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Live Long, and Speculate
October 23, 2003 2:05 PM   Subscribe

If you were a lab worm [with some modifications], you could live five times longer than a human. This news will likely be celebrated by folks like these and their ilk, while bioethicists and others cringe. Regardless of right or wrong, the ideas of life extension/biological immoratality pose some mighty difficult questions.
posted by moonbird (49 comments total)

 
ilk? Jesus. A bit biased, aren't we? If it comes down to a battle of bioethicists vs. extropians, then I for say screw the ethicists.

The only question I see posed by life extension technologies is 'how can I get some?'
posted by Ryvar at 2:09 PM on October 23, 2003


It seems to be that those who argue that life extension is a poor option because of the resulting difficulties in population growth have a dim view of individual worth. It's one thing to argue that in order to successfully manage the Earth's growing population less people must be born. It's altogether different, and in my opinion, palpably immoral, to assert that in order to manage that same growing population, more people must die, and quick. That kind of argument has an oddly eugenic ring to it.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 2:17 PM on October 23, 2003


There goes my social security! I begin collelcting at, say,65, and now I am 125?
posted by Postroad at 2:25 PM on October 23, 2003


Personally, I am a bit biased Ryvar, but by 'ilk' I mean no harm. While I think the life-extenders and extropians are well meaning folk, I think it's a bit selfish for we in the west to invest massive medical resources to live even longer when most of the world can barely afford to live long and healthy in the first place. I'd rather divert our attention to helping to improve the conditions of developing nations and to rid the world of old, tired diseases. Maybe once humanity is on a more-or-less level playing field can we look at living longer artificially without as much moral dilemma.

I'm content with an average life span, because it gives me a decent amount of time to achieve what I want and do that which matters most. I'd rather snuff it at 65 with a full life under my belt than shlep along my hundreds with brittle, doped-up bones and a 'seen-it-all-before" malaise. But that's just me.

The flip side is that if humans actually start evolving our tech into sci-fi type terms in the next few hundred years, exploring stars light years away and all that jazz, we'd likely need longer lifespans to make those journeys, or we'd have to have viable cryogenic suspension (rather than glamorized than freezers with Disney's brain wrapped in tinfoil next to the icey pops).

The worm experiement, regardless of what we believe about LE, can certainly teach us alot about the mechanisms of life. And that's all good.
posted by moonbird at 2:25 PM on October 23, 2003


Has there ever been any medical technology that wasn't first available only to the rich and privileged? We'd never develop anything new if we had to wait for everyone to be equally situated first.
posted by transona5 at 2:29 PM on October 23, 2003


It's one thing to argue that in order to successfully manage the Earth's growing population less people must be born. It's altogether different, and in my opinion, palpably immoral, to assert that in order to manage that same growing population, more people must die, and quick.

Well said.

I'd rather divert our attention to helping to improve the conditions of developing nations and to rid the world of old, tired diseases.

Nothing, of course, suggests that one couldn't do both, if one chose both as priorities. It seems to me to be asking a great deal of people to want them to commit suicide for the hypothetical benefit of strangers.
posted by rushmc at 2:29 PM on October 23, 2003


Forget extending life spans and just invent a way to never have to sleep.

AND A FLYING CAR, DAMMIT.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:30 PM on October 23, 2003


Ethicist is a good gig if you can land it. Get a cheap degree in religious studies and then tell others how to live and get paid for it! With so many secular ethical panels these people are simply uneeded baggage, but I digress.

This study is very simplistic involving insulim and hormones on a very simple animal. Wake me when they are able to do this to mammals.

A real human longevity treatment would involve editing one's genome which realistically means that if you can read this, you're dying before 100. If longevity pans out it will most likely have to be programmed into the genome much like producing a "custom clone." Of course once we land the tech to make "made to order babies" we'll have to fight the ethicists who will probably demand that dying of birth defects is God's wish or some such bullshit. Don't call me too bitter until you realize how big the chill on stem cell research is in the US because of these types.

Lastly, I'm much more interested in reverse engineering brain parts. There was a successful synthetic hippocampus created for mice in a recent experiment. Imagine replacing most of your brain until there's nothing left but silicone. The eternal age of the cyborg will then begin.
posted by skallas at 2:31 PM on October 23, 2003


I'm content with an average life span, because it gives me a decent amount of time to achieve what I want and do that which matters most.

Though I'd venture that what you want to achieve and your values of what matters most has been stongly shaped by the normal human lifespan.

