Friday, April 08, 2005

Evolution and Radical Longevity

On the subway ride to work this morning, I finished a chapter of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, entitled “Why Do We Grow Old and Die?” In it, Diamond discusses how natural selection has played the prominent role in increasing our species longevity and also addresses why all systems, bodies or otherwise, break down over time. He focuses on the concept of “optimization,” that is, Nature’s tendency to maximize survival and reproductive success of the overall design, rather than optimizing particular elements.

To explain his point, he cites the Royal Navy’s decision, in World War I, to build a better warship by “keep[ing] the weight of the big guns nearly constant, and greatly increase[ing] the weight of the engines while still maintaining a total weight around 28,000 tons.” The result was the heavily armored, swift battle cruiser, a vessel which could outmaneuver the more clunky battleships. These battle cruisers were heavily publicized and celebrated as marvels of engineering. The ships, unfortunately, didn’t fare well in combat. To maintain the preferred weight, the designers had skimped on hull armor and anti-aircraft defense, making them easy to sink.

Diamond writes,
“In short, engineers can’t tinker with single parts in isolation from the rest of the machine, because each part costs money, space, and weight that might have gone into something else. Engineers instead have to ask what combination of parts will optimize a machine’s effectiveness. By the same reasoning, evolution can’t tinker with single traits in isolation from the rest of the animal, because every structure, enzyme, or piece of DNA consumes energy and space that might have gone into something else. Instead, natural selection favors that combination of traits that maximizes the animal’s reproductive output.”
And so it is with menopause, for example. Female hunter-gatherers were at great risk of death during childbirth. With each proceeding child, the risk increased. Those females who stopped being able to procreate later in life were therefore more likely to survive and mother the offspring already born to them, increasing the chances that their genes would be passed on. Menopause, Diamond contends, was a genetic mutation favored by natural selection, as is any advantageous mutation that increases our life spans without detriment to the rest of the corporeal vessel.

Because the body is the sum of its parts, then,
“there should not be just one, or even a few, dominant physiological mechanisms of aging. Instead, natural selection should act to match rates of aging in all physiological systems, with the result that aging involves innumerable simultaneous changes.”
In other words, at some point, “everything collapses at once” and we die. For this reason, Diamond argues that we can not find the fountain of youth by seeking to remedy one critical flaw in our design. The many tried methods of the previous century, be they injections with bee or snake venom, consumption of particular vitamins or foodstuffs, or any number of other outlandish “cures for aging,” are all pointless.

But what to make, then, of Aubrey de Grey, the Cambridge University geneticist (who can be immediately recognized by his impressive beard) and his claims that people who are now 60 years of age could live to be 1,000. Curiously, his arguments don’t disagree with Diamond’s assessment of the aging process. In fact, in this interview, his own discussion parallels arguments Diamond makes, particularly in regards to predation pressure dictating the opportunity cost of biological repair and, in turn, average life span of species. As Diamond explains, birds and turtles tend to live longer than similarly sized land mammals or shell-less reptiles because they have better escape ability (flight) or defense (shells) and therefore a better chance of surviving predation attempts. Because they are less vulnerable to attack and predation, then, the body can expend more energy on physiological repair. Diamond writes,
“If you’re likely to be eaten by a lion tomorrow, there’s no point in paying the dentist to start expensive orthodontic work on your teeth today. You’d do better to let your teeth rot and start having babies immediately. But if an animal’s risk of death from irreparable accidents is low, then there is potential payoff, in the form of increased life span, from putting energy into expensive repair mechanisms that retard aging.”
De Grey evidently agrees with Diamond regarding the evolution of aging, and his “cure for aging” doesn’t consist of “fixing” one broken mechanism; he suggests that a more holistic approach is necessary and, today, is feasible.

Despite making rational, informed arguments, though, I think De Grey is overly optimistic, especially with regard to the timeframe for such “improvements.” Yet the questions raised by the prospect of radical longevity should not be dismissed. It seems increasingly likely that our human lifespan will be lengthened, even if the marked jumps predicted by De Grey may come in the more distant future and involve less of a life span extension. Jamais Cascio, at WorldChanging, discusses such concerns in brief in his post on Charles C. Mann’s Atlantic Monthly article, “The Coming Death Shortage.” I have not read Mann’s piece, but Cascio responds to some of Mann’s concerns, most notably increasing social and economic inequality. Cascio disagrees with Mann’s “general disapproval of the idea of radical longevity,” pointing out that “too often we give insufficient credit to the resiliency of human culture.” While this last statement is certainly accurate, I believe there is much reason to be concerned, particularly when considering population and environmental impact, though I stop short of bemoaning the concept/possibility of radical longevity altogether.

I think the comment by Mr. Farlops, at the bottom of the Cascio piece, puts it well.
“Birth control and lack of sustainability are also problems now. Longevity only magnifies their importance. Perhaps some passive yet progressively minded people, faced with long life in a declining world, might be forced to do something about it. But we really can't count on that either. [...] I guess my opinion could summarized as let's deal with sustainability, birth control [...] now and not worry about stuff like rejuvenation and longevity.”


