The Challenges Of Immortality

Commentary, Disruption, Frontier Centre

The inexorable march of technology continues to accelerate. With it comes a host of new contributions to human progress and new questions for public policy. No field presents as many challenges as the science of genetics.

In 1996, a team of Seattle researchers discovered a gene that causes premature aging, one that can turn 30-year olds gray and render them susceptible to the diseases that afflict their grandparents. In 1998, scientists in Boston isolated the gene that precipitates the onset of Alzheimer's. In dozens of laboratories around the world, we moving closer to answering the big questions: "What causes aging? How can we stop it?"

What makes the universal aging mechanism tick may well turn out to be the metabolization of oxygen, which compromises the DNA that signals the body to reproduce its own cells. The hunt is on for ways to prevent this cell death by fortifying the DNA's defences. Technology therefore may be able to extend human life indefinitely.

The longing for immortality is as old as our species, but what would happen if we actually attained it? In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift imagined a society where nobody ever died. People just went senile and wandered about in a state of dazed, drooling incomprehension. Modern research, however, raises the tantalizing prospect of a world where people live longer but stay healthy.

The implications are enormous. People would no longer need to retire at 65, nor would they need old-age pensions. Much of the funding now dedicated to hospitals and nursing homes could be re-channeled into relieving the crowding and rationing that now cripple our health-care system.

But, say the Malthusians, what about population growth? Wouldn't a massive and sudden extension of human lives deplete the resources we need to support so many more people?

Not necessarily. Implicit in this view is a misunderstanding of the nature of wealth creation. It ignores the vital role played by human intellectual capital.

Prosperous societies dedicate a lot of time and wealth to education and training. On average, about a third of our current life span is spent in the accumulation of knowledge and skills. If we could live a few decades longer, both the narrowly economic and the wider human returns on this investment would continue to multiply.

The best modern example of the adaptability of resources is the unique experience of Hong Kong. Between 1949 and 1998, with virtually no physical assets, the colony absorbed millions of destitute refugees and built a living standard higher than Canada's. It did so by setting up an open economy where its only resource — human capital — could find its best expression. Hong Kong never ran out of resources because the ingenuity and hard work of its people were allowed to attack the problem of scarcity head on.

The promise of genetic research lies in its capacity to capture and extend the usefulness of human capital. The downside is not the exhaustion of the Earth. It is the ethical dilemmas posed by biotechnology. Tinkering with genetics raises possibilities that challenge widely held philosophical and religious scruples about experimenting on human embryos.

The federal government has struggled for years to cope with these implications. Its latest effort, the Human Reproductive and Genetic Technologies Act, died on the order paper when the 1997 federal election was called. It will be reintroduced this fall.

Many of the bill's provisions offer common-sense regulatory protection against the potential abuse of research, but it may include a ban on "gene therapy that will alter future generations". That's going too far.

The possibility of our sitting at the hearth and dispensing wisdom to descendants 200 years younger than ourselves must not be sacrificed. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.