March 13, 2004
Cell Technology's Eight Cloned Calves
One of the worst mistakes I've made in discussing life extension was to use the word "immortality". When prognosticsators begin to talk about "trans-humanism" and 5,000-year life spans, it scares people. Obviously, "immortality" is not in the cards. Sooner or later, the Big Dark is going to get us, each and everyone. And these issues are as premature as the worrying that took place in the 1950's about the rise of robots and artificial intelligence, the overabundance of leisure time that people were soon going to have, and the fact that we were going to run out of oil and metals in the 1970's and then where would we be?
When people start to talk about life extension, they often either deny that such a thing will ever happen, or they assume that virtual immortality is going to happen very soon now, and they begin to spin out consequences of a drastic change in life spans.
As much as I might relish a sudden, total breakthrough in "youth extension" or rejuvenation techniques, history suggests that such a scenario is all but impossible. If such a breakthrough requires the introduction of patentable approaches that require FDA approval, experience shows that the time spans between discovery and FDA approval for clinical practice will be measured in decades.
When the subject of life extension comes up, we all think the same kinds of thoughts. What about the world's population? Wouldn't this lead to a population explosion? What will life extension do to the Social Security System and to retirement plans? Right now, older people need to retire in order to open up the job market for their younger successors. What will happen if they stick around longer? what would it be like to have grandparents who look, and physiologically are, as young as we are? It smacks of incest. What about the competition these people would offer, with their greater experience? It's unnatural. It would be a gross violation of all that we've known for all these millennia. What would become of children and the institution of marriage? And how about cruel dictators? Today, death removes them from power, but endless youth would allow them to continue indefinitely. Besides, a society needs turnover to allow new works and new ideas to emerge. Sometimes, the only way a new idea can gain a toehold is when the older generation dies off, and takes its old-fogey ideas with it.
A Closer Examination of These Issues
How Long Before We Have Total Rejuvenation and Virtual Immortality?
Don't hold your breath. As I've mentioned above, only if it required a food or a nutritional supplement that didn't necessitate FDA approval could it possibly arrive in a hurry. Even then, it would be a long time before everyone adopted it. There would be concerns about what side effects might show up later. (I can see science fiction stories or scare movies in which rejuvenation turned out to cause cancer at a later date.) Virally induced cancers, like those triggered by the human papilloma and herpes viruses, might not be cured by such a cellular rejuvenation, and in any case, infections by these viruses could induce new cancers in someone who had undergone cellular rejuvenation. And there are various questions regarding how complete such a process would be. Presumably, it wouldn't restore missing nerve and muscle cells.
In all likelihood, progress in actual rejuvenation will be painfully slow, with unforeseen problems repeatedly arising that have to be overcome.
We've more or less known for 69 years how to slow human aging through caloric restriction. I've only been at caloric restriction for no more than six months, but so far, I'm not finding it any more difficult than the dieting I've always have to practice anyway just to keep my midriff from exploding. And yet, there are only about 1,200 members of the Caloric Restriction Society. Of course, there are probably many other closet "longevinauts" who, for one reason or another, are practicing caloric restriction, but in an obese world, their numbers are most probably demographically insignificant. The discovery that resveratrol can, perhaps, act as a mimetic to trigger the caloric-restricted metabolic state may increase the number of people trying caloric restriction, but my guess is that, since it depends upon the body transitioning from wasting one-third of its food intake to using every calorie as efficiently as possible, it's going to require cutting one's calories back to the bone in order to avoid gaining weight, and that's going to demand the same lean-urn restrictions as today's caloric-restricted diet. The only difference would be (if this interpretation is correct) that one wouldn't have to be slim in order to slow one's rate of aging. And I could imagine that you're not going to have many more practicing this than you would be if David Sinclair hadn't discovered that resveratrol can trigger the caloric-restricted response.
The most likely scenario is one in which we gradually learn to age slower and slower. To be most effective, it should start at an early age, which means that it would take a long time to show up. For example, someone who goes on a caloric-restricted diet next year at the age of 20 would be physiologically 45 in 2040 at the age of 55. They would be young-looking for 55, but this happens all the time. At 90, in 2075, they would be physiologically 70... young for their age, but not beyond the pale of the normal. And we're talking about a time 70 years from now. The changes to society would be minimal. As I've mentioned previously, the average life span has risen from 46 in 1900 to 77 today without major disruptions in our social structure. (Yes, I know: there have been major disruptions in our social structure, but insofar as I can tell, they're unrelated to people living longer.) The same non-disruptive increase in average life span between now and 2100 would see an average life span at the end of this century of 129! Since many, many people don't do their best to live as long as they otherwise could, this would mean that half the population would live beyond 129, with some careful individuals reaching, perhaps, 140 or 150. [The "Jeanne Calment" of 2100 would live to be 190, except that he or she would have to be 94 today, and I don't imagine that there are present-day 94-year-olds who will live another 96 years. This brings up an interesting point: I'm hypothesizing that half of present-day 33-year-olds will be alive in 2100, and that some of our 54-year-olds will still be alive in 2100. And that might happen without changes in average life span that are any greater than those of the 20th century, although maximum life spans would have to increase considerably.]
A gradual increase in life span should be no more disruptive in the future than it's been in the past.