We picture that a 500 year lifespan would simply be a normal 80-year lifespan with 420 years in the nursing home tacked on at the end. In reality, I believe a great deal of the human condition would be altered.
posted by 4easypayments at 2:33 PM on October 23, 2003


The literature on hippocampus is enormous--it has its own journals. The jury is still out on what it does, exactly--in rats, monkeys, or humans. Answers usually range from spatial representation to intermediate-term memory.

Calling it a "successful synthetic hippocampus" is a bold claim. I don't remember hearing anything beyond the announcement that someone was attempting the experiment. If you have a citation, though, please share it.
posted by tss at 2:37 PM on October 23, 2003


But many people might find the price of immortality a little high. The worms with the longest lifespans also had their reproductive systems removed.

Count me in the 'price is too high' camp.
posted by widdershins at 2:42 PM on October 23, 2003


tss, correct, it looks like Berger's people are still working at it.
posted by skallas at 2:47 PM on October 23, 2003


Genetic engineering is going to be accepted on a societal level when we realize that it doesn't have to be about figuring out which genes to turn on and off, or to tweak things in strange ways.

It's just a matter of looking at the sperm and eggs really closely, then picking the ones that lead to smart, beautiful, disease free kids. Put them together and then back in the oven.

If what causes longevity can be identified, then you could pick extra-long-lived sperms and eggy-wegs too.

Plenty of room for making vast improvements on messy natural evolution without having to do super wierd GE stuff. Looking closely and picking the fruits of ones loins, from the already available set, doesn't seem to cross any major ethical lines, IMHO.
posted by wah at 2:47 PM on October 23, 2003


Moonbird, I'm sorry to call you out like this, but as with your carbon nanotubes post, news of experiments to lengthen worm lifespans, with *possible* applicability to humans is several years old. Notice that Google News thinks the trail is cold for now. I'm not screaming for deletion, but what are you gonna FPP next? Hydrogen fuel cells?
posted by scarabic at 2:53 PM on October 23, 2003


I'm content with an average life span

Good for you. Feel free to kick off at your earliest convenience or at your natural expiration date -- whichever come first.

In the mean time, to all the luddites out there who get all twisted up about the arbitrary and subjective moral complications to research, keep your hands off my science you damn dirty apes!
posted by willnot at 3:07 PM on October 23, 2003


The whole life-extension deal is actually about 3,000 years old. And you don't have to completely give up your reproductive systems. You just have to limit yourself to 24 orgasms a year.
posted by alms at 3:21 PM on October 23, 2003


scarabic, I was considering a post about the wheel, actually. Seems as if we haven't explored everything there is to explore yet. :P Seriously, I'd never heard of carbon nanotubes before. That may be due to my condition of living under a rock using dial-up. Please forgive.

willnot, while I appreciate your invitation, I'm happy to allow fate to choose the manner and timing of my passing. However, I probably didn't make it clear that I'm not completely dismissive of LE. I think the area of research can teach us invaluable and generally neat things about our organism. While I may be biased somewhat, I'm not marching to city hall with a pitchfork and a torch.
posted by moonbird at 3:26 PM on October 23, 2003


fuck ethics. fuck bio-ethics.
fuck mother nature 2 times next sunday.
fuck all religions and creeds that feel they have a say in what the rest of us do.
anybody scared of this technology is hereby authorized to die at 65. or sooner. much sooner.
steal the fire, my fellow primates.
also, what willnot said.
posted by signal at 3:28 PM on October 23, 2003


The worms with the longest lifespans also had their reproductive systems removed.

the moral: live fast, die young

or,

is the un-orgasmic life still worth living?
posted by milovoo at 3:30 PM on October 23, 2003


Kudos, anyway, for including some angle on the ethics thereof. Longevity is always good for a discussion. However, I'm much more interested in extending the span of my orgasms indefinitely. Once we achieve that, we'll have a reason to live forever.
posted by scarabic at 3:33 PM on October 23, 2003


signal, sometimes the fire gets too hot, sometimes it burns, sometimes primates long for the cool, soothing peace of death. of course, i agree, those would dictate to others can take a flying leap, but the idea of extended life/immortality cannot be expected to engender unrestrained universal enthusiasm, and there's nothing wrong with that.
posted by quonsar at 3:39 PM on October 23, 2003


I'm much more interested in extending the span of my orgasms indefinitely. Once we achieve that, we'll have a reason to live forever

Now that's a plan!
posted by moonbird at 3:39 PM on October 23, 2003


good post moonbird, not only for the links but the very important questions you've raised that some here have so lightly dismissed. zealotry is not only for the religiously impaired.
posted by poopy at 3:44 PM on October 23, 2003


I wonder if this technology ever works and becomes widespread if not getting tweaked to live longer would be considered suicide?
even if we could get over the physical problems, do we have the mental capicity to live that long?
posted by klik99 at 3:47 PM on October 23, 2003


fuck ethics.

