in Europe) face depopulation because of their low birth rate. In the future, most of the population growth will be due to Africa.

Our intuition may tell us that it is unlikely that the least developed countries would be producing most of the population; after all, the standards of living in developed countries make for better conditions to have more children.

However, in reality, there are many factors that can lead to a decline in birth rate during the transition to a developed country: education (access to education for women typically postpones marriage and childbirth), unemployment (families try to control their family size to use fewer resources), and access to contraceptive techniques and cultural norms of using them, to name just a few [3].

Economic development is known to affect the time of birth; for example, recession encourages childbirth later in life [4]. National policies to combine work and family life also represent an important factor that may affect fertility rate in both directions. Globalization will “deepen” (in a world-systems theory sense) the less technologically advanced countries, making it very likely that the “higher birth rate” issue in these countries will also decline.

There is supporting evidence showing that moving to an advanced, industrialized economy changes the birth rate of immigrants. The fertility rates of immigrants to the US have been found to decrease sharply in the second generation [5]. Other studies demonstrate that the presence of immigrants does not compensate for declining birth rates [6].

Fig 4. Declining birth rate leads to gradual slow down of the population growth. The chart shows a UN projection in population size change in percent until 2100 for major regions[7].

The relationship between the level of the development of a country and fertility can be seen in the next chart. It is worth noting that when the Human Development Index (HDI) becomes higher than 0.85, country development starts promoting the birth rate again [8]. However, this kind of situation is very rare, historically, and therefore not significant enough to shape global population projections.

Fig 5.  Fertility vs HDI Index. Data source: United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), UN – Population Division (Fertility), 2015 Revision, Gapminder. Source: OurWorldInData.org/fertility/.

Thus, the least developed countries are more likely to have higher birth rates because people there have no reason to postpone childbirth, nor are measures for contraception widely accessible. The only factor holding back population growth in these regions may be the high level of child mortality and overall mortality due to infectious diseases and undernourishment.

With sustainable development goals focused on the solution of both problems, Africa has the potential to become the biggest human factory in our history. However, taking into account how fast fertility rates can fall because of the adoption of new technologies, this is far from certain.

Fig 6.  How long did it take for fertility to fall from more than 6 children per woman to fewer than 3 children per woman?  Data source: The data on the total fertility rate is taken from the Gapminder fertility dataset (version 6)  and the World Bank World Development Indicators. Source: OurWorldInData.org.

But won’t we run out of space?

In all projected future scenarios for Africa, its population will continue to grow. Today, there are 7.4 billion people on Earth. We are used to thinking that this is already too much, but is that true? First of all, let’s see how much space on Earth we humans actually take up. In 2012, the team of the project “Per Square Mile” led by Tim de Chant produced an infographic showing how big a city would have to be to house the world’s 7 billion people.

The city limits change drastically depending on which real city is used as the model and what its population density is, but this still gives us an idea of how much of our beautiful planet is really inhabited and how much spare space we still have.

If the projection of population growth by the United Nations is correct, in the next 84 years, there will be about 11 billion people. This means that if all of humanity were concentrated in a land area with a population density similar to New York, it would at most occupy the size of 3 US states by 2100.

2012                                                         2100

Fig 7.  7 bln city with population density of New York/11 bln city with the same population density. From the “Per Square Mile” project by Tim de Chant. Note: the picture at right is modified by the article authors to illustrate the potential growth. The state of Texas is about 700,000 square kilometers, which corresponds to about 7 billion people. The states of Texas, New Mexico (about 315,000 km^2), and Louisiana (about 135,000 km^2) combined represent 1,150,000 square kilometers, which corresponds to about 11.5 billion people by 2100.

Does this mean that population growth is not an issue? From the point of view of the space we humans need, likely so. However, our species’ survival is dependent on many other factors, such as the environment necessary to produce our food and other goods.

Are we going to run out of food?

We should admit that it is about fifty years too late to be concerned about extensive population growth and its consequences, such as famine, because the highest birth rate and population growth was observed from the 1960s to the 1980s. Our population grew by one billion people in just 14 years (going from 3 to 4 billion); however, no big societal or economic challenges were encountered.

Moreover, the next two billion increases in population appeared in 13 and 12 years, respectively [9], but once again, no famine caused by the deficiency of global food production followed [10]. The famines of the second half of the 20th century were provoked by how the food was distributed. Factors such as administrative incompetence of local governments, wars and natural disasters happening several years in a row played the greatest role in creating famine during this period.

Today, global society is taking measures to eradicate hunger worldwide by 2030. This is very likely to be the case, as the number of people suffering from hunger is decreasing fast. In 2012, it was one in eight, while in 2015, it was already one in nine, which corresponds to 795 million people. Below, you can see the Hunger Map by the World Food Program illustrating the progress.

Fig 8. FAO, IFAD and WFP. 2015. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015. Meeting the 2015 international hunger targets: taking stock of uneven progress. Rome, FAO. Sources: www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/ Undernourishment data: FAO Statistics Division (ESS) – www.fao.org/economic/ess

If we compare the food supply in 1965 and in 2007, we can clearly see that overeating is more of a global issue than undernourishment, as in most countries, the calorie intake has grown significantly. This could not have happened if our society was suffering from food underproduction, as the food would not be available to overeat, and problems such as obesity would not be so prevalent.

