April 12, 2004

Kass Alone At The Crossroads

I caught bits and pieces of the Sage Crossroads webcast today. Since it will probably be a few days before this interview is posted in the Sage archive, I thought I'd share some highlights of what I heard.

Normally Sage Crossroads webcasts are set up as debates. Today was a simple interview, but it was an interview of Dr. Leon Kass, the chairman of the Presidents Council on Bioethics. When I "tuned in" Kass was arguing that life extension could retard full maturation of young people - a Seinfeld effect (yes, he brought up Seinfeld television show). Young people could become disinclined to take full responsibility for their lives - living in a semi-adolescence that goes on and on.

This might happen. So what? If the older generation is living and working longer, why not have a 40-year adolescence? In fact, this additional maturation time might aid society in a number of ways. If the preceding generation is still at the height of its capabilities and is not relinquishing control, wouldn't it be best for the younger generation to be living like Seinfeld? I'd prefer Seinfeld to revolutionaries.

Once this extended adolescence has ended, presumably these younger people will have greater experience and will be more mature than when the prior generation took charge at an earlier age.

The interviewer, Morton Kondracke, asked whether Kass is concerned about whether an indifinite lifespan could cause society to stagnate, to become "set in it's ways."

Kass mentioned some examples of older people being creative but added that people after age 50 rarely change their way of looking at the world. Stagnation, would, therefore, become a problem.

Not to be too cute, but Kass himself is a good example of this problem. It would seem that he would like to get back to the days when the barren died childless rather than have a test tube baby. And he would like to get back to those golden days (that never existed) when sex was had solely to procreate. To those days when ice cream was consumed in the privacy of one's own home.

I believe people get "set in their ways" because of the specter of death. As people get older they are both less likely to pursue further education (what's the point?) and they become further removed from the education they have obtained. As they begin to retire from society, they will often become nostalgic for old ideas.

These tendencies will be postponed by life extension, not eliminated and not prolonged. This argument against life extension is a variation on the "I don't want to live for twenty years decaying in an nursing home" idea. Obviously the goal of life extension is not to prolong decay, but to provide additional healthy years.

I think its illogical for Kass to argue on one hand that life extension will prolong adolescence and, on the other hand, that those over fifty will be just as "set in their ways" as in the past. Am I to believe that Jerry Seinfeld is moving strait from the Manhattan apartment with the hanging bicycle to a Florida retirment village and early-bird dinners? I don't buy it. Instead, I would expect a prolonged adolescence, followed by prolonged middle years and then a slow decline.

It was shortly after this that Kass got spooky. He said, in essence that there is no question that longer life would be fulfilling for many. But this may be a situation where society as a whole suffers more than individuals benefit.

In other words, because society might be inconvenienced if our lives are prolonged, we should all accept our fate and die with a little dignity for crying out loud! I find this point of view to be abhorrent particularly in a public servant who is responsible for setting policy.

Our country is set up to protect the individual (who has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) from undue demands from society. Americans are not big on protecting society from change. If the U.S. is pulled from the life extension race, it will postpone the arrival of life extension, but it will come. And if it came under those circumstances, it might be controlled by elites. If THEY can decide we shouldn't have it, by the same logic why shouldn't THEY decide who can have it when it gets here?

Morton asked whether he, Kass, would eliminate life extension research if he could. Kass began by saying he couldn't eliminate this research even if he wanted to. This is no lie. He can't eliminate it. But he can retard its development and drive some of this research overseas. If life extension is possible, delay could kill millions.

Kass mentioned that he was against therapeutic cloning because it could lead to reproductive cloning. Yes, and driving could lead to drive-by shootings. Kass seems to actually be against our learning the techniques of therapeutic cloning as if the knowledge itself could be dangerous.

Kass then descended into psycho-babble saying that we don't know what the elimination of sorrow will do to the human spirit. Does anyone think that a prolonged life will eliminate sorrow? If anything you will have more opportunity to experience sorrow. In fact, if you eliminate aging as a cause of death, a larger percentage of the population will die violently than before. You are, in effect, trading a peaceful death soon, for the chance of being offed by a jealous lover in a couple of centuries.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at April 12, 2004 01:51 PM | TrackBack


How to deal with people in authority who say "you must die because [babble]" ? If he were calling for mass executions with guns and whatnot, there'd be a revolution ... but because it's medicine, he can get away with calling for mass murder. Sigh.

Posted by: Reason at April 12, 2004 05:34 PM

Obviously the goal of life extension is not to prolong decay, but to provide additional healthy years.

Exactly. That whole thing about "extended adolescence" is precisely what has happened over the past century. Would Kass have rather avoided that by insisting that people still only live to be about 40 or so?

Wait, don't answer that.

Anyway, with change comes...change. People might have an extended adolescence. People might get set in their ways. When you consider that the alternative is dying, those things really don't sound so bad.

Posted by: Phil at April 13, 2004 04:14 PM

I agree that extended adolescence is not necessarily a bad thing. Our long childhoods (some believe that adolescence is in fact a recent artifact of our affluent society, but I disagee) and adolesences are necessary for survival in a complex society. But the burden would be on the next generations to rise to the task of actually using those years to help "youngsters" between 13- 40 to build character and skills. Remember the Star Trek movie "Insurrection?" The planet had an energy field that prevented aging. Adolescents were apprenticed for their vocations for hundreds of years.

I was just thinking today as I dropped Mary off at Middle School that the saddest thing about this season of life is that in a few short years I will have no adolescents in my home to amuse, delight and challenge me. Considering the fact that this is the first year since 1978 that I haven't had a child in elementary school, you'd think I'd be tired of it!

Posted by: Kathy at April 14, 2004 11:50 AM
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