While reading Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey's cover story, "Forever Young: The New Scientific Search for Immortality" (page 26), I couldn't stop thinking of my parents, both of whom died within the past few years. My father was born in 1923 and my mother four years later; they each lived into their early 70s before passing. Given when they were born, the bleak conditions in which they were raised, and other factors (both were longtime smokers; my father had been wounded in World War II), it's no small miracle that they lived as long as they did. Yet their relative longevity is precisely the sort of progress we've come to take for granted in our everyday lives. The expected life span for boys born in the U.S. in 1923 was just 56 years; for girls born in 1927, it was a slightly better 62 years. By comparison, the average life expectancy for kids born in 1999 is 77 years.
Advances in nutrition, medicine, and technology didn't just extend the length of my parents' lives but enhanced the quality as well; both were in pretty good shape until the end. Of course, however much science and medicine lengthened their lives, it wasn't long enough, either for them to witness the birth of my second child or for them to benefit from the fascinating developments discussed in this issue of reason.
"The prospects of dramatically increasing human longevity are excellent," says Steven Austad, a University of Idaho biologist who predicts 20-to-40-year increases in life spans later this century. We're "on the cusp of the second longevity revolution," according to University of Chicago demographer Jay Olshansky. The first revolution took place last century and increased life spans mostly by reducing infant mortality and limiting infectious diseases. The second revolution promises to add years later in life.
How will that happen? One researcher is working to develop drugs that mimic the effects of a super-low-calorie diet, a proven means of extending life. Others are working on a "Methuselah pill" that will recreate proteins produced by the genes responsible for longevity. Therapeutic cloning, still legal in the U.S. as of press time, may one day allow people to grow their own perfectly matched replacement organs. The emerging field of nanotechnology—which seeks to create devices using single atoms and molecules—offers the promise of "rebuilding our own bodies, regenerating organs, slowing down aging," according to proponents. If the past is any guide, none of these predictions will be exactly accurate, but we'll all be living longer, healthier lives in the future.
The only thing more amazing than the prospect of a second longevity revolution are the objections being raised by many influential and powerful intellectuals. The head of the President's Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, calls "the finitude of human life" a "blessing" and frets over "the undesired consequences of medical success in sustaining life," as if there aren't even more undesired consequences from the failure to sustain life.
In a recent Reason Online debate (reprinted in our June issue), Francis Fukuyama argued that genetic enhancement will almost certainly lead to a nightmare world straight out of Friedrich Nietzsche's twisted mind. In his new book, Our Posthuman Future, Fukuyama throws another scary shadow on the wall, one of robust old folks who "refuse to get out of the way; not just of their children, but their grandchildren and great-grandchildren."
I've no doubt that such bizarre and misplaced fears tap into their authors' deeply felt personal anxieties. Yet I'm even more certain that my children's lives have been greatly impoverished, not "blessed," by their grandparents' absence.