Fig 9.  Food supply 1965 vs 2007 Source: Gapminder statistics (www.gapminder.org/)

Astoundingly, this means that a population explosion has passed relatively unnoticed – all thanks to the “Green Revolution” (rapid development of new agriculture techniques, such as fertilizers, irrigation and selection). The concern that there will be a food shortage in the future neglects further technological advances such as aquaponics, hydroponics, aeroponics, vertical farming, 3D-printed housing, algae farms, and many other technologies that could provide enough food for all.

The need for more food production represents an excellent opportunity for entrepreneurs, so it is unlikely that the development process of new technologies would suddenly stop, especially taking into account the objective need for rapid changes due to environmental issues.

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Livestock’s long shadow”, in 2006, livestock represented the biggest of all anthropogenic (i.e., due to human activity and with potentially harmful side effects) land uses, taking up to 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet [11].

Scientists admit that while it is still possible to expand agricultural land in some countries in accordance with the increasing need for food, this expansion cannot go beyond the limits of the carrying capacity of our planet. The report states that livestock is responsible for about 18% of the global warming effect, 9% of total carbon dioxide emissions, 37% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide. Water use for livestock represents about 8% of all human water use (7% of this being used for feed irrigation).

New technologies can provide solutions for the numerous environmental issues related to traditional farming. For instance, hydroponics offers around 11 times higher yields while requiring 10 times less water than conventional agriculture [12]. The energy needs of a hydroponic facility are much higher (up to 80 times more), but thanks to emerging clean renewable energy technologies, this increased demand may not be an issue [13].

Today, there are many companies engaged in the creation of lab-grown meat, such as Supermeat and Memphis Meats. Making a laboratory into a farm is beneficial in many ways, starting from less pollution and fewer greenhouse gas emissions (mostly caused by animal digestion processes).

Sterile conditions in the lab lead to decreased risk of infections and allow the exclusion of antibiotics from the process of meat production. Lab-grown meat can be designed to contain less fat or even fats and proteins with new characteristics (for instance, essential Omega fatty acids).

With less space necessary for laboratory meat production and no waste, it will be possible to ensure disseminated local production in order to cut transportation time and reduce the usage of preservatives. The same system can be used to grow fish meat as well, thus reducing the impact of fishing and fish-farming on the environment. It is interesting to note that not only meat but also other animal-derived products, such as leather, can be produced in a lab, like is done by Modern Meadow.

There are attempts to create new edible products that taste like meat but are completely without animal ingredients, such as Impossible Foods. The recently created vegan ‘Bloody Burger’ by Impossible Foods “uses 95% less land, 74% less water and emits 87% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than its cattle-derived counterpart”. By concentrating on the heme molecule, the mixture apparently “looks like meat, tastes like meat and sizzles like meat“.

These solutions are also great from an ethical point of view, as this technology can reduce animal suffering. The rate of transition to these new ways of animal product creation is widely dependent on political will and social support. It is important to note that there is also significant progress regarding access to drinking water. During the Millennium Development Goals period (1990-2015), it is estimated that, globally, use of improved drinking water sources rose from 76 per cent to 91 per cent. 2.6 billion people have gained access to an improved drinking water source since 1990.

The MDG target of 88 per cent was surpassed in 2010, and in 2015, 6.6 billion people used an improved drinking water source. There are now only three countries (all located in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania) with less than 50 per cent coverage, compared with 23 in 1990 [14]. New technologies for cheap water desalination and water collection from the air are also helping to improve the situation.

If population growth is not exactly an issue, then what is?

What we really should be concerned about is the age structure of the population. Regardless of the level of technological development, its core are the people of working age who are producing goods, paying taxes, and supporting the non-working groups, such as children and the elderly – the latter needing the most resources because of the state of their health.

Due to population aging, the share of working-age people is shrinking while the share of people who are at least 60 years old is growing. Population structure change is the most evident in Europe and Northern America, while the “Global South” has not experienced it yet – but will experience it in the next few decades.

Fig 10. Percentage of population in broad age groups by major area in 2015. Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Data Booklet. ST/ESA/SER.A/377

Soon, one third of the population worldwide is going to be aged sixty or over, which means more social protection and healthcare expenditures and more working age people involved in nursing the elderly. However, it would be wrong and unjust to see the elderly as a burden, while these people have contributed so much to the incredible progress that our society has made.

They have all the same human rights as everyone, including the right to life and right to health. As age-related health deterioration is the main reason why society has to provide so much support to the elderly, it would be only logical to see the development of rejuvenation biotechnologies as the way to improve the situation.

What would life be like if we introduced rejuvenation technologies globally?

Before the era of universal medicine, people who managed to reach their sixties were still in relatively good health. However, once the onset of age-related diseases began, they died very quickly.

