Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Is not aging anti-evolution?

By Carl 

That's the pretty interesting, if simplistic, question posed by The Atlantic:

Not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of radical life extension. As funding for anti-aging research has exploded, bioethicists have expressed alarm, reasoning that extreme longevity could have disastrous social effects. Some argue that longer life spans will mean stiffer competition for resources, or a wider gap between rich and poor. Others insist that the aging process is important because it gives death a kind of time release effect, which eases us into accepting it. These concerns are well founded. Life spans of several hundred years are bound to be socially disruptive in one way or another; if we're headed in that direction, it's best to start teasing out the difficulties now.

But there is another, deeper argument against life extension -- the argument from evolution. Its proponents suggest that we ought to avoid tinkering with any human trait borne of natural selection. Doing so, they argue, could have unforeseen consequences, especially given that natural selection has such a sterling engineering track record. If our bodies grow old and die, the thinking goes, then there must be a good reason, even if we don't understand it yet. Nonsense, says Bennett Foddy, a philosopher (and flash game developer!) from Oxford, who has written extensively about the ethics of life extension. "We think about aging as being a natural human trait, and it is natural, but it's not something that was selected for because it was beneficial to us." Foddy told me. "There is this misconception that everything evolution provides is beneficial to individuals and that's not correct." 

The short answer to this silly conundrum is, evolution is designed for survival of the fittest, which implies adaptation not talent or ability. If our intelligence is the key to unlocking almost-permanent longevity -- I figure I have a 60% chance of living to 200, and a 10% chance of immortality -- then evolution is not going to make a value judgement on this. It's either going to encourage it or discourage it through the interplay of evolutionary factors.

For instance, if it's an inefficient strategy for the population as a whole, then we'll either not achieve it or we'll find the cons to achieving it more than outweigh the pros. Whether we pay attention to those signals is irrelevant: if another species finds a way to become the dominant one on this planet or we begin to die off, evolution will have had its say.

However, the argument of a value judgement as to whether extreme longevity is a good thing, a wholly human argument, is a good one to have.

One thing extreme longevity could bring about, which is implied but unstated in the article, is a radical shift in our attitudes towards money: with more and more people outliving their money -- something that is already happening -- society will be forced to make decisions about the structure of private wealth. Indeed, the backlash we see now against the strawman of the "welfare state" raised by conservatives is the expression of a desperate fear that they, too, will not have enough to live off indefinitely.

One thing evolution encourages is the preying of the strong upon the weak.

It's not that aging is a bad thing, but you have to take a long view to see it as a good thing: aging allows diversity in a slow-growing population and a more efficiant allocation of resources. If I'm 80, my gene-pool is draining, and I am less productive than a 30 year old (right now -- I'll get to a non-aging scenario in a second). Less productive from a conception orientation (I'm less attractive to women who would be breeding), less productive from a work perspective (I tire easily and lose focus), and less productive in a child-rearing scenario.

I'm old, to put the point bluntly. But notice the positives to the population as a whole. In removing my breeding capacity, a younger pool of breeding males can step up, males with genetic material significantly different from mine and this adds to the long-term survival of the species. I haven't been exposed to many of the challenges these men and their ancestors have, so my genes may not be the best defense against, say, a bird flu.

Not aging changes this dynamic substantially. Suddenly, I can be competitive with younger men, particularly if I keep my boyish good looks and athletic stamina.

Suddenly, my gene pool is replenished.

On a societal basis, this puts pressure on the next generations. From an evolutionary basis, pressure leads to adaptation as those younger men develop strategies to circumvent whatever competitive advantages I might have (experience, for one thing, confidence, there are any number I might accrue over time). And while it's hard to prove that my not aging is a bad thing, we can infer from the evidence that aging is a good thing for the population that not aging may not be a good thing, too.

Since we're talking about time frames that span millenia if not eons, it would be hard to say. And that's assuming non-aging isn't ultimately fatal to the species first.

From my perspective, I'd prefer not to die: the world is too interesting and I want to see how some things play out. Uncertainty principle suggests that by seeing them play out, I immediately alter how they play out.

And that's the interesting question from this silly scenario.

(Cross-posted to Simply Left Behind.)


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