I've also tried whenever possible to write about longevity science and developments therein here at Existence is Wonderful. This is something I was doing before I got involved with the Methuselah Foundation, and isn't technically a "volunteer duty", but I figure that anything I can do to help inform people about developments, possibilities, and issues in biogerontology is definitely worth doing.
However, recently (as opposed to when I first got started writing about this subject) I've been a lot more careful and hesitant about what I publish. As someone who is keenly aware of being neither a biologist nor particularly well-versed in public relations, I want to make sure to whatever extent possible that I write things which are (a) scientifically valid, and (b) not somehow likely to make things worse as far as public longevity discourse goes.
You see, I come at this from a position of being very interested in, and enthusiastic about, potentially vast developments in biogerontology -- but at the same time being very sensitive to what my rhetoritician friend Dale Carrico calls superlativity.
It is likely that I very probably sounded a bit, well, "superlative" myself when I started blogging about longevity. Coming at the subject from a naive science-fiction-geek's perspective, I honestly didn't know any better at the time, and didn't initially see what was wrong with going on about "technological immortality". But now I do (despite still being a science fiction geek and probably still plenty naive in many respects), and I take Carrico's (and others' -- physics professor and nanotech scientist Richard Jones has also written of the pitfalls of superlative thinking) critiques quite seriously.
Consequently, sometimes I feel like I'm caught in the middle between, on the one hand, well-meaning folks (who might very well be contributing plenty from a scientific and fundraising standpoint to longevity research) who nonetheless see superlativity critique as pessimistic or irrelevant, and other folks (such as Jones and Carrico) who in my assessment seem to have very astutely identified particular problems in public technology discourse (including that surrounding biogerontology) as it presently stands.
My favorite kinds of articles to write about longevity are those which allow me to go off and read a lot of neat literature on animal biology, and then "translate" what I read into something (hopefully) more generally accessible.
For instance I particularly enjoyed writing A Menagerie of Longevity and Of Monotremes and Mole-Rats: Metabolism, Membranes, and More. I also really liked writing my article on "replacement parts" for the body, Livers and Kidneys and Hearts (Oh My!) - Bioartificial Benefits in Emerging Longevity Medicine.
These are the kinds of articles I'd ideally like to write a lot more of -- because not only are they really interesting to research, and fun to write, I see them as demonstrating that yes a person can write about nifty biogerontological stuff without invoking notions of "technological immortality". I don't think anyone could read those articles and claim reasonably that they were written by a "pessimist" or a "defeatist" or by someone who was somehow "afraid of science"!
But you will notice if you do read those articles that I do not claim that any of the developments being discussed are somehow representative of an inevitable convergence of technology toward humans being able to run around forever in indestructible robot bodies, leaping deftly through spacetime and tunneling through Einstein-Rosen bridges and whatnot into sanctuary universes in order to escape the heat death of our own. That sort of thing is fine if you're writing science fiction stories, or even just daydreaming for the fun of it, but it has nothing to do with what can be accomplished within a reasonable timeframe given what humans know now.
Now, I don't relegate the above speculative scenario to science fiction because applying it to actual reality is "too geeky" (I'd be a right hypocrite claiming immunity to that!), but because doing so distorts the way people think about the subject at hand.
By this I mean that superlative predictions tend to tempt people toward glossing over the "...and then a miracle happens!" step between now, when we still have people dying at 90 of heart failure and a potential future in which five-hundred-year-olds run weekly marathons (or accomplish some other feat associated culturally with vigor and youthfulness).
I certainly don't think such a future is impossible, but neither do I think one needs to believe in such an outcome in order to make healthcare improvements (for the elderly and everyone else) a priority.
There is no magical property to handwaving that somehow makes handwaved potential outcomes more likely to happen, and I am quite worried in fact about the effects of large groups of people thinking that they can personally stave off age-related illness and death through sheer indignation at its occurrence (and in doing so, potentially losing sight of the fact that while they're fantasizing about nanorobotic cell repair, we still have kids in the United States dying because their family couldn't afford proper dental care*).
Certainly it is probably impossible to totally extricate motivations and efforts to improve medicine in general (or toward any specific end) from raw human existential anxieties and survival instincts, and I do not mean to suggest that inventors must go into their inventive efforts with no picture in their heads of what the outcome may look like -- but we can still at least work to develop better self-awareness of how our ambitions reflect these deep entanglements.
Recently I was forwarded an article on some of the efforts taking place at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute. The article is entitled Researchers seek to create 'fountain of youth', and it briefly describes the work being done to study and alleviate the effects of "storage diseases" -- that is, conditions thought to be caused at least in part by the buildup of compounds in the body over time that cannot easily be broken down.
Philosophically, this concept is similar (as the article points out) to that of environmental remediation, in which particular microbes are introduced to break down pollutants. The notion of applying this concept to animal (including human) bodies is a pretty neat one, and it seems that the Biodesign Institute team (including Methuselah Foundation-affiliated researcher John Schloendorn) has already identified:
...five microbes from soil and sludge samples capable of decomposing a molecule called 7-ketocholesterol. This cholesterol variant is widely accepted as a cellular toxin and thought to be a primary culprit in the development of atherosclerosis. The body does not routinely degrade it and its accumulation causes hardening of the arteries, which in turn leads to arterial blockages and heart attacks.
The researchers are now exploring the use of microbial machinery to biodegrade 7-ketocholesterol to attempt to reverse the cause of arterial distress.
How totally cool is that? Definitely a promising development. I am really intrigued by this research and I could seriously see it producing benefits for plenty of people still alive today.
But -- and I don't mean at all to denigrate any of the actual research going on, as that stuff is the bee's knees -- it seriously makes me cringe to see it being described as "seeking the fountain of youth". I mean really, now. I'm not just whining about semantics here, and I don't think this is "making a big deal out of nothing" -- I genuinely think describing real, legitimate research in terms of mythical metaphor tends to have a distorting effect.
The content of the article is mostly good, but I have to wonder how many people would just stop reading after the title thinking it was going to all be about some kind of newfangled quacky vitamin pill?
Again I have a lot of respect for much of what the Methuselah Foundation has accomplished so far -- I wouldn't volunteer with them if I didn't, and I'm tremendously picky in that regard -- but I do think in the long run it would be better if popular articles written about actually-useful longevity-related work did not have phrases like "Fountain of Youth" in the title. I think that longevity researchers and anyone who is actually serious about medical progress need to be more insistent with reporters who try to portray actual research in terms similar to that used in ads for Bob's Wrinkle Cream.
Sure, that sort of thing might be attention-grabbing, but at what cost? Do we want to invoke legends and myths in describing interesting and potentially promising science experiments, or the reality of present-day healthcare needs (and potential real-life improvements thereof)? I would definitely lean toward the latter. It may be less glamorous, but when it comes to science and ethics, I'll take the hard (but ultimately more promising) practicalities of the present reality over daydream-invoking glamour any day.
*I am not arguing here that healthcare service distribution has to be made absolutely equal before any "higher tech" developments become ethically permissible -- from a practical standpoint, that is likely impossible to begin with, and furthermore, I don't think that caring about one thing means you automatically don't care about another.
In other words I do not think that it is appropriate to say, "well, we need to first make things better for children before helping the elderly" -- I am not in the practice of trying to weigh lives on a scale of value based on someone's supposed economic productivity or anything like that. But I do think that when people get really wrapped up in superlative thinking, they are doing something very different from simply caring about their and others' long-term health -- they are letting themselves be swept into an unrealistic picture of what actual infrastructure exists, how existing systems affect actually-existing people, etc.