Modern medicine has changed that by slowing down the development of age-related diseases, hence extending the period of productivity. The downside is that this has also extended the period of illness, because treatments to prevent age-related diseases are not yet introduced into universal clinical practice.

In the near future, new interventions to slow down the aging process will become accessible, and then a shift will occur: the period of youth and adulthood will be extended due to better health, and the period of illness will be significantly postponed. In their sixties, people will remain as strong and vital as 40-year-old people are today. Some leading scientists predict that this may also lead to maximum lifespan increases of up to 150 years or more.

This is, of course, hard to prove, because as with many other things in human history, it is a unique situation that has never happened before, but some studies have proposed how aging would look given these three scenarios [15].

Fig 11. A:Pre Universal Medicine, B: Current medicine, C: Slowing aging. Source: Blagosklonny, M. V. (2012). How to save Medicare: the anti-aging remedy. Aging (Albany NY), 4(8), 547-52.

Whilst it is too early to be overly optimistic, we still should mention that apart from these three scenarios, there is a fourth possibility called negligible senescence. Negligible senescence in nature happens when a species does not display signs of aging, regardless of the passage of time. A number of species exhibit negligible senescence, including the rougheye rockfish (Sebastes aleutianus).

The ocean quahog (Arctica islandica) and some kinds of turtles are also negligibly senescent, but they still die because the expansion of their shell ultimately limits their movement. More examples can be found here at the excellent HAGR (Human Ageing Genomic Resources) database.

At some point in time, medical technologies may become so sophisticated that they will be able to bring all of the processes of aging under medical control. If that is the case, then aging will always remain at a subclinical stage, because the repairs to our bodies will keep up the pace with damage accumulation, allowing people to look and feel young for an indefinite period of time.

Most likely, it will take decades for medical science to progress this far, but we should also admit that some of the technologies necessary for this transition already exist, e.g., stem cell therapies, early nanorobots, CRISPR and gene therapies, immunotherapies, senolytics, and geroprotectors (drugs that slow down the aging process).

How will increased lifespan affect population growth?

The possibility of significant life extension using medical interventions was not even considered by the academic community until recent years, so there were not many projections of how increased lifespans and negligible senescence would affect population growth. However, a few years ago, such a projection was done for Sweden.

One of the more realistic scenarios is one where only a small share of the population accepts negligible senescence technologies at the beginning (this could be due to a slow dissemination process, ethical or religious objections that people have to overcome, or a high cost of the new technology) with a gradual increase (1% added to the negligibly senescent group each year). It is assumed that some small share of the population will never accept these technologies and will age in the traditional way.

In this case, population change in Sweden will not lead to population growth but can, to some extent, mitigate the process of depopulation over 100 years of medical innovations [16].

Fig 12. Population projection for a scenario of growing acceptance of antiaging interventions. Projection of the Swedish population until year 2105, assuming the negligible senescence scenario for initially small proportion of population (10%), with growing acceptance rate over time. Life extension interventions start at age 60 years, with 30-year time delay from now.

This might be the likely scenario in most developed countries. Taking into account that new technologies tend to be expensive even for developed countries’ middle classes, the developing countries most possibly will reach the same level of implementation later in time, when their fertility rate will be already affected by the index of development. In this case, the fall of their population growth will be smaller due to decreased population mortality.

In a more optimistic scenario, where all the population has access to negligible senescence technologies and they are applied to everyone who is at least 60 years old, population growth in 70 years will be around 22%. The earlier the application, the bigger the population growth. If negligible senescence technologies are applied at the age of 40, then the estimated population growth will be nearly 47% in 70 years.

Fig 13. Projection of the Swedish population until the year 2105, assuming the negligible senescence scenario. Life extension interventions start at age 60 years, with a 30-year time delay from now.

There are three main conclusions we can make based on this data.

  1. The growing share of people using negligible senescence technologies could help optimize the balance between workforce and retirees, hence maintaining economic development. People who are at least 65 years old will be about one-third of the global population in 2100, so we are talking about 3-4 billion old people who could be healthy and productive or ill and frail, depending on which strategy that global society implements.
  2. Negligible senescence is a synonym of good health, which means that the burden of age-related diseases and their social consequences will be mostly eliminated.
  3. Population growth, surprisingly, will not be as dramatic as is often imagined, leaving a significant period of time for adaptation, adequate measures of population growth control, and new territories’ development.

Is mitigating aging not only a need but also a legal obligation?

Even if negligible senescence remains a long-term goal, the emerging technologies to address the various aging processes [17] represent a unique opportunity to maintain older people in good health, allowing them to enjoy healthier lives, remain active, learn new skills, and contribute to the development of society. We owe them our present well-being. Not only have these people contributed a lot to create the things we have now, including better nutrition, healthcare, and a comfortable and safe habitat, they have also worked hard to change traditions and wisdom and helped to carry the concept of equal human rights forwards. This is why it is especially poignant to understand that geroprotective technologies and their potential are being underestimated and that they are not receiving the level of social approval and support that they rightly deserve.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Constitution, the objective of the WHO is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health”. It is worth noting that WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” [18]. While this definition may seem quite spacious, it was made this way purposefully to ensure that member states’ activities in improving the health of their people would never stop.

