IEET > Vision > Contributors > Colin Farrelly > HealthLongevity > Technoprogressivism
21st Century Humanism

As a humanist I believe in the equal worth of all human beings.  My humanist sentiments open my eyes to the problem of global poverty, the pervasiveness of patriarchy and the dangers of extremism.

My humanist sentiments also open my eyes to the shortcomings of evolution (evident by the prevalence of chronic disease in late life) and the prevalence of “ageism”.  In this post I will address these latter concerns.

If humanists reflected critically and consistently upon their basic moral convictions, I believe they would become strong advocates of aging research and the aspiration to decelerate human aging.  However, most humanists are not (at least yet) strong advocates of this scientific research; indeed many probably oppose this research or at the least do not think it an important priority.  In this post I will explain why this is a mistake given the foundational moral premises of humanism. 

What separates me from those humanists who ignore or eschew aging research is that I am a 21st century humanist, while they are 20th century humanists.  A 21st century humanist endorses the aspirations of 20th century humanists (e.g. racial equality, the elimination of gender, the elimination of world poverty, etc.), but we go one step further by incorporating the challenges of an aging world and the rapid advances in biomedical science into our purview of the demands of justice (see this excellent article which played a major role in bringing me around to thinking more rationally about these issues).

A 21st century humanist recognizes the fact that no person, regardless of race, gender, nationality or *age*, deserves to suffer morbidity and mortality.  And thus we ought to aspire to reduce these risks when it is feasible to do so, whether it be by providing access to clear drinking water, bed nets to protect against malaria or developing new drugs that re-programme our metabolism and help protect against chronic diseases. 

For the first time in human history, most disease and death this century will occur in late life.  Aging will cause hundreds of millions of cancer deaths, strokes, bone fractures, infections, etc.  Furthermore, these chronic diseases are extremely costly.  The Centre for Disease control estimates that chronic diseases account for 70% of all deaths in the United States and the medical care for people with chronic diseases account for more than 75% of the nation’s $2 trillion medical care costs. (source

20th century humanists seek to mitigate socially created harm and oppression, whereas 21st century humanism extends the concern for the equal worth of all beyond the harms created by social institutions.  21st century humanism also seeks to mitigate the adverse consequences of natural selection- in particular, the evolutionary neglect that leaves humans vulnerable to late-life morbidity and mortality.

The average age of life expectancy, at birth, in the world today is 67. This means that most people born today will live long enough to suffer one of the chronic diseases of aging, like cancer or heart disease.  This is a fate suffered by millions every year now, especially in the developing world (contrary to what most people in the developed world think). 

21st humanists ought to be among the strongest and loudest advocates of biogerontology.  For the goal of “healthy aging” is one that follows from the core humanist sentiment that the worth of all human life, regardless of chronological age, is equal.  Once humanists open their eyes to the reality of today’s aging world, appreciate the incredible advances that are being made in the biomedical sciences, and discard their ageism, perhaps they will embrace a public philosophy well suited for meeting the full range of challenges we face in the “here and now” (and in the years to come).

Colin Farrelly is currently Queen's National Scholar in the Dept of Political Studies at Queen's University. His most recent book is entitled Justice, Democracy and Reasonable Agreement.



COMMENTS

My view is that the human body is still largely primitive despite the fact that evolution on earth has been proceeding for millions of years and therefore aging is a simple fact of life. The major success of evolution is to permit reproduction. Whatever research is thrown at the aging problem will only have marginal effects. Modern medicine is in a sense a bandaid measure, nonetheless an effective one. Improving the environment is commendable, as is targeting illness directly. However, extending age as a primary goal can translate to extending the suffering. Another important consideration is that an aging population is an economic problem, and like it or not, the economy drives the health industry.
D J Wray
http://www.atotalawareness.com

@DJ Wray: “The major success of evolution is to permit reproduction.”
That /thing/ that first reproduced—how long was it living for before it reproduced?

@ Colin

I have posted a link in the forum to Aubrey de Grey that may be of interest to all parties.

Aubrey de Grey: Why we age and how we can avoid it >
http://ieet.org/index.php/forums/viewthread/65/

If these advances in longevity are as close as speculated, then we do indeed need to think very seriously about the ethical questions concerning population growth and productivity. When the question is posed to Aubrey, (who also believes there will be consequences concerning population growth), his answers regarding birth and death are a little vague, which only highlights the need to think about these issues now. Do we need to subscribe to less children in our world for the sake of our own longevity?

@ DJ

You have valid points all of which I agree with, especially regarding suffering and the economics of societies : what use is an extended lifespan in a world economy that does not evolve to cater for this extended quality of life? Would we in fact do more harm to our species by having less children, or even having children at a much later age, (hopefully before the needs for chronic repair are realised).

Even for a somewhat modest(?) speculation of life extension of thirty years or so, it would appear that the world’s economic ideals would need to change drastically and provide for additional ways for an ageing populace to be productive?

Bravo for your vision and altruism, Colin, but this all begs one question - are you going to maintain one phenotype forever (indefinite age extension) or go back to the genotype for a fresh copy (cloning)? Is it not more practical to “strike another match and start anew”?

“Ah, but your memories,” is the stock answer to this notion, and there are a range 0f replies to that from Kurzweil’s uploading of the brain’s contents to my own, wherein I maintain this is where Humanists emulate Christians and have “faith”.

Don’t panic - this is a simple faith that identical twins are the same person printed out twice. Just as a computer is the same object if you flush its memory, we must learn that our inherent complexity begets a uniqueness for us. And our advanced record-keeping will certainly buttress that faith.

Having faith in the uniqueness of your DNA, its 1:1 relationship with your life and lives, lays wide open the doors to immortality - to transverse time and space in the company of fellow 21st Century Humanists without Malthusian complications.

