Methuselah Foundation, 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 either.

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 progress."

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.

Copyright 2003-2006 Methuselah Foundation