Methuselah Foundation  [Printer-friendly version]
August 28, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The Methuselah Foundation, which aims to
prolong human life, says the precautionary principle will halt all
progress. This is a common criticism of a precautionary approach so
we should examine it carefully. Instead of the precautionary
principle, they favor the proactionary principle, which was
developed to justify speeding up technological innovation for the
purpose of replacing humans with another form of life.]

A good example of a call for caution that would, if enacted, amount to
a form of sabotage can be found amongst the essays of the Healthful
Life Project. It's a good illustration of the way in which some of
those who might appear at first glance to be in favor of healthy
life extension are in fact putting forth a message little different
from the rhetoric of the more obvious opposition:

"Surely common sense would suggest that excessive population growth is
very likely to have some very unpleasant consequences, and that the
health and prosperity of humankind, as well as other creatures that
share the planet with us, is likely to require that population be
stabilized at some reasonable level (say 10 to 12 billion persons). If
that notion is accepted, then it follows that the greatest threat to
achieving population stability at reasonable levels will not be a
failure to control birth rates, but rather the extension of adult life
span. That, in turn, invites the conclusion that the greatest threat
to planetary stability is within the scientific community....

"I would suggest that we concentrate on conquering diseases and
slowing the aging process so people can live out their maximal
physiologic life span. That will benefit individuals; it will
simultaneously challenge the global society as average life expectancy
increases by 20 or 30 years, but with a reasonable amount of thought
and planning, we can cope with those changes. On the other hand, we
should approach changing the boundaries of aging with great caution,
insisting on debating the questions I posed at the beginning of this
essay and requiring that any attempt to change the boundaries in human
beings be kept experimental and be accompanied by rigorous long-term
assessment that includes evaluating the quality of life of these very
old persons.

"In sum, my view is: Maximizing physiologic life span -- full speed
ahead. Changing the boundaries of human aging -- go slow with extreme
caution. The research into aging is spectacular, but the implications
and potential consequences are so profound that we cannot afford to
leave it solely in the hands of the scientific community. We had
better figure out where we are going or we may find some unpleasant
surprises when we get there."

The Malthusians are convinced that the sky will fall if people live
longer or use more resources. Never mind that overpopulation through
longevity seems just as unlikely to come to pass, judging by the data
we have on hand: Malthusians been convinced of this for quite some
time -- and proven absolutely wrong in their specific predictions
time and time again. Here's a newsflash for the Malthusians: it's
too late; the sky has already fallen. We are already in the midst of a
disaster far greater, immediate and proven than any postulations about
population on your part. What is more, you fail to understand the
nature of change and are ignorant of economics; your actions will
only prolong this present disaster by blocking progress.

More than 100,000 people died yesterday -- and the day before, and
the day before that. More than 100,000 people will die tomorrow, and
the day after, and the day after that -- and forever on unless we do
something. They are dying of aging, of root causes that scientists are
comparatively close to understanding and addressing. It takes a
particular sort of mindset to put future issues based upon an ignorant
view of human action and economics in front of this present ongoing
toll. Personally, I'm glad I do not think that way.

The precautionary principle is a distillation of inaction forced by
excessive caution. More extreme expressions of the precautionary
principle have been seized upon and promoted by all sorts of opponents
of progress because they represent a halt to all progress: no advance
is ever risk-free. Demanding -- and attempting to enforce -- risk free
progress is one and the same with halting the engine of science and
technology. Many foolish people want just this, sadly, and would
condemn every living person to suffer and die from degenerative aging
to achieve their ends.

Sadly, the popularity of extreme expressions of the precautionary
principle obscure the high costs of adhering to even moderate
versions. If you attach a ball and chain to those working on medical
progress, medical progress will be slow. How can anyone advocate
slowing down progress in the face of 100,000 deaths each and every
day? Yet this seems to be the mainstream position; those who do not
contribute to getting the work done have largely fallen down the
rabbit hole of doing nothing by throwing roadblocks in the path
ahead. Great job, you all -- I hope you manage to live with yourselves
if scientists create working anti-aging medicine within our lifetime
despite your efforts. If science is held back well enough... well,
then we all age, suffer and die. Well done. Applause. A pity you won't
be there to receive the gratitude of the masses -- who won't be there

A couple of years ago, the Proactionary Principle was proposed as an
answer to all this anti-progress waffling and nonsense:

"People's freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even
critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when
restrictive measures are proposed: Assess risks and opportunities
according to available science, not popular perception. Account for
both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of
opportunities foregone. Favor measures that are proportionate to the
probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high expectation
value. Protect people's freedom to experiment, innovate, and

I think it continues to stand as a much more sensible viewpoint. The
sky has fallen, and we see tens of millions of deaths each year: we
should be moving the earth and sky to do something about it.

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