On an individual level the desire to prolong life has obviously sensible effects, with widespread endorsement of positive health practices: eat five fruit or vegetables every day, exercise two to three times per week, don’t drink too much alcohol. A focus on health and wellness is transforming society into a trendy collection of zumba-going, kale-consuming fitness fanatics. While in some cases perhaps taken a little far, overall a greater focus on health can surely only be a good thing.
But, increasingly, we are seeing a shift away from the individual towards structures focusing on prolonging life. In 2013 Google founded its $1.3 billion project, Calico, a research and development biotech which aims at combating ageing and age-related disease. Every year enormous amounts of money is pumped into similar endeavours. In 2015, doctor and investor Joon Yun launched a competition, offering $1 million in prize money to anyone able to “hack the code of life”. The aim, he says, is to prolong the homeostatic ability of the body to recover from everyday stresses. Hacking the code of life would not just mean living longer, then, but staying healthier for longer.
Yun sees ageing as something akin to cancer, a defect of the body that has the potential to be solved and eradicated. So much for the saying that the only things certain in life are death and taxation. When our grandparents were born, they were expected to live until the age of 65. Doctors and scientists consider that today's generation can expect to live over the age of 120. And, given their claims, this is only set to increase further.
The fundamental assumption behind this research and fascination with prolonging life is that living is better than not-living. This is no doubt a reasonably universally endorsed assumption, underpinning various ethical doctrines, laws, and ways of life. But is it enough to justify the projects of the likes of Yun and Google?
“Is it not a cruel irony that those so obsessed with prolonging life overlook the basic needs of so many to live any sort of life?”
The preceding raises an ethical question: are we right to be pumping so much money into research aiming at prolonging life? On the one hand, it seems that knowledge gained in the fields of medicine and biology can only be a good thing. The more we know about the human body, the more likely we are to make breakthroughs in other areas of medicine. While projects like Calico look partly at ageing, they are also conducting extensive research into diseases, like cancer, to which we are particularly prone when older. No doubt, increasing our understanding of the ageing body and why we become susceptible to illness and disease is a crucial endeavour, particularly if its effects include improving our quality of life.
On the other hand, we might question whether we are right, in an increasingly over-populated and under-resourced world, to be focusing so much time and energy on research that, if successful, will only worsen this situation? This certainly seems to be a question we can ask to the likes Yun who are focusing exclusively on “solving” ageing and enabling us to live much longer. Indeed, vast amounts of the focus exclusively on prolonging life is coming out of Silicon Valley. Investors include hedge funds and powerful companies. No doubt the results of such research, if the projects were to prove successful, would be available only to the richest; a pursuit of the wealthy for the wealthy. How do we justify such practices in a world where one in eight people go to bed hungry every night? Is it not a cruel irony that those so obsessed with prolonging life overlook the basic needs of so many to live any sort of life?
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