by Oreoluwa D. Babatope.

Policy Areas: Public Health, Biotechnology and Human Medicine

According to a report by two genetic engineers, José Cordeiro and David Wood, dying would become ‘optional’ within just 27 years and the ageing process would become ‘reversible’ by 2045. The report revealed that the duo alleged that immortality was a real and scientific possibility that could come much earlier than originally thought. The process would involve turning ‘bad’ genes into healthy ones; eliminating dead cells from the body; repairing damaged cells; carrying out treatments with stem cells; and ‘printing’ vital organs in 3D. They advocate for the classification of old age as an illness so that publicly-funded research into its cure can extend.

Comments

Of all mankind’s ostensibly insoluble problems, one has remained the most vexing, interesting and important: the problem of death itself… When the gods created man, Gilgamesh had learned, they set death as man’s inevitable destiny, and man must learn to live with it… For men of science, however, death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem, and every technical problem has a technical solution.” – Sapiens, p. 228 – 229.[2]

Wondering how long the Gilgamesh project (the quest for immortality) would take to complete, Harari asked if it would take a hundred, five hundred or a thousand years. Despite his optimism and the breakthroughs already achieved by genetic engineers as at 2014, he did not project that in just 27 years, the project could be successful. According to Cordeiro and Wood, with advances in Nanotechnology and new genetic manipulation techniques, lengthening ‘telomeres’ to reverse aging would soon become a viable option. “Humans will only die in accidents, never of natural causes or illness around the year 2045.”[3] The effects of this is far-reaching. Solving the ‘technical problem’ transcends seeking to attain immortality (or in this case, a-mortality); it encompasses investigating the physiological, hormonal and genetic systems responsible for disease and old age, curing such diseases and saving human lives. It also involves developing new medicines, revolutionary treatments and artificial organs that will lengthen human lives and possibly ‘kill death.’ Genetic engineering and manipulation, coupled with cyborg and bionic engineering has the potential of opening unimaginable possibilities and altering the laws of life, as we know it.

Notwithstanding the benefits of the successful completion of this project, it is also important to consider ethical, social and political implications of this development and of our potential new abilities. If people have the option of living forever, what would this mean for overpopulation and overcrowding? Would the existence of this option affect the rate of childbirth in any way? How realistic are the scientist’s arguments that there is still plenty of room for more people on Earth and the possibility of extending human residence to space?[4] Also to be considered are issues surrounding the legality of this development. What is the status of the laws, if any, regulating genetic modification, manipulation and bionic engineering? Who bears the liability in cases of cyborg or bionic mishaps, causing harm to life or property; the human with the bionic hands or the company creating the technology? Additionally, certain laws would have to be amended and modified, considering the new state of affairs. Examples of this are criminal laws providing for jail terms. Would the terms of imprisonments, probations or community services reflect the new ‘life expectancy’?

Furthermore, there is the question of inequality. It is not farfetched to project that only the rich would be able to afford such treatments. In addition to the already existing global and national inequality, this could create the most unequal of all societies in which the access to new medical capabilities are restricted. Cordeiro argues that, “technology, when it’s new, is poor and extremely expensive, but it eventually becomes democratic, mainstream and cheaper.”[5] He estimates that with a competitive market, the price will gradually fall. However, in light of the level of world poverty, this does not create much hope. Noting the serious problems of inequality plaguing the world, Strange (1994)[6] posits that the power derived from the knowledge structure often lies as much in the negative capacity to deny knowledge, to exclude others, rather than in the power to convey knowledge. It can therefore be argued that not only would such treatments be inaccessible to the poor, they would also be denied access to related knowledge and information.

If successful, the positive and negative implications of the project would be global in scope. Therefore, it is very important to have experts, international bodies and committees (both government and independent), look into these issues, establish strict regulations where necessary and take steps to ensure compliance. However, this job is not an easy one as decisions on these issues could have such far reaching implications for life as we know it, that posterity may never forgive them for taking the positions they did. Also, it involves a level of certainty about the actual extent of the knowledge and information gathered; the nature of the technology involved; as well as the expected goal(s) of these discoveries. Describing humans as ‘unsure’ and ‘discontent’, Harari concluded his book by asking certain questions which are apt here, as well. “What do we want to become?” “What do we want to want?” “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

[1] The article is taken from The Punch (Online) News. Available at: https://punchng.com/very-soon-people-will-have-option-of-living-forever-scientists/. Date: 05/06/2019.

[2] Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. United Kingdom, Harvill Secker. Available at:  https://www.academia.edu/26999548/Yuval_Noah_Harari-Sapiens_A_Brief_History_of_Human.pdf

[3] Punch (Online) News (2019, August 5). Very soon, people will have option of living forever —Scientists. Retrieved from https://punchng.com/very-soon-people-will-have-option-of-living-forever-scientists/

[4] ThinkSPAIN Team (2018, April 21). Death will be ‘optional’ and ageing ‘curable’ by 2045, say genetic engineers. ThinkSPAIN. Retrieved from https://www.thinkspain.com/news-spain/30425/death-will-be-optional-and-ageing-curable-by-2045-say-genetic-engineers

[5] Ibid

[6] Susan Strange (1988, 1994). States and Markets. Continuum, Great Britain. 2nd Ed. Available at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/states-and-markets-9780826473899/