Conclusion

The need for constant improvement of health is now a universal consensus.

Aging represents the root cause of severe diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, stroke, Parkinson’s, heart disease, COPD, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and atherosclerosis, leading to disability of the elderly and to a wide range of negative social consequences, which makes it the perfect target for the global healthcare system [19].

These diseases can only be cured if the actual aging processes are directly addressed and halted while the damage is repaired or reversed by medical interventions. Therefore, according to WHO and United Nations policy, this means that global society has an obligation to eventually cancel aging in order to achieve the highest possible level of health for all people.

Literature

  1. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Volume II: Demographic Profiles (ST/ESA/SER.A/380).
  2. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Data Booklet. ST/ESA/SER.A/377.
  3. Mather, M. (2012). Fact sheet: The decline in US fertility. Population Reference Bureau, World Population Data Sheet.
  4. Lanzieri, G. (2013). Towards a ‘baby recession’ in Europe?. Europe (in million), 16(16.655), 16-539.
  5. Nargund, G. (2009). Declining birth rate in Developed Countries: A radical policy re-think is required. FV & V in ObGyn, 1, 191-3.
  6. Camarota, S., & Ziegler, K. (2015). The Declining Fertility of Immigrants and Natives. Center for Immigration Studies.
  7. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. ESA/P/WP.241.
  8. Myrskylä, M., Kohler, H. P., & Billari, F. C. (2009). Advances in development reverse fertility declines. Nature, 460(7256), 741-743.
  9. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (1999). The World At Six Billion. ESA/P/WP.154.
  10. Gráda, C. Ó. (2007). Making famine history. Journal of Economic Literature, 45(1), 5-38.
  11. FAO, U., & Steinfeld, H. (2006). Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options. Rome:[sn].
  12. Barbosa, G. L., Gadelha, F. D. A., Kublik, N., Proctor, A., Reichhelm, L., Weissinger, E., … & Halden, R. U. (2015). Comparison of land, water, and energy requirements of lettuce grown using hydroponic vs. conventional agricultural methods. International journal of environmental research and public health, 12(6), 6879-6891.
  13. REN21. 2016. Renewables 2016 Global Status Report (Paris: REN21 Secretariat).
  14. Unicef. (2015). Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-Water: 2015 Update and MDG Assessment. World Health Organization: Geneva, Switzerland.
  15. Blagosklonny, M. V. (2012). How to save Medicare: the anti-aging remedy. Aging (Albany NY), 4(8), 547-52.
  16. Gavrilov, L. A., & Gavrilova, N. S. (2010). Demographic consequences of defeating aging. Rejuvenation research, 13(2-3), 329-334.
  17. López-Otín, Carlos et al.(2013). Hallmarks of Aging. Cell , Volume 153 , Issue 6 , 1194 – 1217
  18. World Health Organization. (2014). Basic documents. World Health Organization.
  19. Kennedy, B. K., Berger, S. L., Brunet, A., Campisi, J., Cuervo, A. M., Epel, E. S., … & Rando, T. A. (2014). Aging: a common driver of chronic diseases and a target for novel interventions. Cell, 159(4), 709.
Elena Milova: As a devoted advocate of rejuvenation technologies since 2013, Elena is providing the community with a systemic vision how aging is affecting our society. Her research interests include global and local policies on aging, demographic changes, public perception of the application of rejuvenation technologies to prevent age-related diseases and extend life, and related public concerns. Elena is a co-author of the book Aging prevention for all (in Russian, 2015) and the organizer of multiple educational events helping the general public adopt the idea of eventually bringing aging under medical control.
***
Steve Hill: Steve serves on the LEAF Board of Directors and is the Editor-in-Chief, coordinating the daily news articles and social media content of the organization. He is an active journalist in the aging research and biotechnology field and has to date written over 500 articles on the topic as well as attending various medical industry conferences. In 2019 he was listed in the top 100 journalists covering biomedicine and longevity research in the industry report – Top-100 Journalists covering advanced biomedicine and longevity created by the Aging Analytics Agency. His work has been featured in H+ Magazine, Psychology Today, Singularity Weblog, Standpoint Magazine, Keep Me Prime, and New Economy Magazine. Steve has a background in project management and administration which has helped him to build a united team for effective fundraising and content creation, while his additional knowledge of biology and statistical data analysis allows him to carefully assess and coordinate the scientific groups involved in the project. In 2015 he led the Major Mouse Testing Program (MMTP) for the International Longevity Alliance and in 2016 helped the team of the SENS Research Foundation to reach their goal for the OncoSENS campaign for cancer research.

Popular Reactions to Life Extension – Article by Nicola Bagalà

Popular Reactions to Life Extension – Article by Nicola Bagalà

Nicola Bagalà


Editor’s Note: The U.S. Transhumanist Party features this article by our guest Nicola Bagalà, originally published by our allies at the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF ) on May 31st, 2018. In this article, Mr. Bagalà examines two studies from 2009, in which researchers interviewed members of the public regarding their opinions of life-extension research. This is an excellent read if you want to peer into how people in the past felt about life extension. 

