The Anxiety of Age
Human anxieties are never more vividly felt than when we contemplate old age. In earlier times, when it was generally assumed that human life had a divinely ordained span of threescore years and ten, when doctors did not reproach themselves when their octogenarian patients died, and when the scarcity of medical resources meant that the young had precedence in the use of them, old age was not an ethical problem. Cures that increased the chances of a long life were accepted as unquestionable benefits. And the old Hippocratic oath, by which doctors dedicate themselves to the goal of restoring health and refuse to harm their patients, seemed sufficient to resolve the occasional moral dilemmas. Joint replacements, organ transplants, and the possibilities of stem-cell therapy (to name just a few techniques) have changed all that. Old age is fast becoming a disease in its own right, and one that can be prolonged far beyond the previously recognized norms. Old people can be kept alive with spare parts donated by or purchased from younger people. One day, in the not-too-distant future, they will be patched up with stem cells taken from embryos. And with each medical advance, new ways of dying reveal themselves, along with new ways of being an unutterable nuisance to others. As biotechnology goes on postponing the day of reckoning, old age becomes an ever more visible reality among us–to the point where, in a few decades, there will be whole societies in which the majority are over 50 years old.
The second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that entropy is always increasing, seems to imply that all systems will randomize in the long run, ourselves included, and therefore that the right thing is to accept old age and its attendant ills with whatever serenity we can muster. We can more easily do this if we follow our ancestors and associate aging with wisdom and dignity. By pursuing wisdom, old people make themselves useful to the young and so ensure the only kind of earthly afterlife that matters, which is the affectionate memory of those who are not yet dead. So people used to think, at least; but Aubrey de Grey, a highly controversial self-described “theoretical biogerontologist,” will have none of it. The answer to the moral problems of longevity, he believes, is to replace longevity with indefinite life, so that we all have the chance to be eternally young. De Grey’s obsessive pursuit of the elixir of eternal life, which was described by Sherwin Nuland in the February 2005 issue of this magazine, must surely represent an extreme case of technological confidence. Decay, de Grey argues, is reversible: import enough energy into a system and order can be indefinitely preserved. In the case of aging, this requires us to reverse all the processes that lead to the collective suicide of a colony of human cells. A tall order, perhaps, but not one that we can rule out a priori.
What if de Grey’s project succeeds? The “I” attitude rejoices at the thought of immortality; but the “we” attitude prompts us to hesitate. Imagine a world in which every human being, barring accidents, could stay around forever. If the planet were to bear the weight of its immortal passengers, their numbers would have to be strictly limited. Reproduction, beyond a certain point, would have to be ruled out. Resources would have to be precisely allocated and scarcities avoided. For these eternal beings would be dangerous–and especially to each other. They would have worked out ways to exert and survive aggression, and these abilities would put them way ahead of any mortal competitors–ahead of everything save themselves. Life among the immortals would be scary beyond belief; its possibility would depend on a rigorous system of totalitarian control, which would forbid the ordinary forms of human happiness, not least the bearing and loving of children. Hardened by centuries of cynical dealings, the joyless predators would prowl around each other, seeking the small, spare advantages that are the only things worth aiming at in a world where everything is allocated by a committee of immortal enforcers.