Saturday, November 24, 2007

Aging and Culture

A story in a recent issue of the news commentary magazine The Week (November 16), “Mr. Immortality,” reports on the ideas and research of “maverick biologist” Aubrey de Grey. While some of de Grey’s ideas are pretty far outside the current mainstream (e.g. he thinks it possible for humans to routinely live for centuries, if not a millennium), his basic starting point is sensible – to treat the aging of human cells and body parts as the set of physiological processes that it is and to intervene medically in this process as we would with disease. In other words, de Grey doesn’t so much imagine a magical fountain of youth as much as the continual preservation of life through routine maintenance over very long stretches of time.

De Grey’s ideas are of anthropological interest in at least two ways. First, they call into question the naturalness of aging. Even a cursory awareness of cross-cultural ethnological data makes clear that the ways in which we age is no more purely natural than much else that humans do. Being a young or middle-aged or elder member of a society is strongly influenced by cultural context, and cultural patterns pertaining to physical activity or nutrition play important roles in the aging process as well. Still, in every society up until now, the fact that we age has been inescapable, and de Grey’s ideas potentially challenge this inevitability.

Second is to consider the potential social consequences if aging is no longer inevitable. De Grey imagines a number of consequences that are probably spot on. For example, a rise in risk aversion strategies – if you can live forever unless you die in a violent accident or incident, you’d probably take things easier (as a child reading Tolkien’s Middle Earth works, one thing I always had trouble accepting was elves – immortal unless physically killed – willingly throwing themselves into battle). He also imagines a rethinking of retirement. It’s one thing to retire in one’s mid-sixties when one expects realistically to live just a decade or two longer than that, quite another if one expects to live several centuries. (For that matter, a variety of factors are already gradually leading to an upward shifting of retirement age anyway, with probably the most important factors being the potential insolvency of social security, but also expectations of longer life – even though not on the scale imagined by de Grey.)

In other ways, I find de Grey’s predictions limited, in large part because he is a utopian. He clearly sees the drastic expansion of human lifespans as something extended to all. For example, when asked about the consequences of such longer life and anti-aging maintenance, he replies, “If we want to hit the high points, number one is, there will not be any frail elderly people.” I find this much harder to imagine than the possibility of humans living a thousand years. Barring a complete transformation of global political and economic realities (something that could always happen but which I don’t at all foresee), the more realistic possibility is an extreme exacerbation of social inequalities, both between the developed and developing worlds and within specific nation-state contexts, with inequality encompassing not just differences in material prosperity but lifespan. (This too would be an exacerbation of an already existing pattern. According to data from The Economist, fifteen states [or similar entities] have populations with average life expectancies in excess of 80 years [Andorra, Japan, Hong Kong, Iceland, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Macau, Israel, Italy, Norway, Spain, Cayman Islands, and France], while six, all in Sub-Saharan Africa, have populations with average life expectancies lower than 40 years [Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Central African Republic].) I, of course, prefer De Grey’s imagined world, but I find it easier to imagine a small economic elite with access not just to fabulous wealth but also effective immortality, while in much of the world “frail elderly people” remain normal, and perhaps a middle group with partial access to greatly enhanced lifespan.

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