Friday, November 15, 2013

Must the Old Always Get Older?

Alex Zhavoronkov, The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy

On page one, Alex Zhavoronkov boldly declares: “We will soon be able to slow the aging process itself.” Period. No qualifiers, maybes, or squeamish half-committed circumlocution. That boldness is initially refreshing in contemporary pop nonfiction, which too often meekly tries to forestall counterclaims. Except it quickly becomes clear why authors use qualifier language, because Zhavoronkov sweepingly excludes important implications arising from his thesis.

Dr. Zhavoronkov, a pathbreaking gerontologist and international éminence grise, details how recent innovations in anti-aging medicine, and breakthroughs expected anon, will change human expectations of old age and retirement. Instead of seniors getting older and more decrepit, their pensions burdening society’s safety net, new science will extend citizens’ productive years. Zhavoronkov predicts five to ten year gains initially, and much greater increases soon thereafter.

Zhavoronkov’s predictions are wholly exciting, especially since they’re backed with robust science. Rather than simple entropy, as many assume, aging proves predicated on complex networks of biological functions nobody suspected just ten years ago. Treatments exist, or will soon exist, for the most common causes of declining productivity, including arthritis, dementia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Practical application of radical anti-aging treatments may begin imminently.

These predictions, delivered in Zhavoronkov’s scientifically precise but upbeat style, gets the blood pumping. Who wouldn’t rather keep making stuff and paying taxes than commence a leisurely stroll toward morbidity? (That’s rhetorical. Don’t answer that.) Problems arise, though, when Zhavoronkov explains how redefining age will change society. He basically lays a ruler against the upward arc of the last fifty years, draws a line out to infinity, and shouts “Yippee!”

I can’t buy that. Zhavoronkov’s calculus incorporates medicine, neoclassical economics, and nothing else. I’ve read too much physical and social science to accept this narrow forecast. Start with how we’ll power this research, and feed and employ workers remaining productive well into their eighties. (Assume changing birth rates lag behind mortality, which seems likely.) This requires energy, which currently means hydrocarbons. More people working longer will burn more carbon, with tragically predictable long-term consequences.

Zhavoronkov’s predictions will draw natural comparisons to Ben Bova and Ray Kurzweil, who’ve both described their vision for humans’ imminent transcendence of death. But James Howard Kunstler and others criticize these authors’ perspectives as shortsighted, since they implicitly assume nigh-unlimited potential energy for human use, which current science denies. I’d go one step further: all three authors assume we’ll have someplace to put these numberless immortals.

Humans, pursuing their appetites, have muddied the air, clear-cut jungles, silted rivers, acidified seawater, and caused massive species extinction. Society’s status quo already requires unsustainable inputs and discharges revolting waste into our air, water, and soil. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, new technology doesn’t guarantee we’ll use it any better than our old technology. A larger population, living longer, must change its ways or humanity’s terrestrial future looks bleak indeed.

Even Zhavoronkov’s key thesis, that youthful seniors can keep working productively, assumes the economy can absorb them. That’s hardly proven. It could simply compound mass unemployment, or worse. If seasoned workers maintain fresh-faced vigor into their eighties, this will impact actual young workers who, lacking experience, will find doors shut. This could extend adolescent dependency beyond young workers’ peak childbearing years. Zhavoronkov addresses this possibility in one sentence, in parentheses.

I could continue, but it gets nitpicky. Let me name one last risk. New pharmaceuticals generally start out very expensive, and remain so while the market will bear it. Imagine wealthy bosses, banksters, and connected government officials can afford these treatments and bestride the earth for (Zhavoronkov suggests) up to 160 years, while ordinary workers continue to peter out around 65. What prevents that devolving into drug-fueled, age-based peonage?

None of this negates Zhavoronkov’s science. Imagine what humans could accomplish with added decades to learn, dream, and build. If we could manage the Pandora’s Box Zhavoronkov’s science implies, the hypothetical possibilities truly make the heart soar. If we leave St. Augustine out of the discussion, the capacity for what humans could accomplish if we postpone death make everything in prior human history look small, purblind, and cribbed.

Rather, Zhavoronkov needs a Freeman Dyson or a Harlan Ellison to co-author his social vision, helping imagine ramifications beyond his areas of expertise. Zhavoronkov’s prose brims with potential, but he just ignores entire scientific and humanistic disciplines in crafting his rosy future. We must anticipate all potential outcomes, and read his words in context. Because we’ll either face the future we plan and build, or the future that finds us despite our denial.

Coda: After reading this review, Zhavoronkov sent me the following e-mail:
Hi Kevin,

I would like to thank you for posting a comprehensive and objective review of the Ageless Generation. It is a great pleasure to "meet" a high–level intellectual and well-versed in a variety of disciplines these days. Let me know if I can ever be of assistance.

I want to publicly acknowledge Dr. Zhavoronkov for this message. After recent conflicts with authors who couldn't take criticism, it's refreshing to hear from an author confident enough to receive a review like this with grace and aplomb. Alex Zhavoronkov is a gentleman and a scientist, in the truest sense of those words, and while I cannot overlook his omissions, I find his science, and the man himself, solid enough to recommend both for curious, intellectually engaged readers.

Thank you, Dr. Zhavoronkov. Writers like you make reviewing a truly rewarding avocation.

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