If you know of any investigations around this question (clones retaining identity) , in addition to the standard twin studies,  I would appreciate hearing of them. - Dwight

Even better than looking at twins, how about looking at /conjoined/ twins, like the Hensel girls?

Or should we say “girl”?

Posted by veronica

“Even better than looking at twins, how about looking at /conjoined/ twins, like the Hensel girls?”

A very interesting example. I’m sure they have a private language, which many ID twins do.

This question of identity to me is one of the most fundamental. What is it? The Christians have “soul” and my burden is this concept - we sleep, go unconciousness, get brain-injured etc. yet revive to be the same person. Other than the spatial conundrum of twins alive simultaneously, why are we not the same person when cloned, or are we?

A really good topic to discuss cause humanism is a really rare thing at present!(((

Thanks for all the interesting comments.

A few reponses to some of the points raised above:

D J Wray writes:
“Whatever research is thrown at the aging problem will only have marginal effects. Modern medicine is in a sense a bandaid measure, nonetheless an effective one. Improving the environment is commendable, as is targeting illness directly.”

Modern medicine is becoming less effective in tackling the chronic diseases among older populations.  Thus I think that targeting illness directly (which is what the current “disease model” approach does)  is a less useful strategy.  I believe we need to focus less on the proximate causes of disease and death, and more on the evolutionary causes of health and disease.  Rather than just ask:  why do we get cancer, let’s ask:  why do some people live a century of disease-free life?  And once we know why this is the case, let’s try to give everyone else that same opportunity.

CygnusX1
“we do indeed need to think very seriously about the ethical questions concerning population growth and productivity”.
 
I agree, though I don’t think it is that hard to see that the benefits of reducing the global burden of chronic disease *far* outweigh the challenges of population growth and productivity.  In just ten years of chronic disease, 220 million people will die. 

Furthermore, most people who raise this kind of objection overlook the enormous benefits of population growth.  Having more healthy, skilled and productive people is actually very good for one’s society (and humanity), not bad.

Of course some believe poverty is caused by overpopulation, as if poverty didn’t exist before the population explosion of the last century.  But the reality is the exact opposite of this.  The causes of poverty are many and complex, focusing on the number of people on the planet is a simplistic and wrong way to go about approaching the issue.  If you are worried about poverty, then you should support technological innovations that will help impoverished societies keep their (aging) populations healthy.  And that is what an aging intervention would do.  It would reduce disease and promote economic prosperity, just as medical interventions that reduced early and mid-life morbidity and mortality have done. 

“Do we need to subscribe to less children in our world for the sake of our own longevity?”
I think the choice between having less children and living longer, healthier lives is a false dichotomy (following on from my points above).  I believe we can have it all:a world with less chronic disease and happy, healthy families. 

Cheers,
Colin

“Of course some believe poverty is caused by overpopulation, as if poverty didn’t exist before the population explosion of the last century. But the reality is the exact opposite of this.”

We are not likely to enrich ourselves by dividing the pie further, Colin, and you are not accounting for the strain on limited collateral resources. Are we to live like eagles or as ants? A species decision.

There is no virtue in numbers, better to adjust our sense of entitlement or expectations for a while, and focus on quality?

This had to be one of the most depressing irresponsible cowardly reads I have ever laid eyes upon.

Where does this obsession with the eternal preservation of self come from, it sounds so religious! Me Me Me! Boohoo!

The only RESPONSIBLE attitude to the ‘eternalisation’ of life is the absolute end to reproduction and end to medically enhanced birthing ratios.

Death is normal, why are you so afraid?

It was bad enough when humanism (and it’s bed fellows in China and India) caused overpopulation through it’s disregard of all other lifeforms on earth, it’s another thing to see it progress to this incredible level of egotism that makes one believe they are so self important as to see an advantage to endlessly extending their life.

Truly, get a life, go for quality instead of quantity. Of course, if you lived in a bubble you might live much longer. In that light, do the opposite!

Tracy sez: “The only RESPONSIBLE attitude to the ‘eternalisation’ of life is the absolute end to reproduction…”

In light of your comment, I’m trusting you to be honest, and to heed your own counsel here… It is a sure way to protect your lineage.

Dwight wrote: heed my own counsel… you bet!!! I’m the most honest person you’ll ever meet! I had my tubes cauterised 11 years ago and don’t even plan on eternal life for myself, nor am I signing any organ donor card and I plan on setting up my “no lengthly life support” paperwork. No procreation for me, but what annoys me most is all the procreation done by the all the bigots, sexists, wife beaters, religious nuts I’m surrounded by.

The people with the most PC speak are usually those least trustworthy and the most obsessed with self.

We are far overdue overpopulated planet and through birth reduction we can fix this mess, but only if the vampire longevity fanatics can be depopularised.

Tracey writ: “We are far overdue overpopulated planet and through birth reduction we can fix this mess, but only if the vampire longevity fanatics can be depopularised.”

Birth reduction will come with rising living standards - B. Fuller identified that 50 years ago. But you misread the latter.

“Men lead lives of quiet desperation” per Thoreau, but less desperate if there are indeed lives, not just one. You can cash out earlier and save a lot of grief and money, yours and society’s.

You don’t have to get rich each time, or right away. And having progeny for support per India, or for leaving a larger genetic footprint after you -  being “genetically successful” - again not paramount like today.

If you put your continued access to Life’s window into fellow Humanists’ hands, you just may find this all works. But I certainly wouldn’t be working against it in the name of population - not well considered at all.

Work with people, not against them? Humans are your best resource—believe it.

You’re a normal and really good person if you posses yourself to be a humanist!

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