Do you want to live forever? (Or Genetics, Medical Science, Ethics and Stuff)

24 Jun

If you are reading this and are relatively content and happy in your existence and I said ‘Hey what if you could stay like this forever?’ there is no one of sound mind who would not take me up on that offer.

I want to live forever, there seems more that I want to do than a single lifetime would allow, I’d love not to age.

I’d also love to see an end to diseases: Cancer: Gone; AIDS: Gone; Dementia: Gone; everything, every last one, a blight on our species no more. I think we can all agree on that, right?

But

At what cost?

It is predicted that ageing could be effectively halted and even reversed within less than a hundred years and advancements in immunological science are predicted along similar timescales. We are going to be living longer and possibly indefinitely, if one avoids serious physical injury. But, again I ask: At what cost?

Let me be clear, You will be disappointed if you are expecting an argument based on defying ageing and disease being ‘against God’  or humanity ‘playing God’, I have little interest in either concept, and this is not a post critical of science’s unrelenting quest for answers either. Science and scientists should be applauded for seeking to address the problems of ageing and disease, I would certainly never seek to discourage this quest for understanding, but there are ethical questions arising from human immortality that, when given thought, make what superficially seems like a positive advancement look far less so. If I get something wrong please shout out and let me know.

Let’s imagine today we have cured ageing and all diseases; our children can be born without any risk of ageing or disease and existing humans can be genetically manipulated to enjoy the same. What now?

Who gets the cure?

It would be very easy to say every single person on the planet should be given access to the cure. You might think, and it’s hard to argue against, that if some can enjoy eternal youth and life, well then everyone should enjoy the same right. Ignoring the logistics of this endevour, there are some pretty big ethical problems.

Today, millions upon millions of people are living in total poverty and suffering starvation. If these peoples are given the cure, they will not age or suffer disease, but they will starve to death just as they would have done before and, those that don’t, will enjoy an eternity of poverty. So, you might think that we could withhold the cure until they can be helped to catch-up. We would enjoy our immortality while they continue to die in their masses until we are satisfied they have reached the correct level of social and infrastructural development to be given access to the technology. For your immortality, is that a call you would be happy to make?

Okay, how about this

Let’s forget poverty, let’s pretend everyone on earth is at the same level of societal development, such as that, at least in the aspirational sense. enjoyed by most Western Countries.  Let’s cure everyone on earth of ageing and disease. That’s right, all 7 billion of us can live forever and have children who will also live for ever. The 7 billion of us who are currently alive, along with the billions who have gone before, have done a pretty top-notch job of buggering this little Planet of ours. Heavy industry, resource stripping, reliance on unclean means of energy production and mass consumerism have all taken their toll on our Planet’s essential systems. We vastly over-capacity based on current practices, so it’s hard to advocate allowing a situation where natural wastage through death no longer occurs. The numbers just don’t work, more people only ever means more environmental impact and makes it less likely we’ll ever develop the means, as a species, to venture into the stars in any meaningful sense. No, if we all want immortality then we make some difficult choices.

As I see it, the necessary cost of immortality for all would have to be a Planet-wide ban on procreation. If we all live forever, no one would ever be allowed to raise children. You might think that’s a reasonable price to pay for your eternal life on earth, but look wider. Future generations have often sought to solve the problems of past generations, it’s one of the main reasons we move nearer to this technology. Sometimes problems have been solved due solely to the unique vision of particular individuals. Whatever area you look at, be it social history, technology, medicine, the arts, you will find these unique visionaries who changed things for the better or took things in new directions. The consequences of immortality could stop this happening, humanity would be at risk of stagnation. If we stopped procreation, the knowledge base would be stuck at it’s current levels. Often it is not what is known, the core information, but the way it is put together by the individual and we are (and are not) unique. We would be accepting adding no more uniqueness to our pool. It can only be guessed at what this would mean over the long term.

Terrible but necessary

In my opinion, the possible ramifications for the use of such technology are terrible, I see little hope that it will be in the best interest of much of the population of the Planet, but nonetheless it may be in the best interests of the human species as a whole. If we don’t want to die here on earth and want to explore the stars, even the nearest ones, then I do believe the technology to remove the burden of ageing and to cure all diseases must play a part in a much wider landscape of difficult questions and ethical debates.

So, now you know some of the potential costs, it’s back to my first question, dear reader: Do you want to live forever?

Next time

My next post will look at exactly what we might need to do to leave this planet and it gets a lot more morally and ethically ambivalent than this.

Other Posts and Further Reading

Me: We’re all Going to Die Here

Me: Extra-Terrestrial Life: Chicken or Pork

Senescene: Should we cure Ageing

BBC News: We will be able to live to 1000

The ethical debate of life-extension therapies (Video)

If you don’t like these Thoughts, stick around, I’ve got plenty of others.

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2 Responses to “Do you want to live forever? (Or Genetics, Medical Science, Ethics and Stuff)”

  1. Tafacory June 24, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Let me see if I understand you correctly here. You’re assuming that immortality can be passed on to future generations of children in a form something like DNA? But then you claim that there simply aren’t enough resources on the Earth to allow that to occur in a sustainable fashion. That is to say, it wouldn’t last long. But why not claim that becoming immortal would entail drastic physical changes, such as not requiring food (or at least not a lot of it), via the same type of DNA example you used in your first assumption? Couldn’t immortality be fleshed out more so as to include a negligence of hunger, famine, poverty, etc.?

    Like

    • paulcoxon81 June 24, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

      Hi there thanks for the comment.

      Scientists are actually working on the problem of ageing and disease, I am not aware of research into the removal of the need for food (there may well be, I’m far from an expert…at this point, that probably went without saying) and have not been able to find a projection for that in any of the reading I’ve done. There are however predictions for Atomic Replication machines (a la Star Trek), 200 years in the future, that could effectively remove all hunger and famine.

      Could immortality be fleshed out to include a negligence of hunger and famine (nothing can be done genetically about poverty)? Possibly yes…who knows, just reading about eternal life through nano-bot, perhaps they could effectively remove the need for food. Difficult to write a post like this and not make assumptions, interesting area.

      Like

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