If there are three things people want in this world, it’s money, sex and youth.

People are willing to spend a lot of the first to get more of the second and the third. And guess what? We could be less than ten years away from therapies that could reverse the aging process. Eventually the costs of direct life-extension therapies will go down and increase these technologies’ availability. That is, if we’re careful not to do anything stupid.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the latest big news, as reported by the Boston Globe’s Carolyn Y. Johnson:

Harvard scientists have taken prematurely aged mice and reversed the toll of time – increasing the size of their shrunken brains, restoring their diminished sense of smell, and turning their graying fur to a healthy sheen.

The work is among a growing spate of efforts to understand the basic biology that underlies aging. Ultimately, scientists hope to find ways to tap into the body’s natural regenerative capacities to make people healthier and more productive in later life.

We know there are significant analogs between humans and mice at the genetic level. So something major is coming. It’s just a matter of time. We need to start asking tough questions about a reality in which human lifespans are doubled and reverse-aging resources are scarce.

The Big Questions

The big questions to my mind are not going to be anything like: ‘Is it ethical?’ ‘Should we do it?’ Or ‘Is it against God and nature?’ Some people may ask those kinds of questions.  But their answers will be steamrolled by stronger forces--namely the deep desire among most of us to drink from the fountain. If the technology exists, people will simply go to the black market or abroad to get their quaff.

No, the big questions will be:
  • How are these new resource to be allocated?
  • What are the demographic implications?
  • What does it mean for the disruption of social norms based on a soon-to-be obsolete understanding of longevity -- including lifestyles, careers government programs and the idea of retirement?

Let’s start the conversation now. Will we need any sort of institutional framework to deal with answers to these questions? Or will the institutions and the our notions of longer life co-evolve with the technology? As an advocate of the free market, I’d argue that we let the process of diffusing life-extension technologies proceed in a natural way -- much like the diffusion of mobile technology has proceeded. Others will have different ideas. I’d like to caution us now against the worst of such ideas, before the fountain’s rejuvenating waters become sullied by either Luddism or Leftism.

Science Friction

We need to beware of backlash from both the right and the left.

The right’s reaction, I predict, will be to call for a moratorium on such innovations until we can determine whether life-extension therapies are “playing God.” The playing God argument is, well, played out. If keeping people alive longer through conventional means isn’t playing God, there is nothing categorically different about introducing breakthroughs that prevent age related illnesses to begin with. I dare say, people who believe in the sanctity of life will do well to consider the benefits of life-extending technologies for humanity. After all, as I suggest above, driving people into black markets is no way to enforce morality. And driving people into the grave because of some errant idea about God’s plan doesn’t do justice to what God’s plan might actually be (i.e. that it may include life extension therapy).

The left’s reaction will be no less predictable. The left will say we should have a moratorium on the technology until we can figure out how to give everyone “access” and quell Malthusian concerns about resource depletion and overpopulation (which will be unfounded). They will lament the gap between the poor short-livers and the rich long-livers. Then they’ll try to cast life extension as a “public health” good in order to socialize it, regulate it and ration it. This would be a grave mistake -- one as serious as if we’d said people have a basic right to mobile devises. Socializing mobile technology would not only have retarded its development, but it would have limited its uptake. Almost everyone has a cellphone today, even though they didn’t in 1990. Markets have meant better, faster and cheaper tech for the masses over time. It will be no different for life-extension therapies if they are left primarily to market forces.

Sign Me Up

Full disclosure: I am biased.  I’d even volunteer to be a guinea pig for the human trials. This may seem distasteful as we try to become less youth-obsessed. But I bet a lot of people share my desire to stick around longer and reverse the ravages of aging. I can’t pretend to be sanctimonious in the face of such amazing potential for so many people including myself. Instead, I’m just going to keep the front of the bandwagon warm until the rest of you decide to climb aboard beside me.

Max Borders is a writer living in Austin. He blogs for Ideas Matter.