I think it's fair to assume that all of us are frightened by the thought of mortality, but we should not presume there are no ethical or unethical applications of any science, that science is above ethics, just because it's science, dude. There are plenty of folks who want industry to have the same untouchable freedom to do what it will, because it can, and let no man say otherwise. The problem is that very often, the actions of a few have consequences for all, and it takes careful consideration to fully grasp the reaches of that causality.

In WWII, we were at war, already dropping bombs, and we frankly needed a bigger bomb. Is that the entirety of the ethcial debate nuclear power deserved? Not by a longshot.

moreover - what quonsar said.
posted by scarabic at 3:55 PM on October 23, 2003


Feel free to kick off at your earliest convenience
anybody scared of this technology is hereby authorized to die at 65. or sooner. much sooner.

We're going to attain immortality or die trying. You hear that, moonbird? Die. [/Cpt. Murphy]
posted by Stauf at 3:56 PM on October 23, 2003


is the un-orgasmic life still worth living?

I suspect you don't technically need organs to trigger orgasms.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 3:57 PM on October 23, 2003


...but you do need a chip implanted in your braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnsssssssssssss.
posted by WolfDaddy at 4:06 PM on October 23, 2003


"Live long and ponder", would have been a better title, IMO.
posted by signal at 4:20 PM on October 23, 2003


If you were a lab worm [with some modifications], you could live five times longer than a human.

Actually, the genetically enhanced nematodes died after two months.
posted by eddydamascene at 4:22 PM on October 23, 2003


You hear that, moonbird? Die.

I will, thank you, in my own time. But the tone needn't be vitriolic. I was hardly passing judgement on anyone. Heck, my best friend is an exrtropian (sounds cliche, I know). I was kind of hoping for something more like friendly banter about the pros/cons of LE comments-wise, not morbid heckling.

Signal, that title rocks, BTW.

"I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition."
posted by moonbird at 4:22 PM on October 23, 2003


If I were a lab worm,
Daidle deedle daidle
Daidle daidle deedle daidle dum
All day long I'd biddy-biddy-bum
If I were a specimen.
I wouldn't have to work hard,
Daidle deedle daidle
Daidle daidle deedle daidle dum
If I were a biddy-biddy lab,
Daidle deedle daidle daidle worm.
posted by quonsar at 4:22 PM on October 23, 2003


Psst...moonbird.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 4:32 PM on October 23, 2003


is the un-orgasmic life still worth living?

How sad that you would even have to ask that.

Let me put it in terms that perhaps you can relate to: Was your life worth living as a child?
posted by rushmc at 4:42 PM on October 23, 2003


Only joking, moonbird... just riffing on the italicized comments. =)

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
posted by Stauf at 5:02 PM on October 23, 2003


I'm pretty much with the "screw the luddites" crowd on this one - science can and will figure out anything that is possible to figure out, regardless of what a bunch of religious besserwissers say or do.

A more productive angle may be the socioeconomic one - can our society sustain itself according to today's politics if the average lifespan increases?

To put it plainly: Will you still be able to retire at 62 when the average lifespan is 300 years?
What is society going to DO with all these old people hanging around?

And you think society is overly conservative now, with the relatively high proportion of young people? Just wait until the under-25 crowd only constitutes 2% of the population....
posted by spazzm at 5:08 PM on October 23, 2003


Ryvar:
The only question I see posed by life extension technologies is 'how can I get some?'

The only question *I* see posed by life extension technologies is 'how *long* can I get some,' which, I see, has been covered plenty.
posted by notsnot at 5:56 PM on October 23, 2003


The whole life-extension deal is actually about 3,000 years old. And you don't have to completely give up your reproductive systems. You just have to limit yourself to 24 orgasms a year.