Devo said...

Hmm, very interesting stuff indeed. Evolution is one of my armchair-philosophy favorite subjects. In that vein, I've often contemplated the role of consciousness, sentience and the like in human evolution. As far as that goes, it's always been interesting to me to hear about "scientists" who have been interested in radical longevity only in the sense that they can elongate our "lives" infinitely by doing such things as downloading our entire consciousness into a computer or something. As if one's entire experience as an embodied being can be effectively translated into a series of ones and zeroes and then translated into a circuitboard. Of course, the technology might very well exist to codify all the emotions, memories and feelings that we have stored away in our goopy, gray hard drive; but can that code -- even if the info contained therein is identical to the info in our brains -- actually be the essence of what it is to be human? Some scholars argue that it is. They say that subjective experience is the only thing that can inform your experience, and that subjective experience is merely the interplay of electrochemical reactions in an organic computer, albeit an impossibly complex one. Following this line of reasoning it would be possible to construct a computer and spark a brand new consciousness inside of it that might be commensurate with a human intelligence... hence the study of artificial intelligence and the pursuit of ever-more complex IBM computers aimed at beating Gerry Kasparov at chess. If this were entirely possible, would evolution as we have theorized it apply to this newly created "lifeform"? Is evolution a merely physical phenomenon that only dictates the progression of physical traits that composes an organism? Or do the very principles that result in a vast array of biological forms also apply to the inner workings of these very forms? It seems rather obvious that the human frontal lobe -- as well as all the complex calculations it is capable of executing and the concomitant thoughts and emotions associated with this increased cranial activity -- is the direct result of an immense leap in the evolutionary timeline. This, to me, suggests that a similar logical progression that operates on similar principles has guided our cultural rise from stone-throwing fuzzballs hopping around on the plains of the Serengetti to white-coat clad hypernerds shooting satellites into orbit. If this is true, can a similar evolution of consciousness apply to synthetic beings? What would the timeline look like for such synthetic beings? Would this type of synthetic consciousness evolve more quickly than us, or more slowly? Would humanity already have created an accidental, artificial path along which this consciousness will evolve, simply by virtue of the fact that it was created in a specific culture, at a specific juncture in cultural evolution... a path that we have already traversed but is now "beaten" so to speak for another being to follow?

OK, I think I just went and lost myself... but I merely ramble on like this to raise questions about radical longevity and evolution that most legitemate scientists fail to take into account because traditional "hard science" as it exists is not generally equipped to sufficiently explore the realms of consciousness and the subjective. Oddly enough, though, these very realms are the birthplace of the "hard sciences" and yet they are some of the only places in human experience that said sciences are least able to adequately address.

And now it's ten thrity AM on a Monday, and my braintank has officially run outta gas. Wonderful. I need some coffee or something. Organic, of course, and fair-trade certified.

Hungry Hyaena said...

I always appreciate a good ramble. Hell, if you edit this and flesh out the meaty areas, you could have a good essay, albeit one with more questions than answers, but aren't those the best kind anyway?

While I am interested in the predictions made by contemporary philosophers such as Ray Kurweil, I find the notion of a collective database-consciousness both alarming and, for the foreseeable future, far-fetched. On the other hand, I don't believe viewing the human brain as a "goopy, gray hard drive" is unfair. Infinite reduction ultimately arrives at infinite expansion; breaking down the human brain into smaller and smaller parts eventually leads the investigator "out the other end" into the far reaches of another universe. Though I believe in no sentient creator, such an overwhlemingly beautiful dynamic could be considered my God equivalent.

As to whether evolution applies to the constructed computer...that is a tough question. My knee-jerk response is, "Absolutely." On the other hand, most of humanity would not be so eager to attribute evolutionary "gowth" or "progress" to our whirring machines. Also, the change from stone-throwing, hunter-gatherer to rocket scientist is not really physiological evolution. Jared Diamond argues that Cro-magnon humans were fully equipped to do the work of contemporary humans; their brains could have been made to comprehend rocket science, even 50,000 years ago. Trouble is, 50,000 years of social/cultural evolution, that more Lamarckian beast, were missing from the equation.

Can synthetic beings experience a similar cultural evolution? Kurzweil argues that they can (and will) - and, though I'm unwilling to dismiss this notion offhand, I do find it difficult to accept. Then again, Renee Descartes believed all animals (excluding Homo sapiens, of course) were just programmed machines, incapable of pain or emotion. It has taken 350 years, but we seem to feel differently now.

Great comment, though, Devo...and all ideas I love to chew on. Thanks.

Celine said...

The DISCOVERIES Of the MAN and the WOMAN the Man discovered the COLORS and invented the PAINTING, the Woman discovered the PAINTING and invented the MAQUIAGEM. The Man discovered the WORD and invented the COLLOQUY, the Woman discovered the COLLOQUY and invented the FOFOCA. The Man discovered the GAME and invented the LETTERS, the Woman discovered the LETTERS and invented the TAROT. The Man discovered AGRICULTURE and invented the FOOD, the Woman discovered the FOOD and invented the DIET. The Man discovered the FEELINGS and invented the LOVE, the Woman discovered the LOVE and invented the MARRIAGE. The Man discovered the WOMAN and invented the SEX, the Woman discovered the SEX and invented the MIGRAINE. The Man discovered the COMMERCE and invented the MONEY, the Woman discovered the MONEY and there everything fudeu...

