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Event Summary: New St Cross Special Ethics Seminar: Should people have indefinite lifespans? Ethical and social considerations in life-extension, Professor João Pedro de Magalhães

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Written by: Dr Amna Whiston


On Thursday, 16th November 2023, Professor João Pedro de Magalhães, a prominent microbiologist specialising in ageing and longevity research, gave an engaging and personable New St Cross Ethics Seminar entitled: ‘Should people have indefinite lifespans? Ethical and social considerations in life-extension?’

Following a brief introduction to the biology of ageing, de Magalhães explained the potential intervening with the ageing process, in advance of discussing the ethical and social implications of extending life span. De Magalhães humbly noted at the beginning of his talk that the importance of ethical and social considerations of biomedical research is sometimes underappreciated by the scientists working in this area. However, he argued that the scientific effort to counter ageing is ethical since it aims to enable people to have long and healthy lives for as long as possible.

De Magalhães first reminded us that the human desire to combat ageing and prolong one’s life is age-old by recalling China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang who ingested mercury sulphide in the hopes it would prolong his life, which ironically killed him. De Magalhães then mentioned Alexander Bogdanov, a Russian physician and polymath who in 1926 founded the first Russian Institute of Blood Transfusion, but who also ironically died as a result of a haemolytic transfusion reaction. Evidently, the human desire to prolong life has long been frustrated by a lack of means to pursue it.

De Magalhães next discussed the discoveries about ageing in the past few decades. We now know, for example, that once we reach the age of 30, the risk of dying doubles every 8 years that we live. Why do we age? Something in our immune system changes, and degenerates, making us more susceptible to infectious diseases. We don’t fully understand what changes, but we can be optimistic about interfering with ageing and do something about ageing, De Magalhães argued. Genetic manipulation is possible in the future. We now know he went on, that tweaking a single gene can extend longevity by as much as 50% in rodents. This discovery has wider implications for our understanding of the genetic makeup of the ageing of mammals, and ultimately humans.

What are the ethical and social concerns given this research and the future possibilities regarding life extension? In the second part of his talk, De Magalhães argued that none of the major ethical issues, including the biggest one – the issue of overpopulation – are fundamentally prohibitive of advances in the area. When it comes to population, fertility rates are much bigger issues, he pointed out. Importantly, with the population growth, technology has been able to keep pace. De Magalhães asserted that we live in the best of times thanks to technology, including medical advancements, and that problems such as climate change and the depletion of natural resources would be there for us to deal with regardless of overpopulation.

The second ethical concern De Magalhães discussed is about seeing ageing as a natural process. As he said, many things are not natural, whether good or bad, and civilisation is a struggle against nature. We cannot go back and want to continue using technology to improve human life. We want to be healthy and live longer. After all, De Magalhães noted, there are other species that live considerably longer than humans. Why should the idea of prolonging human life be seen as problematic?

Thirdly, De Magalhães brought up the issue of social inequalities and he denied that there is a good reason not to use medical interventions and longevity treatments just because they are not available in some parts of the world – they are still desirable.

Finally, De Magalhães briefly touched upon the issues of prenatal genetic alteration, and the incredible prospect of undoing death, remaining cautiously optimistic about what the science and technology in medicine will offer to the future of humanity.

De Magalhães emphasised that extending life is not just about extending it in a given period of time but about extending life with good health. If we can slow down the process of ageing, even slightly, with the help of longevity drugs, this could have great medical, social and economic benefits. De Magalhães also expressed cautious optimism about the possibility of ‘curing’ ageing so that the life span could be a thousand years or more. People would, of course, still be vulnerable to death due to accident, or deliberate killing, hence the difference between life extension and immortality.

One of the seminar participants objected, evoking Bernard Williams’s ‘tedium of immortality’ (1973), that living too long would not be desirable and that many people would become bored with their existence. De Magalhães acknowledged that some people’s desire for a living may decrease the longer they live. Also, people’s desires for longevity can vary significantly, depending on several factors including their personal belief system. But how long is too long? It is also fair to say that for various reasons health including life can seem too short given the dreams and desires we have – we are human, all too human. De Magalhães’ research is a vigorous, albeit cautiously optimistic, response to this aspect of human reality, and as he said, his goal is to enhance our understanding of the nature and process of ageing itself, the age-related diseases so that we can potentially live longer lives with good health.




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1 Comment on this post

  1. I don’t know anyone who opposes efforts to extend healthy, vital human lives. People, generally, want to achieve and contribute what they are capable of. Indefinite life is a loaded expression that implies a leap towards infinity, which I have claimed is, at best, unrealistic: we can’t get there from here; there is no ‘there’ there. That said, you may have also heard life expectancy is dropping—particularly in the United States. This is, no doubt, due in part to lifestyle choices. Otherwise, there are influences we might better mitigate, and still others probably beyond our control. I would like to see ninety and one hundred year olds striving, contributing and achieving. I think we need to be realistic, change the things we can, accept those we can’t and be smart enough to know the difference…if those words sound familiar, you are responsively conscious. I respect medicine and science. I am also a pragmatist.

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