Friday, December 21, 2012

Is Peter Singer Joining the Transhumanism Movement?

Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer has hopped onto the anti-ageing bandwagon. Writing in Project Syndicate, he says that he has been convinced by Aubrey de Grey, the world's most prominent advocate of anti-aging research. De Grey contends that since 90% of deaths in developed countries are ultimately due to ageing, ageing - not cancer or diabetes and cardiac disease - is the real enemy.

De Grey believes that even modest progress in this area over the coming decade could lead to a dramatic extension of the human lifespan. All we need to do is reach what he calls “longevity escape velocity” – that is, the point at which we can extend life sufficiently to allow time for further scientific progress to permit additional extensions, and thus further progress and greater longevity. Speaking recently at Princeton University, de Grey said: “We don’t know how old the first person who will live to 150 is today, but the first person to live to 1,000 is almost certainly less than 20 years younger.”

Singer has said, "De Grey might be mistaken, but if there is only a small chance that he is right, the huge pay-offs make anti-aging research a better bet than areas of medical research that are currently far better funded."

There are ethical questions here. Is it better to spend scarce research money on saving poor people with short life expectancies from dread diseases or on making rich people in developed countries healthier and longer-lived? As Singer points out, "If we discover how to slow aging, we might have a world in which the poor majority must face death at a time when members of the rich minority are only one-tenth of the way through their expected lifespans". However, de Grey seems to have persuaded him that extremely long life spans are imminent. As the science develops, its price will plummet and the poor will be able to share in the benefits of living longer, possibly as long as 1,000 years.

Greater longevity would bring social benefits. All over the world, populations are ageing and the proportion of younger, tax-paying workers is shrinking. If we have more years of youthful energy, this could help to alleviate the demographic problem.

Singer also poses an interesting ethical question about the future of a world where people can live hundreds of years:

"The population objection raises a deeper philosophical question. If our planet has a finite capacity to support human life, is it better to have fewer people living longer lives, or more people living shorter lives? One reason for thinking it better to have fewer people living longer lives is that only those who are born know what death deprives them of; those who do not exist cannot know what they are missing."

Related reading:  Max Moore's Transhumanism

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