Well, shit. By those criteria I would have lost my mind long ago, and I can expect to die anytime oh...next week.
posted by jaded at 6:00 PM on October 23, 2003


The methods of science are not above ethics, and applications of scientific knowledge are not above ethics, but science itself is amoral, and not subject to ethics. Someone mentioned nuclear power/weapons as a counterexample. The science that made them possible could not have been avoided, and it would have been wrong to try to do so. Not because someone else would have done it and caught us with our pants down (though that would be a possibility I don't buy the "they can do it too" rationalization for WMD) but because the continuation of that research is what is letting physics probe the mysteries of the universe today. We don't know what will come of new advances in knowledge. That's kind of the definition of new advances in knowledge. So how can there be an ethical imperative to explore one branch over another? The "best of worlds" situation is one in which scientists study what most interests them, and applications of the new knowledge are carefully considered. If these scientists are interested in longevity, they should study it. The eventual applications of what they learn will be far ranging, not just (if ever) a bump up to 300+ lifespans when some breakthrough happens. Speaking of third world conditions, imagine the potential benefits to them from this kind of research. Things like improved and accelerated healing, organ and tissue repair and regrowth, better resistance to disease.
posted by Nothing at 6:36 PM on October 23, 2003


all this talk of orgasms. man, when yer old and gray it aint your nut you're gonna be lookin' for, it's your teeth.
posted by quonsar at 6:41 PM on October 23, 2003


willnot, while I appreciate your invitation, I'm happy to allow fate to choose the manner and timing of my passing.

So if you knew for a fact you were going to suffer a massive heart attack, are you going to go in for a bypass? Are you refusing all medication? Where does that line of fate begin and end. Is it wrong to cultivate food so you can feed yourself. Would it be better to just chant to and trust in the spirits of your ancestors and the sun god to deliver food into your open maw?

We can't experiment on dead bodies. It's wrong and unclean.

We can't cut people open and tinker around with their insides. It's disrespectful.

Hey - They had 20 good years. They've had children. They'll just be a burden on the community now. Better to let them die and get out of the why of the next generation.

Bring on the Sandmen. Science might effect the economy, and it's unnatural. What could possibly be worse? After all, if God had meant for man to be operated on, he would have included a zipper and an instruction manual.

Luddites - Bah!
posted by willnot at 6:43 PM on October 23, 2003


Besserwisser?
posted by rushmc at 7:18 PM on October 23, 2003


Crash and Stauf, thanks for yet another hilarious cultural reference that I missed! Long live Cap'n Murphy!
posted by moonbird at 7:48 PM on October 23, 2003


The "best of worlds" situation is one in which scientists study what most interests them, and applications of the new knowledge are carefully considered.

Exactly. Well put.
posted by scarabic at 9:30 PM on October 23, 2003


One of my favorite authors has a short story, Border Guards, that explores what happens when the time comes. It's a fun read, if you've got a few.
posted by majcher at 11:42 PM on October 23, 2003


If people lived hundreds of years, with their vigor, it is fairly obvious to me that many (most?) would not want to retire at 65. Far more likely they would be changing careers and localities.

Some think the world would become more "conservative" (whatever that means). Perhaps conservative about making war. Who would want to risk war when it might cost them hundreds of years new experiences?

The danger is that this may be very academic speculation because at present we have to worry about surviving as a race, on a planet with limited resources. I tend to the (partly Heinleinian) view that if we don't get off the planet for more space (and new frontiers) we're doomed to self-extinction from over crowding.
posted by Goofyy at 12:33 AM on October 24, 2003


Average life expectancy has doubled in the developed world in the last 150 years, thanks to technological advances in medicine, nutrition, and hygeine. Our longer lives have created wrenching social dislocation, leading to changes such as the need for universal retirement insurance. These technologies have also led to people becoming taller and better-looking. They have always been available first to the rich, and then spread to the rest of society. Bioethicists (and moonbird) are invited to explain why this process was a bad and unnatural thing.
posted by fuzz at 6:54 AM on October 24, 2003


On the other hand, all these people should just hurry up and die, since they have no reason to stick around and delay the glory.
posted by rushmc at 1:09 PM on October 24, 2003


One of the drawbacks of a longer lifespan would be homogenization. I think that this would not only manifest itself biologically, as in less genetic diversity, but socially and perhaps economically as well. The problem with homogenization is that changes in the environment lead to disasterous results for the population.

Some examples: Extinction of Dinosaurs vs Rise of Mammals. Tech boom. suburbs 8)
posted by kookywon at 2:27 PM on October 24, 2003


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