While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in
Bob Dylan, It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
By Daniel Tarade
I was flipping through magazines while waiting at the dentist’s office when I noticed an article written in Chrome magazine about stem cells. It has long been a hobby of mine to read scientific articles in publications that otherwise do not discuss scientific issues. In this magazine dedicated to Men’s fashion and lifestyle was an article about stem cells being used to treat a variety of diseases, ranging from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to stroke. The article, all things considered, was not too bad. They often referenced the primary scientific literature and highlighted limitations of stem cell treatment. However, despite being conservative throughout the meat of the article, it opened by discussing an ambitious five-year timeline during which stem cell treatment will advance rapidly and concluded by discussing the possibility of immortality. If reading scientific articles in fashion magazines is something of a hobby, lobbying against the concept of immortality has become a personal mission. Reading this article on stem cells immediately brought immediately to mind the many conversations I have had with scientists, at various stages in their careers, that hold as their lofty goal the extension of the natural human lifespan.
If you type “life extension” into google scholar, 19, 000 results since 2014 pop up. Perusing the titles of these research articles paints an interesting picture; “Lifespan extension and cancer prevention in HER-2/neu transgenic mice treated with low intermittent doses of rapamycin”, “Mechanisms of amino acid-mediated lifespan extension in Caenorhabditis elegans”, “Methionine restriction activates the retrograde response and confers both stress tolerance and lifespan extension to yeast, mouse and human cells” etc. Researchers are testing quite a few hypotheses as to how to increase lifespan, relying mostly on model organisms, like worms or mice. A professor in my department, who works on aging, once told me that the goal is to develop a medicine that people can take regularly to increase human lifespan to 150 years. That is truly a lofty goal. A recent analysis of human lifespan data from around the world suggests that there is a natural limit to how long a human can live.[i] Although there has been a steady increase in average human lifespan from the turn of the twentieth century, the lifespan of supercentenarians (those older than 110) has remained steady. Further, there has not been an increase in the maximum reported age at death since the mid-1990’s, when Jeanne Calment passed away at the age of 122 - the oldest person to ever live. This study highlights that while advances in medicine, sanitation, and technology have had a profound impact on the lifespan of the average person, it has not had a noticeable effect on those who live to be over 110. There is a limit to human lifespan. Go figure.
However, despite there being a natural limit to human lifespan does not mean that scientists cannot try and make it longer via medical intervention. A number of massive scientific discoveries have been co-opted by futurists and those clamoring about the next miracle cure for aging itself.
Telomerase was discovered in the 1980s to be the enzyme responsible for extending the ends of chromosomes, which prevents the loss of important genetic information during cellular replication. However, telomerase is not active in the adult body and cells can divide only a limited number of times before they stop permanently, a process known as senescence. Since the discovery of telomerase, it has intrigued for its hinting towards biological immortality – if telomerase can be re-activated in adult cells, perhaps we can keep our cells growing and dividing for longer, thus preventing the aging process. TA Sciences, a biotechnology company, explores medicines that can promote telomerase activity to fight aging, although this endeavour has always been controversial. The controversy has less to do with the philosophical implications of lifespan extension and more to do with concerns about effectiveness and safety. In fact, telomerase activity is a hallmark of cancer (allows for cancer cells to divide many more times than noncancerous cells) and other biotech companies have instead developed inhibitors of telomerase to try and treat blood cancers. The double-edged sword of telomerase has lead those pursuant of immortality to look elsewhere – the aforementioned stem cell therapy to regenerate damaged tissue or rapamycin, a drug extensively tested in animals for its ability to prevent cancer and increase lifespan and called a “step to immortality”.[ii]
Entire fields of biology are dedicated to increasing lifespan and laying the groundwork for biological immortality. Inevitably, discussion regarding lifespan comes up casually during lunch or coffee breaks. Some people are incredibly excited about the prospect of an additional 50 to 70 years of life. For some, extension of one's life would only be desirable if those additional years are healthy. However, others, including myself, often express our thinly-veiled disgust about the prospect. "Why would you want to live longer?" we deride. "Why not just learn to accept that you will die and live out your natural life the best you can?" we ask. I have always attributed their desire for increased lifespan to an escapist impulse and not wanting to deal with their finitude just yet. However, I have also argued in the past that the point of scientific research is to prevent premature and untimely death. As I mentioned earlier, human life expectancy has been increasing steadily due to the discovery of antibiotics and invention of vaccines. The quote by the eminent Richard Doll (epidemiologist who linked cigarettes to lung cancer) captures the idea of scientific research wonderfully; "Death in old age is inevitable, but death before old age is not." Why bother curing a disease if people will just end up dying of something else? It's simple. As a society and as scientists, we should strive to ensure that every person has the opportunity to face a full life. With this in mind, why am I so resentful, in principle, to the idea of increasing natural human lifespan. Am I not just committing the naturalistic fallacy, which states that what is natural is best? I often invoke this fallacy when people argue against euthanasia. "If you are so in favour of a natural death, why do you take antibiotics" I prod? I am clearly ok with medical intervention in many contexts.
