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Avoiding Past Mistakes in Longevity Advocacy
Anne Corwin   Jan 30, 2007   Existence is Wonderful  

Mark Plus offers a timely reality check regarding the progress (or lack thereof) of longevity medicine and cryonics over the past few decades.  Those of us who are seriously committed to helping make healthy life extension a reality must not ever lose sight of the fact that we aren’t the first folks to approach the subject.  The linked essay by the recently-late Robert Anton Wilson contains quite a few statements that sound suspiciously like some of the more optimistic assertions being made about the state of longevity science today.

For instance:

Similarly, Dr. Paul Segall of UC-Berketey predicts that we will be able to raise human lifespan to “400 years or more” by the 1990s. Robert Prehoda, M.D., says in his Extended Youth that we might eventually raise life expectancy to “1,000 years or more.” Hundreds of similarly optimistic predictions by research­ers currently working in life extension can be found in Albert Rosenfdd’s recent book, Prolongevity.

Expert opinion on longevity has grown steadily more optimistic every time it has been surveyed, because the lab results are better every year. In 1964, a group of scientists was polled on the question and predicted chemical control of aging by the early 21st Century. In 1969, two similar polls found scientific opinion predicting longevity would be achieved between 1993 (low estimate) and 2017 (high estimate.) Dr. Bernard Strehler, one of the nation’s leading researchers on aging, predicted more recently that the breakthrough would occur sometime between 1981 and 2001.

Now, I’ve never heard of any of the people cited above, but the pattern is familiar.  I don’t doubt that plenty of people with dreams and aspirations similar those of present-day transhumanists probably read this essay back in 1978 and found that it bolstered their sense of hope.  And while there’s nothing wrong with hope, part of me can’t help but wonder if putting too much stock in predictions, and in the sheer optimism of various people working in the health field, can lead to a kind of complacency. 

I’m not saying that the present-day healthy life extension community is in any way complacent—quite the opposite, in fact, from what I’ve experienced in my encounters with individuals from this community.  But when we talk about and promote longevity science, it’s important to remain cogent of the fact that there is no time to sit back and wait for things to fall into place.

One of my first encounters with the idea of life extension was discovering a book in the basement of one of the houses we lived in while I was growing up—a book entitled Life Extension - A Practical Scientific Approach, by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw.  Initially intrigued, I flipped through the pages with interest, but did not come away enlightened.  There was much talk of supplements and off-label uses of various medications, as well as some weird stuff about not using toothpaste, alongside black-and-white images of the scantily-clad co-authors posing and flexing. 

Plenty of claims were made, but one of the things that struck me about this book even as an adolescent was that the authors weren’t all that old when they wrote the book.  If they were in good health at the time, sheer (and actual) youth seems to be the most logical explanation for this.  Now deeply into middle age they don’t seem to be aging any more slowly than anyone else

So, what can present-day longevity advocates make of all this?  Well, for one thing, it is important to remember that negative data is still data—we can look back now and identify what didn’t work, try to figure out why it didn’t work, and avoid making the same mistakes again.  For instance, if this generation (meaning, the set of people presently alive) is to make any strides in developing effective longevity medicine, we cannot afford to underestimate our vulnerability.  For all intents and purposes, we aren’t much closer to superlongevity than we were in 1978—yes, we have more and better treatments for specific ailments, some of them age-related, but we don’t have the ability yet to clean up the accumulated bodily damage that leads to the manifestations of age-related health decline and eventual death.  This means that even those of us still in our twenties and thirties aren’t in much of a better spot, longevity-wise, than our parents were at our age.  And that is, and should be, a sobering thought for anyone who would call themselves a life-extensionist.

Now, I haven’t moved myself over to the gloom-and-doom camp by any means—if that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this.  But I do take the failure of the “first wave” of longevity enthusiasm very seriously.  It’s a good example of what happens when people are willing to let themselves be pacified rather than motivated by optimism, and when people are willing to believe the claims of supplement-peddlers and wrinkle-cream and growth-hormone merchants despite the lack of long-term data proving the efficacy of any of these things (not to mention the growing pool of data disproving the effectiveness of many such interventions). 

When you are still young and basically healthy, it can be very easy to fall into a pattern of attributing your continued survival to something you yourself are doing—the fact that you drink eight glasses of water a day, the fact that you jog every morning, the fact that you take Bob’s Magic Longevity Wheatgrass Serum every morning.  But more than likely, the reason you feel good overall is because you haven’t started to break down internally yet. 

Certainly, there are things practically anyone can do to help maintain their health over time (which could, arguably, be considered a component of escape velocity)—eat a low-calorie, nutrient-dense diet, exercise lightly, maintain a consistent sleep schedule, keep your stress levels under control—but if your longevity aspirations stretch further than 70 or 80 years or so, you’d best be looking into supporting, investing in, and possibly contributing toward programs and projects that aim to actually help people stay healthier longer, rather than just trying to patch up serious problems (heart disease, cancer, etc.) as they occur.

Another question that the failures of the past should prompt is: what is different, if anything, about this generation?  What makes us think that it could be us who manage to reach some level of longevity escape velocity?  Is there any basis for thinking this at all, or is it all just wishful thinking and arrogance (a common cry of longevity critics)?

As for what is different about this generation, while it is difficult to tell at this point in time which of today’s actual practical efforts are going to pan out (if any), we can at least claim a few things that 1978’s life-extensionists could not.  We have high-level attention on longevity.  We have a highly promising nonprofit organization that, at the time of this writing, has managed to raise over 4 million dollars for targeted longevity research.  We have mapped the human genome.  We have a better idea of how calorie restriction works to extend life in mammals (which, while it won’t lead to superlongevity, could lead to treatments that help more people reach escape velocity).  We have research efforts underway at major universities. 

Couple all this with the fact that modern interconnectivity makes it possible for scientists to exchange data with other scientists, anywhere in the world, practically instantaneously—and you have a recipe for tremendous potential.  I don’t think anyone can deny that there’s definitely potential now that didn’t exist in 1978 with regard to the possibility of effective longevity medicine.  And the deciding factor as far as whether that potential gets realized could very well be be whether people stay sufficiently focused and manage to avoid getting caught up in psychological and emotional traps, of either the overconfident or fatalistic nature.

Anne Corwin
Anne Corwin was an IEET intern 2006-2007, and is an engineer and technoprogressive activist in California. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Humanity Plus, and is active in the longevity movement through the Methuselah Foundation and in the neurodiversity movement addressing issues along the autism spectrum. Ms. Corwin writes the blog Existence is Wonderful and produces a related podcast.

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