~ Bobby Ridge, Assistant Editor, June 28, 2019

Two papers by Partridge et al [1, 2], both published in 2009, provide the somewhat rare opportunity to examine some concerns about life extension as formulated by actual people, rather than their general, more abstract forms.

As highlighted in the studies, research on the public’s perception of life extension science has been very much neglected; this, in turn, has made it harder to identify the misconceptions and incorrect information fueling some common concerns about life extension and made it even harder to address those very concerns. Needless to say, the more that the public views life extension negatively, the less supportive that it will probably be, which is bad news for researchers.

The papers present the results of several interviews, conducted either in person or on the phone, aimed at understanding what ethical concerns the interviewees had about life extension and what implications they thought extended human lifespans would have for themselves and for society. The research was conducted on a sample of the Australian population only, but the issues they raised were entirely representative of a typical discussion about life extension. In both studies, the interviewees were presented with the general premise of possibly slowing down aging and the onset of age-related diseases in order to greatly extend human healthy lifespan.

We’ll be taking a look at specific claims made or sentiments expressed by different interviewees in both studies.

Nature (doesn’t) know best

A common assumption is that nature knows best and interventions to slow down or reverse aging equal tampering with it, which is bad in its own right and therefore shouldn’t be done. This position is apparent in the following quotes from the studies:

“It seems totally unnatural. It seems to be upsetting the natural sequence of things. […] But I think doubling life would be… I don’t like it at all.”

“[…] it’s just not natural to live to 150.”

Quite frankly, this is the kind of teaching you would expect to find in an episode of “The Smurfs”, in which Mother Nature is a sweet old lady with a magic wand and has designed the world to work in a certain way for everyone’s good. However, nature is really just a label used to indicate many things—the interactions between fundamental particles, animal behavior, the intricacies of biochemistry, green foliage, and black holes. No one sat down and decided how long each species should live, and most definitely not for anyone’s good.

Counterexamples of natural things that are bad for you and “unnatural” things that are good for you are plentiful, but we’re not going into counterarguments and confutations; what is interesting to note is that the naturalness argument is presented without further justification: it’s unnatural, hence it’s bad. The interviewees themselves don’t seem to know why it’s bad. It’s rather dangerous to assume that nature knows best when, in fact, it knows nothing at all. Nature does all it does rather well—who wouldn’t, after billions of years of practice—but that’s not necessarily what is best for you.

Another interesting claim is that extending our lifespans would make us less human—as if living around 80 or 90 were a defining quality of humanity:

“To change lifespan that much just seems like, I don’t know, we’re not human anymore… Think of all the intervention we’d need… we’d be counteracting everything about us to make us live longer.”

“[…] it’s kind of inhuman to live a long time, as we are not made that way […]”

It’s honestly difficult to imagine why a lifespan change from around 80 to around 150 would make us any less human than the one from about 40 to about 80 did. However, the covert assumption here might be that extending lifespan would necessarily require radical alterations that would turn us into something we don’t like—a rather stale teaching that has been reiterated, unproven and unchallenged time and again in all manner of fiction, so it wouldn’t be surprising if it had made its way into people’s most deeply held beliefs.

Some interviewees expressed the conviction that curing disease and extending lifespan are fundamentally different:

“There’s a difference between just treating an injury or an illness compared to ‘I’m going to break natural bounds and extend my life’.”

“I don’t think life extension, in the sense of strong life extension, is a necessary thing. Whereas a lot of other aspects of medicine involve fixing things to enable people to live a normal life in a regular lifespan.”

The misconception that might be behind this is that there’s a “right” kind of death—death by old age—whereas other kinds of “early” death, however they may happen, are “bad” kinds of death in that they’re not the way things are supposed to go. It’s almost as if there were a belief that death is scheduled to happen to us irrespective of our health at some point around age 80 or so; death “ahead of schedule” is considered a tragedy, and postponing your “scheduled death” is considered “breaking natural bounds”.

However, this is at odds with everything we know about the functioning of the human body. Medicine is not meant to fix things so that you live a normal life in a regular lifespan; medicine is meant to fix things so that you retain your health and thus continue living. That’s all there is to it. Nowhere is it said that medicine works or should work only within the boundaries of a “regular lifespan”; the only reason why the current “regular” lifespan is of about 80 years is that, thus far, we haven’t been able to cure the ailments that manifest at that age, in pretty much the same way that 300 years ago, we didn’t know how to cure infectious diseases. This interviewee summed it up rather well:

“I don’t know how to separate the rate of aging though from a disease. I don’t know what the difference would be if you took away all of the diseases, if you took away all of the things that could cause heart failure, cancer and all of those sorts of things. I see them the same as aging.”

The authors of the papers reiterated many times how interviewees were favorable to what they perceived as therapies to cure diseases and against all that they perceived as an enhancement; for some reason, extending lifespan was perceived as the latter, rather than merely the obvious consequence of curing the diseases of old age. In this sense, rejuvenation therapies are no more an “enhancement” than any therapy that prevents or cures life-threatening diseases earlier on in life. This point can never be stressed enough.