Suppose, though, that in 2025, an FDA-approved method of rejuvenating people reached the clinical stage. The very-oldest (your grandparents or parents) might be the first to receive these treatments, dramatically stepping back from death's door. In anticipation of this, there might have been a movement underway for several years to prepare for this eventuality, and to reduce the birth rate. The idea would be to postpone having children for a few years until the implications of this reduced mortality among grandparents could be assessed. Most of the grandmothers undergoing rejuvenation would have had hysterectomies, and would be unable to bear children again. The remainder might be requested to have no more children as the moral price they pay for remaining alive and young again.
Not all the elderly could be salvaged. Those with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's Disease, severe heart damage, and similar structural damage probably wouldn't be cured if their cells could be rejuvenated.
Now the elderly would be dying off much slower than they were before this treatment hit the streets. Of course, there would still be many dying at younger ages from alcoholism, drugs, motorcycle accidents, homicides, etc., just as they do now. And there would be wars. The question would then become that of balancing the mortality rate against the birth rate. However, given the prospect of a longer period of fertility, men and women might postpone reproduction until they've established themselves in their careers, and had time to enjoy adulthood, with parenting something to happily anticipate at their convenience. If they saw their 80-year-old grandparents suddenly turning 20 again, they might not be in such a hurry to start their families. Would it work this way? I'd like to think so, but we'd have to see what would happen when and if this scenario comes to pass. But most probably, this problem is a long way off, assuming (as I certainly hope) that it comes to pass at all.
In the meantime, it's a little like, "If I had a saddle, I'd go for a ride on my horse, if I had a horse."
We should be so lucky as to have this problem!
Supposedly, the majority of the U. S. public doesn't want to live to be 120. I'll believe it when I see it, but there is a sizable fraction of the public that is killing itself with carefree abandon. If we knew that we could go in for rejuvenation treatments at any time, a lot of us would probably wait until we were in our forties, fifties, or sixties before we opted for rejuvenation, especially if it were expensive and/or time-consuming. Consequently, the demographic changes would most likely be in anticipation, rather than in actuality. It would, perchance, take decades for real changes to occur.
The key point about the effect of rejuvenation upon population growth is that it's not possible at this time, and there's no telling if and when rejuvenation (with its effects upon population growth) will become possible. As someone who's wasted a lot of time worrying about and discussing problems that never happened, I'm not enthusiastic about discussing
This brings up a possible concern about the new field of bioethics.
Generally, new movements start out quite well, but over time, they go too far. One problem with bioethics is that it entails foretelling the future, a task for which humans are notoriously inept. To see this, all you have to do is read some of the forecasts about the present that were made in the past. I've mentioned in the first paragraph above some of the goose eggs my generation laid in forecasting the world of the 1970's (let alone the world of 2000!) Go back a hundred years and you'll find forecasts of balloon-docking towers in our larger cities for the interurban dirigibles, and streetcars running everywhere. And motorcars? Strictly a rich man's toy.
Bioethics isn't getting off to a very savory start, with the country's leading bioethics authority led by a man who hates medical science.One effect of this is the loss of the U. S.' lead in stem cell research. A more sinister consequence might possibly lie in some quenching of scientific inquiry. As Paul Ehrlich' boss put it, "Science is a bird that does not sing well when caged."
As I've observed previously, between 1900 and 2000, as average life spans stretched from 46 years to 77 years, while average family sizes fell from, perhaps, four or five children per family to a little over two children per family, and in some parts of the world, to less than two children per household. And we took all this in stride. The United Nations projects a world population peak of about 9 billion in the latter half of this century. In the meantime, the United States is withholding birth control funds from the UN in an effort to enforce the anti-abortion agenda of the religious right, and the Presidents of France and Italy are urging their women to have more babies so that the populations of their respective countries grow rather than decline. (What politician doesn't want to hold sway over a larger constituency?) These are very poor examples to set for third-world nations. Until these two-faced policies are reversed, I'll take a dim view of crocodile tears shed over the prospect of prolongevity-induced population growth.
Beyond this, I don't know what the net effect of rejuvenation would be on population growth. All of my experience says that intuitive predictions are generally wrong. I've worried about too many of them. (Does anyone else remember "The Club of Rome"?)
Population growth would certainly be an unwelcome development. But sufficient unto the day are the problems thereof. A slow increase in life span isn't going increase the number of children in the world. What could change it more is the ongoing steady improvement in fertilization and pregnancy options for older and older women. This is the technology to watch if you're concerned about population growth. In vitro fertilization was one major step along this path. Still, it didn't exactly lead to a population explosion. There's much more in all of these equations than mere technical capability.
Social Security and Retirement Questions
Alan Greenspan's recent recommendation that the retirement age be indexed to projected life spans suggests (at least to me) just how rapidly retirement and the Social Security System will adjust to rising life spans. When people produce longer, they also have less time to coast.
With respect to opening up the job market to younger workers, one problem today is that employers tend to replace older workers (>50) with younger workers whose salaries are much lower. But if the influx of young workers declined, there would be a greater tendency for older workers to be retained. he price attached to this would be some drop in efficiency, since it's cheaper to pay a younger worker less money, resulting in lower costs for goods and services. However, we're also facing the prospect of more and more work performed robotically, and of other methods of boosting productivity, so that we might be willing to trade a slightly lower rate of rise in the standard of living for the continued employment and productive use of older employees. Also, the fact that they're working rather than being paid out of the public purse means that the indirect taxation that supporting a bunch of retirees requires would be reduced. So the net effect upon the rate of rise of the standard of living is uncertain.
(To Be Continued)