COLUMN-Longer lives would lead to better living

December 3, 2013

By Michael Maiello

Dec 3 (Reuters) - Last week, the United States Food and Drug Administration ordered the Google-backed genetic testing company 23andMe to stop selling its home testing kits, arguing that the possibility of false positive readings for potentially fatal or debilitating conditions could prompt people to take unnecessary and potentially fatal medical action. The FDA should now work quickly to develop standards so that 23andMe and companies like it can get back to their vital businesses of working to extend the human life span.

Looking at the challenges facing us, you'd be forgiven for thinking that long lives are a problem. Humans face food shortages, the effects of climate change, and potential overcrowding on a global scale, as well as developed world retirement and healthcare systems that are ill-equipped to serve the needs of too many Methuselahs. But these problems might be more the result of short-term thinking rather than long-lived lives. The economist John Maynard Keynes once remarked, "In the long run, we are all dead." We may have taken that too much to heart.

Meanwhile, powerful forces are working on a cure for aging that could result in the radical extension of human life so that people can live at least to the outlier age of 120, if not beyond. Google, with clout and cash to burn, has funded and nurtured numerous projects meant to extend the human life span, perhaps indefinitely. Google co-founder Larry Page views death as a problem to be solved. Futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil serves as an adviser to Calico, a Google project meant to cure aging, as if it were a disease rather than a fact of life.

It is time for the U.S. government, both as a regulator and supporter of life sciences research, to start making policy as if death were a solvable problem. Problems like global warming, with effects measured over centuries, might mean more to today's policymakers if they knew they were going to personally face the consequences. The longer people expect to live, the more abstract concepts become practical concerns.

Economist Lester Carl Thurow, former dean of the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology compared the history of humanity on earth to an around-the-world plane trip, "Do I care what happens a thousand years from now? Do I care when man gets off the airplane? And I think basically I came to the conclusion that I don't care whether man is on the airplane for another eight feet or if man is on the airplane for another three times around the Earth."

Philosopher Brooke Alan Trisel, who quoted Thurow in his essay "Human Extinction and the Value of Our Efforts" for the Philosophical Forum, went on to argue that, "Most of people's goals can be accomplished within their lifetimes.people do accomplish many of their goals: they graduate from college, they get married, they pursue various careers, they write books, they travel, and so on - all without future generations."

Such an outlook makes spending to mitigate climate change or to blast an errant asteroid out of the cosmos at some undetermined point in the future a difficult proposition.

Environmental economist Bjorn Lomborg has argued against much climate change mitigation by using the same type of methods that a chief financial officer uses to determine where to direct a company's research and development spending - he applies a discount rate to determine the present value of money spent for future benefit. This has led him to argue for spending on mitigating the more immediate effects of climate change (disease outbreaks, extreme weather response, food shortages) rather than on the long-term problem.

Humans are notoriously bad forecasters, particularly over long periods. In a 2000 discussion paper for Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C. think tank, Richard Newell and William Pizer argued that for very long-term forecasts, even the discount rate is uncertain. Studying two centuries of interest rate forecasts led them to believe that such rates are a "random walk," much like stock market movements. Adding that uncertainty to Lomborg's work on climate change, they estimated that he had undervalued the worth of money spent to deal with climate change now by five orders of magnitude. Perhaps a longer life span would help us deal with the longer view.

The idea of biological immortality is real enough that Leon Kass, formerly the chair of George W. Bush's bioethics commission, argued against even trying to achieve it, believing that it would fundamentally alter the human condition. This is, of course, the point.

Our short life spans not only impede our ability to deal with long-term challenges, they allow us to tolerate present day injustices. The people with the most influence over current affairs are elites who tend to be socially and economically better situated than most. They generally have little reason to believe that their circumstances will change and they know their children will share their advantages. But the longer one lives, the more turns of fortune they will face. An immortal person would be likely to experience a bit of everything, from the highest fortunes to the lowest destitution, if only by chance. Our immortal bureaucrats, when making policy, would be trapped in the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls' "veil of ignorance." They would have to expect they will some day have to live, even temporarily, under the policies they enact for the very poorest.

All of this starts with our current biosciences. The FDA did what it had to do with regards to 23andMe, but taking the long view, the government needs to be a full-throated supporter of genetic testing and engineering. Without hyperbole, the future of the human race depends on it.