TCS Daily

How Long Should People Live?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 9, 2004 12:00 AM

How long should people live? Randall Parker's FuturePundit blog has an interesting post and discussion on aging research. The discussion revolves around an argument by Cambridge University's Aubrey de Grey that political reluctance is a major barrier to research that could extend human life substantially, or even reverse aging.

I'm not in a position to opine on the likelihood that aging will prove to be reversible. But it's certainly the case that research into such matters is showing real promise, and it would seem to me that a lot of people would welcome it.

There are certainly lots of people spending money on products that purport (sometimes truthfully, sometimes not) to reverse specific effects of aging now: cosmetics, plastic surgery, minoxidil, viagra, estrogen and testosterone patches, etc. And although a few bluenoses sniff at such efforts to hold back the clock, it's pretty obvious that an awful lot of people feel otherwise, and are willing to prove it with cash.

So you'd think that with this kind of market, pharmaceutical companies would be lining up to fund research on aging. But, in general, the kind of basic research that Aubrey de Grey is talking about -- stuff with 10-20 year lead times -- isn't what pharmaceutical companies like to fund. The payback is just too distant. Such research is usually funded by governments, or by private foundations.

So why shouldn't governments be happy to fund this sort of research? Most voters would be happy to live longer, healthier lives, and presumably they'd be grateful to the politicians who made that possible -- or even the politicians who promised to make it possible. If the promise of a government-funded retirement in our old age is supposed to earn our votes, the promise of an extra twenty or thirty years of youth in place of that old age ought to do the same.

But I think that de Grey is right that there would be considerable political opposition to that sort of research. And I can just hear it: There are already too many people on this planet -- why keep them around longer?

There are, of course, limits to how many people the planet can hold. But the big issue facing many countries nowadays is underpopulation, not overpopulation. And birthrates have a much bigger impact on population growth than life expectancies anyway.

I can't help but think that much of the opposition to longer lives has to do with the idea that human beings are somehow bad, and that death is somehow good. (You often see the same sort of objections, often from the same people, when space colonization is discussed, notwithstanding the obvious contradictions involved). This can come from traditional religious notions of original sin, or from New-Agey notions of humanity's innate unworthiness to occupy a beautiful planet. Such views are, I'm sure, fairly widespread. Couple these with the not-very-positive mythology of longevity, from Dr. Faustus to the story of the Wandering Jew, and you've got plenty of room for the willies.

I guess that I just don't feel that way. I've watched people I love age and die, and it wasn't "beautiful and natural." It sucked. Aging is a disease. Cataracts and liver spots don't bring moral enlightenment or spiritual transcendence. Death may be natural -- but so are smallpox, rape, and athlete's foot. "Natural" isn't the same as "good."

As far as I'm concerned, I'd rather see my tax dollars spent on longevity research than, well, most of the other things they're spent on. I wonder how many other people feel that way.


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