Saturday, March 16, 2013

War on Death

Declaring a ‘War on Death’ may be more productive than declaring a war on taxes.  It may even be technologically possible.  Why then don’t we declare a war on death?

In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in the world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” 

Death and taxes
He wrote this letter in French to his friend within a few weeks after the founding structural document had been adopted.

In recent times, many have spoken out that we need to reduce taxes.  Some, like Grover Norquist, have even declared an informal ‘war on taxes’.  The basic idea is to reduce the percentage of taxes paid by citizens.

What if, instead of taxes, we declared a “war on death”?

The battlefield of such a war would be to push the length of productive life for humans to as long as we can make it.  Not just healthy habits to live longer, but technologies to extend life-spans dramatically.

Why We Struggle

Assume for a moment that it is technologically feasible to double the length of a person’s life.  What would be the result?

Longer lives give each person more time.  More time to learn, more time to work and more time to play. 

Longer childhoods
With longer time to learn we could become smarter and wiser before we begin to impact society.  Extending childhood by ten years or more would give parents more time to build character and values into their children.  Education could be extended to cover more information allowing a better educated electorate.

With longer time to work, each life would be more productive.   As time goes by, people become better at their vocations, so skills would have more time to be practiced and used.  A longer working life would also allow more time to save for retirement and old age, reducing individual’s burdens upon society.

With longer time to play, the quality of our lives could be increased.  Investing effort into our families, communities and culture could improve the quality of our lives.

Progress So Far

As fantastic as the idea may seem, we have already more than doubled the average life-span in developed countries. 

In medieval Britain, the average length of life was about 30 years.  By the 1600’s the average age of death had been pushed up to 35 years.  By the 1900, the average jumped to over 50 years.  Now it is typical to live until our mid-70s.

Much of the historical improvement in length of life has been due to nutrition, hygiene, and reduced infant mortality.  Science and cultural practice worked together to allow doubling of years lived.

Assuming one made it through childhood, had healthy habits, and disease or dangerous conditions did not kill a person early, the maximum length of life has stayed fairly stable. 

Our progress so far has been about eliminating the causes of death rather than extending the length of life.

Cells degrade
Technology and Habit

To achieve long life-spans, we need to make progress on the causes of aging.  We would have to increase the longevity of each individual to make new gains in life-span.

If we view our bodies as a process, we can work on extending the functioning of the components that make the process work.

Aging and eventual death are caused by accumulative changes to the complex molecules and cells that we are made of.  Several factors contribute to aging and death. 

Most cells only divide about 50 times before toxins, irradiation, and errors break down DNA so it is no longer viable. 

Some plants and animals have genetic repair capabilities that could be researched in order to build technologies in order to overcome DNA breakdown.  Learning how the regenerative capacity of these creatures work would be one place to start looking.

There are other technologies that could be developed to extend life-spans. 

Current sources of
pluripotent stem cells
Pluripotent stem cells can be induced to become other types of cells.  Although previously controversial because of embryonic stem cells, it is now possible to induce adult skin cells to become other cells.   We may soon be able to use our own cells as building blocks.

Researchers have recently discovered technology that allows a mouse skin cell to become a brain cell.  Extending these tools could allow us to grow our own, custom built replacement parts.

Each individual would have to improve their own habits in order to minimize cell and DNA damage.  Bad practices already can lead to shortened lives. 

We could choose as a society to institute cultural institutions that would promote better behavior.  Parents, teachers, churches and other influencers could help instill the virtues of healthy habits.

Dangers Overcome

With current birth rates, more people would place more demand on resources.   We may have to adjust our rates of consumption or improve our technologies in order to not deplete some limited resources.

With more time and education, we may be able to overcome these kinds of challenges.  With more at stake in a longer future, individuals could be motivated to be more prudent in their choices and habits.

If a revolutionary technology were to appear that suddenly and drastically increased life-spans, there would be social upheaval to deal with.

Those unable to afford the technology could become quite jealous.  Those who control the technology could become quite powerful.

I will not pretend that the consequences of life extending technologies will not present difficult challenges.  However to turn away from the technology because of the challenges seems a foolish reason not to try.  As a parent, I find it a moral imperative to give my children the opportunity for long, healthy productive lives.

Cost Benefit

Each year the U.S. economy is about $15,800,000,000,000 (almost $16 trillion).  This only represents about a quarter of the world’s economic output in a given year.

Even if it costs $16 trillion to develop and roll out a technology that would double life-spans, the payoff in productivity would greatly outweigh the costs. 

On average each person works over 30 years of their life now,  doubling working time to 60 years of productivity is one payoff. 

The labor return on capital investment for such a technology could be as high as 3000% on the one year investment. 

Even taking the ultra-conservative approach that the benefit would cover the costs is still a wise move.  Who would not want to live twice as long if the costs to do so were covered?

The extra years of labor a person could have are added on to the end of their current careers meaning their expertise would be greater.  The payoff to society for each person who gains a doubling of lifespan would be more than a quantity of dollars, but also be a qualitative improvement in labor.

With life expectancy in the mid-70’s a person is employed over 90,000 hours in their lives.   Even improving this number by half would be an enormous gain in professional output.

Who Should Fund it?

Like with the Atom Bomb, life extending technology would have to be controlled by society to ensure power was not concentrated in the hands of the few. 

If at some future time a private institution were to fund and discover technologies that dramatically expand life, they would be in a position of vast power.  With current patent law, this could upset cultural and societal structures beyond repair. 

Currently, no institution but government has the capability to focus and fund such large scale research. 

Allowing government funding could make the research publicly available and keep the power of such technologies focused on the whole of society rather than just a few people.

Baby's future in the balance
The nation that achieves this technology first will be at great advantage to those nations that do not have it.  The first mover advantage of longer life-spans could be enormous. For this reason, peaceful nations may even want to share the burden of costs and the benefits of discovery.

The research would not have to be funded all at once.  Given the potential outcome, even some public debt would be warranted as payoffs could easily overcome its risks and costs.

Even if the effort were to fail, the knowledge that it is not possible to future generations would be a boon.  Knowing that a war on death is not winnable is information that can effect how future generations would live our lives.

How long can we delay?
Dream On

It is easy to dismiss such ideas “out of hand”. 

Some will think their religious doctrines threatened.  Others will doubt it is even possible.

It seems reasonable that Aristotle, Isaac Newton, or even Madam Curie would have seen the idea of putting a man on the moon as fanciful science fiction. 

Consider for a moment the alternative.  If we could make life longer and do not, are we not acting immorally to future generations?

Perhaps extending life-spans is fanciful. 

We must however ask ourselves; what if it is not?  What if it could be?

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