COLUMN-Longer lives would lead to better living


By Michael Maiello

Dec 3 (Reuters) - Last week, the United States Food and DrugAdministration ordered the Google-backed genetic testing company23andMe to stop selling its home testing kits, arguing that thepossibility of false positive readings for potentially fatal ordebilitating conditions could prompt people to take unnecessaryand potentially fatal medical action. The FDA should now workquickly to develop standards so that 23andMe and companies likeit can get back to their vital businesses of working to extendthe human life span.

Looking at the challenges facing us, you'd be forgiven forthinking that long lives are a problem. Humans face foodshortages, the effects of climate change, and potentialovercrowding on a global scale, as well as developed worldretirement and healthcare systems that are ill-equipped to servethe needs of too many Methuselahs. But these problems might bemore the result of short-term thinking rather than long-livedlives. The economist John Maynard Keynes once remarked, "In thelong run, we are all dead." We may have taken that too much toheart.

Meanwhile, powerful forces are working on a cure for agingthat could result in the radical extension of human life so thatpeople can live at least to the outlier age of 120, if notbeyond. Google, with clout and cash to burn, has funded andnurtured numerous projects meant to extend the human life span,perhaps indefinitely. Google co-founder Larry Page views deathas a problem to be solved. Futurist and computer scientist RayKurzweil serves as an adviser to Calico, a Google project meantto cure aging, as if it were a disease rather than a fact oflife.

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

Economist Lester Carl Thurow, former dean of the SloanSchool of Management at the Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology compared the history of humanity on earth to anaround-the-world plane trip, "Do I care what happens a thousandyears from now? Do I care when man gets off the airplane? And Ithink basically I came to the conclusion that I don't carewhether man is on the airplane for another eight feet or if manis on the airplane for another three times around the Earth."

Philosopher Brooke Alan Trisel, who quoted Thurow in hisessay "Human Extinction and the Value of Our Efforts" for thePhilosophical Forum, went on to argue that, "Most of people'sgoals can be accomplished within their lifetimes.people doaccomplish many of their goals: they graduate from college, theyget married, they pursue various careers, they write books, theytravel, and so on - all without future generations."

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

Environmental economist Bjorn Lomborg has argued againstmuch climate change mitigation by using the same type of methodsthat a chief financial officer uses to determine where to directa company's research and development spending - he applies adiscount rate to determine the present value of money spent forfuture benefit. This has led him to argue for spending onmitigating the more immediate effects of climate change (diseaseoutbreaks, extreme weather response, food shortages) rather thanon the long-term problem.

Humans are notoriously bad forecasters, particularly overlong periods. In a 2000 discussion paper for Resources for theFuture, a Washington, D.C. think tank, Richard Newell andWilliam Pizer argued that for very long-term forecasts, even thediscount rate is uncertain. Studying two centuries of interestrate forecasts led them to believe that such rates are a "randomwalk," much like stock market movements. Adding that uncertaintyto Lomborg's work on climate change, they estimated that he hadundervalued the worth of money spent to deal with climate changenow by five orders of magnitude. Perhaps a longer life spanwould help us deal with the longer view.

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

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

All of this starts with our current biosciences. The FDA didwhat it had to do with regards to 23andMe, but taking the longview, the government needs to be a full-throated supporter ofgenetic testing and engineering. Without hyperbole, the futureof the human race depends on it.

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