Discriminations and impositions  

Another extremely common concern is the ill-famed spectre of unequal access to rejuvenation biotechnology, summed up by these two quotes from the studies:

“I don’t think any good will come out of it. It would be beneficial to only one class, supporting only one social class. In a way, we will unbalance the powers.”

“We end up with this society where the poor live their brief little lives and then you know… The rich live forever and have time to accumulate vast resources and there is never any way to cross the divide.”

If you are interested in more detailed counterarguments, you will find them here and here; what is most interesting to note in this venue is the fatalistic attitude of this stance. Not only did interviewees—along with many more people—assume that the dystopian scenario they presented will certainly occur; they didn’t seem to think that measures could be taken to prevent it or even just mitigate its effects or shorten its duration. They didn’t seem to think that the benefits of an aging-free world—which several interviewees acknowledged and which you can read about here, here, and here—might be worth the effort of looking into ways to prevent or mitigate any potential problems, such as inequality of access.

The same can be said of two more common concerns: overpopulation and lack of resources. The answers of the interviewees betrayed the assumption that the problem is inevitable and impossible to even alleviate, as if our technological development had already reached a peak and further innovation in terms of resource production and management were utterly out of the question, neglecting the obvious precedents in this regard—the Malthusian catastrophe has been predicted time and again and always failed to materialize; supporting a world population of even just a billion would have seemed impossible with the technology of 300 years ago, yet present-day technology allows us to cope with seven billion people—not perfectly, but we’re on our way there.

Worse still, interviewees didn’t seem to realize the even more obvious fact that, assuming that rejuvenation would be only for the rich, banning it, as some suggested, would do exactly nothing to narrow the rich-poor divide; at best, it would prevent it from getting larger. However, nobody benefits from a technology not existing, let alone the poor. Imagine if, back in the day when sewers to separate waste from water were first invented, someone suggested that we don’t build sewers anywhere at all because some areas could end up being unjustly left out. Making sure that sewers reach everywhere, even if it takes a long while before they actually do, is a much better idea than having water mixed with waste everywhere forever.

Whether or not the rich live forever is rather inconsequential for the poor, especially as long as they don’t even have the basics covered—even though some people think that the poor somehow find comfort in thinking that one day the rich will die of aging if nothing else gets them first. The idea of relishing someone else’s death, regardless of the circumstances, is so appalling that it’s paradoxical how this whole argument is often called one of “ethics”.

Another interesting concern related to financial possibilities is that if you live longer, you need to support yourself for longer; some interviewees were afraid that the quality of their extended life wouldn’t be good, because their finances might not be good either. This is another scenario where utter pessimism somehow managed to take the place of common sense. It’s very sensible to be afraid of a life of poverty, but if you found yourself so poor at age 30 that your quality of life suffered significantly, the odds are that you’d do your best to try to lift yourself out of poverty well before even contemplating death as a liberation. If you found yourself poor at, say, age 120, and assuming that you were perfectly healthy because of the very life-extension technologies that allowed you to reach that age, why should this case be any different?

At least for some interviewees, the difference might be that they found the prospect of having to work for longer as a “significant downside to taking life-extension pills”. To put it bluntly, they’d consider dying as an alternative to working for longer, which hints that the problem might lie in the jobs they do rather than in how long their lives are.

More concerns related to access to the therapy, rather the opposite of each other, were expressed by interviewees afraid that they might be coerced into using life extension or that life extension users might end up having to watch as their friends and relatives who refuse these treatments slowly wither and die.

For the first concern, this might betray a lack of understanding of what life extension is, because it’s hard to imagine how anyone could worry about being coerced into being healthy; as for the second one, it’s surprising how these interviewees didn’t notice that their fears are already taking place here and now. The old people of today need to get used to the fact that their lifelong friends and companions keep dying around them, and to add insult to injury, their own health is also going critical. Granted, if you yourself die of old age at some point, you won’t have to continue witnessing the death of your loved ones; however, this is pretty much equivalent to curing the disease by killing the patient.

The Real Problems™ are others

The argument that there are higher-priority problems than aging was also among those touched upon by the interviewees:

“I don’t see the point in developing something else at great expense that may not be available to everybody, when money could be channeled towards getting the basics of what people would have a right to them now so that they’re not starving and dying.”

“What’s the point of me living to 150 if six-year-olds are going blind and needing kidney transplants because they’ve got diabetes?”

Appeal to worse problems is very much the fallacy being committed here; once more, the truly important thing is assumed to be something else. For some reason, the interviewees appeared blind to the possibility that the pursuit of rejuvenation might not necessarily be incompatible with that of alleviating poverty, etc; their unproven assumption seems to be that, with the resources available, it is absolutely impossible to achieve both. Also, interviewees didn’t seem to value the life of elderly people as much as that of people who are in danger of death from other causes, such as starvation or health problems at a younger age. In both cases, somebody’s life is at stake, and yet it appears that the life of someone who has already been around for several decades is less worth saving—even though, given the premise of the study, this life wouldn’t end in a handful of years spent in ill health but rather in a far longer period spent in good health.