Celine said...

The DISCOVERIES Of the MAN and the WOMAN the Man discovered the COLORS and invented the PAINTING, the Woman discovered the PAINTING and invented the MAQUIAGEM. The Man discovered the WORD and invented the COLLOQUY, the Woman discovered the COLLOQUY and invented the FOFOCA. The Man discovered the GAME and invented the LETTERS, the Woman discovered the LETTERS and invented the TAROT. The Man discovered AGRICULTURE and invented the FOOD, the Woman discovered the FOOD and invented the DIET. The Man discovered the FEELINGS and invented the LOVE, the Woman discovered the LOVE and invented the MARRIAGE. The Man discovered the WOMAN and invented the SEX, the Woman discovered the SEX and invented the MIGRAINE. The Man discovered the COMMERCE and invented the MONEY, the Woman discovered the MONEY and there everything fudeu...

Celine said...

Rio de Janeiro from Brazil see you

Devo said...

Again with the provocative instigation, HH. I think we hold many very very similar positions, and I think that we have a very similar outlook on spirituality and how it relates to our experience here on this earth... and I see a great hope in one fundamental disagreement we seem to have. Your mention of infinite reduction as a path to infinite expansion both frightens and intrigues me. Again, using a well-turned phrase you dropped above, my knee-jerk reaction to that suggestion is to say "Hell no!!!" and point out that reduction has led to thinking of the human organism as simply a machine, and more importantly treating disease in a purely mechanistic fashion, ignoring many factors that could weigh on a holistic diagnosis and finally treating symptoms rather than pinpointing causes and eliminating them. This translates to many areas in human experience, and often to equally dangerous outlooks on the different areas it affects. Economics is another example. Market Fundamentalists take a similar reductionist tack in addressing the growth and health of our economy. Market Forces are reducible to natural phenomena, and treating "diseases" of the market like isolatable pathogens that must be "fixed" or eliminated is the correct way to fix aberrations. Tax breaks, for example, will increase investment in large-capital return firms and consequentially increase capital output into the economy. Meanwhile the poor are being left in the lurch, unable to afford even a modest living at minimum wage, unable to procure any type of rudimentary health care and relegateed to living in areas of self-perpetuating poverty and hopelessness. Market Fundamentalists turn to this seemingly brand new "illness" of the economy and suggest further segregation, hoping to eventually eliminate the problem by isolating it and taking measures to see that it atrophies itself out of existence. This is certainly no way to treat our fellow human beings. Especially since many of the Market Fundamentalists spearheading this type of understanding of the economy also supposedly subscribe to an agape, love-thy-neighbor brand of Christianity. Ahem. I mean, love-thy-neighbor if thy-neighbor is a straight, white, upper-class gentlemen of Protestant descent. There. I stand corrected...

Either way, I'm frightened of the implications that reductionism presents to me. And I invite you, HH, to quell my fears by pointing out the potential merits of this infinite-expansion via infinite-reduction.

Hungry Hyaena said...

I'm afraid I can not quell your fears of the reductionist camp...but I would not want to. Your fears are all justified.

I think I may have given you the wrong idea with my previous "comment." I don't view myself as a reductionist per se. While I find reduction a very useful tool - it is essential, and fascinating, that any number can be infinitely 1/2ed and yet the result never equals zero - I think any science or inquiry that principally advocates reduction must be willing to compare what is learned through such process with what is learned through the holistic approach.

Your example of economics is a perfect case in point. In fact, I believe we are entering an era of holistic policy least, we had better be. That said, I see no problem with neuoscientists continuing to isolate proteins or physicists continuing to shatter atoms.

Devo said...

Phew! You certainly quelled any fear I had about you being MERELY a reductionist. Which was my primary presumption anyway. I completely agree that reduction can be a useful tool, but I believe that its usefulness has been boldly overstated to the detriment of any value that holism (perhaps more appropriately termed Integralism?) may have once had.

However, I do believe you that integralism is experiencing some sort of renaissance in a few areas. Hopefully policy is one of those areas.... and I do believe that on the fringes of quantum physics, a truly insipiring orgy of reduction and integration is fomenting. Much of it is probably merely poetic license in trying to relate quantum ANYTHING to everyday human experience, but the gist is there.

Mr. Farlops said...

By the way, I don't want my comments at Worldchanging to give the impression that I am opposed to rejuvenation research. I really doubt such research can be stopped. I was merely stating my opinion that extreme longevity and rejuvenation are mostly irrelevent to the subject of the environmental restoration and preservation.

Birth control and environmental restoration are something that should be dealt with now, with the science and technology we have now, and never mind advances in medical science. The connection between the two isn't that strong and one shouldn't be an excuse to ignore the other.