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The Life Extension Hubris:  Why biotechnology is unlikely to be the answer to ageing

Posted: Thu, April 11, 2013 | By: Technology



by Marios Kyriazis

It is often said that empiricism is one of the most useful concepts in epistemology. Empiricism emphasises the role of experience acquired through one’s own senses and perceptions, and is contrary to, say, idealism where concepts are not derived from experience, but based on ideals.

In the case of radical life extension, there is a tendency to an ‘idealistic trance’ where people blindly expect practical biotechnological developments to be available and applied to the public at large within a few years. More importantly, idealists expect these treatments or therapies to actually be effective and to have a direct and measurable effect upon radical life extension. Here, by ‘radical life extension’ I refer not to healthy longevity (a healthy life until the age of 100-120 years) but to an indefinite lifespan where the rate of age-related mortality is trivial.

Let me mention two empirical examples based on experience and facts:

1. When a technological development depends on technology alone, its progress is often dramatic and exponential.

2. When a technological development also depends on biology, its progress is embarrassingly negligible.

Developments based solely on mechanical, digital or electronic concepts are proliferating freely and vigorously. Just 20 years ago, almost nobody had a mobile telephone or knew about the internet. Now we have instant global communication accessible by any member of the general public.

Contrast this with the advancement of biotechnology with regards to, say, the treatment of the common cold. There has not been a significantly effective treatment for the public at large for, I will not say a million, but certainly for several thousand years. The accepted current medical treatment for the common cold is with bed rest, fluids, and antipyretics which is the same as that suggested by Hippocrates. Formal guidelines for the modern treatment of cardiac arrest include chest compressions and mouth- to- mouth resuscitation (essentially the same as the technique used by the prophet Elisha in the Old Testament) as well as intra-cardiac (!) atropine, lignocaine and other drugs used by physicians during the 1930’s. In my medical museum in Cyprus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyriazis_Medical_Museum) I have examples of Medieval treatments for urinary retention (it was via a metal urinary catheter then, whereas now the catheter is plastic), treatment of asthma (with belladonna then, ipratropium now – a direct derivative), and treatment of pain (with opium then, with opium-like derivatives now).

About a hundred years ago, my grandfather (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoklis_Kyriazis) wrote a book on hygiene, longevity and healthy life for the public, which included advice such as fresh air, exercise, consumption of fruit and vegetables, avoidance of excessive alcohol or cigarette smoke. These are of course preventative treatments advised by modern anti-ageing practitioners, hardly any progress in a century. In fact, these are the only proven treatments.  Even the modern notion of ‘antioxidants’ can be encountered as standard health advice in medical books from the 1800’s. With the trivial exception of a handful of other examples, there has hardly been any progress in healthy longevity at all that can be applied to the common man in the street. Resveratrol?  Was a standard health advice in ancient Greek medicine (red wine). Carnosine? Discovered and used 100 years ago. Cycloastragenol? Used in Chinese medicine 1000 years ago.

My question is: how do we expect to influence the process of ageing when we cannot even develop bio-technological cures for simple and common diseases? Are we really serious when we talk about biotechnological treatments that can lead to radical life extension, being developed within the next few years? And if we are really serious, is this belief based on empiricism or idealism? The manipulation of human biology has been particularly tricky, with no significant progress of effective breakthroughs developed during the past several decades. Here I, of course, acknowledge the value of some modern drugs and isolated bio-technological achievements, but my point is that these developments are based on relatively minor refinements of existing therapies, and not on new breakthroughs that can modify the human body in any positive or practical degree. Importantly, even if some isolated examples of effective biotechnology do exist, these are not yet suitable for use by the general public at large.

Dr. Marios Kyriazis
Dr. Marios Kyriazis

If we were to compare the progress of general technology with that of life extension biotechnology, we could see that:

A. The progress of technology over the past 100 years has been logarithmic to exponential, whereas that of life extension biotechnology has been virtually static.

B. The progress of technology over the past 20 years has been exponential, whereas that of life extension biotechnology has barely been logarithmic.

It is one thing to talk about future biotechnology developments as a discussion point, and to post these in blogs, for general curiosity. But it is a different thing altogether if we actually want to devise and deliver an effective, practical therapy that truly affords significant life extension.

A different approach is needed, one that does not depend exclusively on biotechnology. It would be naïve to say that I am arguing for the total abandonment of life extension biotechnology, but it is equally naïve to believe that this biotechnology is likely to be effective on its own. A possible way forward could be the attempt to modify human biology not via biotechnology alone, but also by making use of natural, already existing evolutionary mechanisms. One such example could be the use of ‘information-that-requires-action’ in order to force a reallocation of resources from germ-line to somatic cells. This is an approach we currently aiming to describe in detail. My final remark with regards to achieving indefinite lifespan is this: we must engage with technology without depending on biotechnology. 

For some general background information on how to engage with technology see:

http://hplusmagazine.com/2012/12/06/the-longevity-of-real-human-avatars/

http://hplusmagazine.com/2011/03/04/indefinite-lifespans-a-natural-consequence-of-the-global-brain/

http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/kyriazis20121031



Comments:

Excellent assessment of the limitations of bioscience and medicine to “deliver” physical immortality. In fact, this is an extension of a “deathist” mentality that hands over one’s wellness to scientists and doctors, just as other types of believers hand over their faith to priests of one sort or another. Currently, the greatest real impact science has had on cracking the death barrier is to force us to open our minds and consider immortality as a real possibility. Most people who think about immortality as being possible draw their courage from scientific findings that seem to augur near term breakthroughs, which have in fact been promised for decades. This intellectual stimulation alone is a great service. But surely no priesthood of doctors is going to deliver us from death. They can hardly efficiently deliver the medical capabilities that exist today. People die in hospitals every day of confusion and ignorance. So clearly some sort of heightened state of personal accountability is called for, some radical individual drive for wellness in every aspect of life. This must be as least as important an element in the immortality equation as scientific advancement.

By Joe Bardin on Apr 14, 2013 at 1:25pm

Your point is well taken, but I think it’s overstated and is board line to setting up a straw man. The common cold is actually a wide variety of assaults on the body from a wide variety of microbial life. Also, look at the progress made in vaccination, cloning, stem cells. Look at ever advancing drug delivery systems or diagnostic testing through things like super high throughput screening. If anything, I’d say we are approaching a tipping point where we finally have the tools at hand to deal with intractable problems. The reality is probably somewhere in between, but the position of this article is overly pessimistic, in my opinion.

By Demosthenes on Apr 15, 2013 at 10:23pm


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