For some other interviewees, “medicine” was ironically a more important priority than life extension—as if there were any difference between the two. In their minds, the risk is sometimes that research funds could be diverted away from more pressing medical needs. The fact that some of them failed to realize the connection between aging and disease is apparent from this quote:

“They’ve got to look at this [life extension] one hundred years in the future when they’ve got all the diseases sorted out.”

It appears this interviewee expected that, in a hundred years, when all diseases will have been sorted out, people in their 80s will still drop dead for no apparent reason; only then should we start looking into how to extend life. This betrays a serious lack of understanding of the deep connection between healthspan and lifespan, and it is something that advocates of life extension need to make extremely clear. Indeed, the idea that being old equals being sick is (rightfully) so ingrained in our minds that, even though the researchers had clearly stated that life extension means being healthy for longer, some interviewees still struggled to comprehend this and were concerned about how physically and mentally healthy they could be nearing 150 years of age.

Yet some others understood all too well how life extension implies retaining your health during old age, and this was their very concern:

“You’d miss out on that aspect of what it is to be an older person… I think that there’s natural progressions [sic] in growth and that’s why I don’t think you can do it without aging in some ways because you’re not actually physically or whatever in that situation. Intellectually it’s not the same as experience of it. So it’s a whole barraging process that could actually stunt our development; the depth of who we are as human beings.”

This is by far the weirdest concern you’re likely to run into—it’s like saying you shouldn’t cure cancer if you get it, lest missing out on what it is to be an oncological patient. Not all experiences are worth having; from my middle school days, I recall how being hit by a basketball kicked straight into my groin at point-blank range was something I would gladly have done without, and the lack of this experience would hardly have stunted my development—if anything, my early teenage development risked being arrested altogether because of this very experience.

What’s absolutely puzzling about this quote is the kind of development we’re even talking about. A person in his or her 80s has been developing for quite some time already, and intellectually, his or her experience of life is hardly going to be improved by cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s. Besides, whatever experience you might gain by going through the ordeal of age-related diseases, you’re not going to take it with you for very long, so it’s unclear how it would benefit you in the first place. Possibly, the point this person was trying to make might be that you need to experience bad things to learn that they’re bad, but this is true only to an extent. After a certain point in your development, you can extrapolate how good or bad something is without actually experiencing it—believe me, I didn’t need to be hit by that basketball to know that it would have hurt very much.

Old inside

Some interviewees were worried that, rejuvenation or not, an old person always stays old mentally; they feared that they might end up being “an old person in a young person’s world”. This suggests that some people may have internalized the stereotype of old people as being out of touch with the world simply by virtue of being old when, in fact, their health plays a central role in how able they are to stay connected with the rest of us. Old people in today’s collective imagination are confused by computers and technology, less educated than young people, and less open to change and novelty. This depiction is partly correct due to the exceptionally large generational gap between our generation and our grandparents’—in some cases, even our parents’. It is conceivable that, having been exposed to this representation of the elderly our whole lives, some of us conclude that we, too, will be like this in our old age, as if this way of being were a product of the age itself rather than the sociocultural context in which we spent our lives.

Gerontocratic scenarios

Some interviewees showed another typical concern—that the older, rejuvenated people might just keep consolidating their wealth and power, shutting out younger people from opportunities. The long-lived elderly, they feared, might also hinder generational turnover and the emergence of new ideas.

An important factor that interviewees didn’t seem to think about is that being part of a new generation doesn’t automatically make you able to have new or better ideas. However young or smart you may be, you will have a hard time being much of an innovator if you don’t have access to adequate education and aren’t encouraged to engage in open, creative thought. Creativity and new ideas need these elements to thrive; they don’t just magically appear with the turn of every generation. Naturally, the gradual loss of brain plasticity as we age may make it harder for older people to be innovative, but if this problem can be fixed by sufficiently comprehensive rejuvenation therapies, then there’s no reason to assume that long-lived elderly will be a drag on progress.

As for the concern of a gerontocratic elite taking over as a consequence of rejuvenation, one should notice above all that it is typically expressed in such a vague fashion that it is impossible to falsify. Nothing absolutely prevents any dystopia from ever coming into being; in order to be able to tell whether rejuvenation will lead to a gerontocracy in 300 years, we would need information on the socioeconomic and technological context of the coming three centuries. Without it, this concern is pure fear-driven speculation. Its profound appeal to people’s sense of justice is probably what allows it to bypass rational scrutiny and appear as a valid objection despite the lack of evidence.

Ethics

According to the study’s authors, some participants defined “being ethical” as “thinking beyond one’s own life”; in their view, life extension didn’t fulfill this criterion and was an unethical, selfish pursuit:

“Ultimately, I don’t know if everyone should be doing it, but you know how you have those selfish desires?”

Life extension is about eliminating useless suffering just as much as the rest of medicine. Doctors saving people from deadly diseases are thinking well beyond their own lives, and it’s unclear why this wouldn’t be the case if they saved lives by administering rejuvenation treatments.

