Fears of a
One of the fears that's often expressed in conjunction with life extension is that a gerontocracy of genetically optimized elders would develop that would keep the rest of the population enthralled.
In discussing a gerontology of genetically optimized elders, we're talking about an hereditary aristocracy. Hereditary aristocracies were ascendant from about 3,000 B. C. in Mesopotamia and Egypt until about 200 years ago. The reason we no longer have heredity blue-bloods is political rather than biological. It's (1) a less effective system than a more-democratic social surround, and (2) most people don't want it. What genetic engineering could bring to this concept of an hereditary aristocracy is the ability to genetically select for presumably-desirable traits more rapidly and acceptably than can be done using selective breeding. Furthermore, undesirable ailments that arise when there is inbreeding could be detected and sidestepped, so that the aristocracy could intermarry without having to worry about hereditary diseases like hemophilia. However, this has nothing to do with life extension but would be a beneficiary of our growing understanding of genetics. If it happens, I think it will be a social or political retrogression rather than anything recently enabled by genetic engineering.
It's also the case that I think that, to a degree, we currently live in a gerontocracy, and always have. Societies have always drawn upon the presumed seasoned wisdom of the Elders of the Tribe, even back into the Stone Age. Societies are led by individuals in their 40's, 50's, and 60's, rather than those in their 20's.
Are we run by a wealthy gerontocracy today? I don't know enough to try to answer that question even for myself.
What about breeding supermen and superwomen?
We've known how to breed plants and animals for millennia. It seems to me that this could have done that at any time since the dawn of civilization. There was some ominous talk about sterilizing the mentally defective, and about breeding super-people in the 1920's. It didn't get very far, especially after Hitler showed what eugenics would be. Who's to decide which traits are desirable and which are not? Whose children are desirable, and whose children aren't? Whose wives or husbands should be excluded?
The idea of genetically engineering a cadre of "super-people" seems to me to be no different from breeding a cadre of "super-people". It's something society has opted not to do.
I doubt that a small, select group could take possession of genetic engineering to the exclusion of the rest of society. If a small, select group were to try to genetically engineer its offspring to be smarter, better-looking and more athletic than the rest of us, I suspect the rest of us would be right in there with them, genetically engineering our issue to be as bright, good-looking and athletic as their progeny.
Turning to life extension:
We've had a near-doubling of the average life span over the past century, from 47 in 1900 to 77 in 2000, so we've already experienced a 1.65 increase in life expectancy. What effects has this had upon society? Has it led to a gerontocracy of genetically optimized elders? In 20 years, will the Baby Boomers become a gerontocracy of genetically optimized elders?
I think it's important that we ensure that life extension technology remains in the public domain, and is available to all. Today, life extension is primarily effected through body maintenance practices, and medical and dental care. That's in the public domain, but it's not equally available to all, and my guess would be that it won't ever be. "Equally available to all" is a perfect ideal that, I should think, won't be realized in the real world.
Eliminating hereditary diseases such as Huntingdon's Chorea or cystic fibrosis is another kind of question. I suspect that it will be treated like the elimination of smallpox or whooping cough. One way to proceed that wouldn't involve genetic manipulation would be to screen fertilized embryos, mapping the genome of one of its cells, and aborting those with fatal or crippling genes. This would substitute selection for genetic modification. Over time, carriers of fatal genes would probably tend to be bred out of the population, but not through genetic modification.
"Designer genes", in which parents decide to give their children advantages such as good looks, higher intelligence, and stable, positive personalities, is something that, I think, will be considered unethical at first. Long-term, I can imagine that this might happen. I could imagine an arms race among parents to give their children the best genes money can buy (not that they would necessarily be expensive).
But I should think that it's difficult to predict the social future. The science fiction writers whose works garner attention are generally those who write about dystopias like "1984" and "Animal Farm". The various futures foreseen by science fiction writers have not mirrored the social realities that have actually developed, perhaps in part, because of the warnings that their novels have broadcast..
1/23/2002:Stem Cells For Eggs And Sperm Also Control Aging In Roundworm - Eureka Alert
10/24/2000: Harvard Med School Scientists: Aging May Be Linked to Brain's Hormonal Signals
9/3/2001:Does chromosome 4 hold the secret to human longevity? - Eureka Alert
9/3/2001:Long-life gene secrets
9/25/2001:UIC researchers find "fountain of youth" gene - Eureka Alert