I ask again, if I am ok with scientific and medical intervention towards preventing premature death, why do I hate the idea of lifespan extension? I am a tarantula. Or perhaps, more fairly, I act the tarantula when discussing biological immortality and lifespan extension. When I attempted to read "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", a rambling narrative written by Nietzsche, one of the few chapters that stuck with me was his discussion of the tarantula. A tarantula, simply put, is a person who bases their position on a topic simply in opposition to others. At some unconscious level the tarantula is envious and self-loathing, desiring revenge on those who are in power and who think differently. For Nietzsche, the tarantulas of his time were the atheists who delighted in denouncing and talking down Christians. The atheists do so by appealing to life and mocking those who instead await an afterlife as people who are missing out on the only life they will ever live. However, the atheist does not enjoy life themself but instead wants everyone else to be as miserable as they are. To Nietzsche, the atheist does not arrive at their position through careful deliberation but take a shortcut and choose a position that they can leverage to tear down others. Some people obviously delight in being contrary. Since reading that particular passage, I have attempted to be cognizant about my stance on various discussionary topics and why I hold such beliefs. However, it was only recently that I discovered my stance on lifespan extension was merely based on the satisfaction I derived from denouncing those who eagerly anticipated living longer as people who are merely uncomfortable with death and desire to escape the realities of life. Perhaps my tarantula-ness stems from the existential dread I have lived with for years and I simply want others to feel the same. I delight in telling others that the drugs they hope for will never come and that even if they do, they will still die some day. Misery enjoys company. But my stance is not reasonable. If natural human lifespan was 150 years, I would be entirely supportive of the scientists fighting diseases that resulted in premature death at the age of 80. Extending lifespan is not innately escapist. Regardless of whether humans live to 80 or to 200, death is still the final stage of life. Lifespan extension can provide people with more time to explore and experience the good things in life. It can provide more time to spend with family and friends. It can even provide more time to contemplate life and death and to prepare for the transition.
Although I have evolved my stance on lifespan extension and have accepted the concept in principle, there are many practical aspects that require societal consideration and discussion. How do we approach the problem of an increasing population? Does access to life extending drugs become a protected right of citizens or only accessible to those who are wealthy? How do we re-orient our economy, society, and values to derive the most pleasure and meaning from our additional years? How do we continue to advance concepts of social responsibility and civil liberties if older generations persist for longer? But for the time being, I simply offer an apology to all the people who I tarantula-ed.
And of course, I still despise the concepts of true immortality, mind-uploading, and trans-humanism but that is a discussion for another day.
Post-script on Rapamycin
I once went to dinner with one of the scientists who independently discovered the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR). This is the protein that rapamycin acts on to exert its many reported positive benefits, with respect to lifespan extension. They remain the most famous scientist I have ever met. During dinner, they asked us graduate students what we do in our spare time. I was called on first and responded with “I appreciate fostering a work-life balance” to which they quickly interjected, “if anyone interviewed with me and mentioned work-life balance, I would not hire them.” One of my most memorable science experiences. Kind of like being cut off in traffic my Tom Hanks.
[i] Dong, Milholland, and Vijg. (2016). Evidence for a limit to human lifespan. Nature, 538(7624), 257-259.
[ii] Demidenko. (2011). Rapamycin for life: A step to immortality. Cell Cycle, 10(24), 4206-4206.