Other interviewees were instead clear that life extension is perfectly ethical:

“I can’t see an ethical issue. There’s no more an ethical issue than medicine being able to cope with disease. Is there an ethical issue in that? They’re prolonging life now with immunization and even heart transplants. People have come to accept this now.”

Others suggested that opposing life extension is unethical, because

“[…] you’re killing people. If you have the world where you can take an action where you do make someone live longer, or you can take the action that you can say ‘live shorter’, which is a take no action at all, that’s still an action. Then you’re killing them, you caused their death. Your action of not doing anything causes their death. So it’s unethical to not do this.”

The belief that life extension is a selfish pursuit was further stressed in other interviews:

“But then you’ve got all the societal impacts like cost and population growth. There are so many different things that nobody really thinks about when they’re thinking ‘Oh, I could live to 200, that sounds great.’”

“They [people who want life extension for themselves] are not thinking about anyone else.”

Once more, interviewees took the dire consequences they imagined for granted. As the study authors themselves pointed out, to some interviewees, the potential downsides of life extension appeared to be such inescapable certainties that they were not interested in the possibility at all. This might explain the belief that life extensionists don’t think about anyone else; seeing the “selfish” benefit of prolonging your healthy lifespan is easy, but it’s far harder to see that the alleged societal costs of it are not as set in stone as one might think.

One last, interesting position on the selfishness of life extension was expressed by the following interviewee:

“I don’t think there’d be any great social benefits in me living to 300… It’s all about greed and selfish purposes I suppose for why you would try to prolong your life. Ultimately, I don’t think it would impact the world in a positive way. It’s fair to say I wouldn’t be doing it for social reasons.”

It is again apparent that what really matters is not individual people’s lives—only what is good for society matters. However, society has no point if not that of serving the individuals of which it is comprised; if society asks its members to die for society’s sake, it is not doing them a very good service.

In reality, human society doesn’t have much to gain from shorter lifespans for its members, and its functioning is unlikely to be hindered by life extension. Aspects of it will certainly require rethinking, but it is indeed constant rethinking of how society works that allows us to improve it.

Fear of death

To some interviewees, fear of death wasn’t a good enough reason to justify life extension:

“Yes, it’s selfish… but it depends on what reasons you want to do it… they shouldn’t be able to extend their life just because they’re afraid of dying. It should be for a greater cause.”

The idea that only a “greater cause” than fearing for your own life legitimizes use of life extension is reminiscent of the old ideal that your life only matters as long as it serves the rest of society in some way. (The “greater cause” can’t be much else than serving others, if life extension for your own sake is not allowed.)

The ancient idea that death must not be feared—in part to exorcise the fear, very strong indeed, that it instills, and in part because a fearless army was in the best interest of the rulers of the past—has made its way into our modern time and is still alive and well. Being afraid of death is still mostly seen as a shameful thing, and many people still proudly proclaim that they don’t fear it; they’re much more afraid of the horrors that, allegedly, are an inevitable consequence of longer, healthier lives. Among the study participants who acknowledged the benefits of life extension, very few mentioned allaying the fear of death as a good reason; it wouldn’t be surprising in the least if they didn’t because they thought that it would be shameful to do otherwise.

Still, if we really weren’t afraid of death, our languages wouldn’t be full of all manner of euphemisms, edulcorations, and embellishments for it; religions wouldn’t all be hinging on overcoming death through resurrection, reincarnation, and the like; we wouldn’t have come up with any of the technologies that allow us to save lives in the most desperate cases; and we wouldn’t consider it heroic to save other people’s lives even at the cost of endangering our own.

Conclusion

Some of the most common concerns involving life extension are often taken to be inevitable consequences of it; from what can be seen in the two studies, interviewees never doubted that their fears would materialize if life extension were ever achieved. It would be interesting, as well as useful for more effective advocacy, to establish whether this happens because of a lack of relevant knowledge, the psychological effects of our perception of aging, or a combination of both.

Literature

[1] Partridge, B., Underwood, M., Lucke, J., Bartlett, H., & Hall, W. (2009). Ethical concerns in the community about technologies to extend human life span. The American Journal of Bioethics, 9(12), 68-76.

[2] Partridge, B., Lucke, J., Bartlett, H., & Hall, W. (2009). Ethical, social, and personal implications of extended human lifespan identified by members of the public. Rejuvenation research, 12(5), 351-357.

Nicola Bagalà is a bit of a jack of all trades—a holder of an M.Sc. in mathematics; an amateur programmer; a hobbyist at novel writing, piano and art; and, of course, a passionate life extensionist. After his interest in the science of undoing aging arose in 2011, he gradually shifted from quiet supporter to active advocate in 2015, first launching his advocacy blog Rejuvenaction before eventually joining LEAF. These years in the field sparked an interest in molecular biology, which he actively studies. Other subjects he loves to discuss to no end are cosmology, artificial intelligence, and many others—far too many for a currently normal lifespan, which is one of the reasons he’s into life extension.