Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Biotechnology and the Future of Aging

The will to be in control of evolution is an integral part of human nature.

It's always a pleasure to watch inspirational speakers, especially when the topic is my favourite one: the problem of aging.

This talk, given by biotech ethicist Gregory Stock, is actually several years old but was posted only recently in TED Talks. Since he makes some rather bold predictions about the future, it's interesting to compare the current situation with the one in the video.

For example, at one point, he says that we are eventually going to use existing embryo screening technology to choose the physical and psychological traits we want for our children – which essentially means making "designer babies", to use a term favored by the media. As it happens, Stock was right. Just a few months ago, there was a newspaper article about technology allowing parents to select things like hair color for their children before they're born.

Unsurprisingly, the whole idea of cheating nature through technology was written about in a fairly negative tone. The "ethical problems" were emphasized, and some of the doctors interviewed in the article vowed never to use their sacred technology to promote the pure evil that is trait selection. As Stock mentions in his presentation, people will object to these technologies and attempt to ban them, but eventually, they will happen anyway. I whole-heartedly agree with his conclusion that it's really not a matter of "if" but a matter of "when". Besides, banning technologies like this in one country just means that they will be available in another one, with the added negative effect of being affordable only by the rich.

One doesn't need to look very far to realize that other aspects of conquering aging are also happening as we speak. Using tissue engineering and stem cells to "speed up" evolution is something with which we are making real progress, and growing new body parts is not just science fiction anymore. At first, these innovations will probably be used to treat diseases and other existing conditions, but gradually, the emphasis will shift to preventative methods, and from there to self-improvement.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with such self-improvement. It's built into human nature. Ever since the first caveman developed a tool to aid him in hunting, we've been coming up with ways to deal with all the hazards nature keeps throwing at us. During the history of mankind, we've found solutions to many of the problems, but aging has remained an unsolved mystery.

And yet, it's not unrealistic to be somewhat optimistic about the future. If Gregory Stock is right, the victory over aging may not be so far away after all.

For more information on aging, see these posts:

How to Live Forever: My 5 Steps to Immortality
Anti-Aging in the Media: 60 Minutes on Resveratrol
Anti-Aging in the Media: The Globe and Mail on Telomerase
Anti-Aging in the Media: Rolling Stone on Ray Kurzweil

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