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What would it be like to live in a world where health — and not just life — could be prolonged at will? Who would we kill to make room for us, the lucky ones? No one ever imagines what it would be like to live in a world where it is other people have their lives almost eternally prolonged, and we, the imaginers, who must die in the ordinary way. That’ s remarkable, because the thing we can’t or don’t imagine is in fact the condition of most of the people alive in the world right now, who know from their television sets, how much better and longer life might be.
bq.. This radical inequality is a fact about our everyday world so huge and present that it can only be addressed by science fiction: I’m thinking of Jack Vance’s excellent novel “To Live Forever”, in which almost eternal life is available to those who deserve it, and will make best use of it. Everyone else is killed off at sixty or so, to free up resources for the immortals, who may die, but can always eb regenerated if their deaths are not violent or accidental.
Their lives until immortality have been like a PhD. programme, only worse, since numerous PhDs are needed to justify continued life — either that or some tremendous feat of exploration or artistic endeavour; of course it gets more and ore difficult to excel with every year that passes, since the immortals themselves may continue their research. Finally, the whole system breaks down, when an immortal who has murdered another one, and so become a “monster” leads a revolt of the serfs and transient people.
As I say, this is an only mildly distorted account of the present relationships between the rich and the poor in the world today. The relationship runs between countries as well as across them. There are very few countries without any citizens poor enough to have their health affected by their poverty, and none, I think, where at least the dictator and his family can’t afford almost infinite health care, though they remain at risk of violent death. Nor is it possible, in our world any more than in Jack Vance’s to lift everyone up to the condition of the richest.
A professor of medical demography at SOAS once told me when he was explaining the foundations of his discipline that “to be really cynical about it, mass poverty is not so bad for the global eco system. Mass affluence spells absolute disaster for everyone. There’s no doubt that 6.4 billion of us couldn’t live the lifestyle of North America or Western Europe. They just couldn’t.”
The crucial limiting resource is not, as Malthus thought, food. There is a certain irony in this, in that it turns out that calorie-restricted diets prolong life in lots of organisms, from worms and yeast upwards. So, for that matter, does the excision of gonads in creatures that have them. Neither dieting nor castration, however, seem worth the effort to young people today.
Last week a very modern solution was found to this problem — gene therapy which causes a yeast cell to live six times longer than usual even when fed abundantly. By knocking out two genes, Sir2 and SCH9, the researchers were able to interfere with the normal distribution of energy within a cell. Instead of being spent on reproduction or growth, it was hoarded, and the cell just kept growing. A diet pill for yeast cells may be a rather unlikely fruit of modern science, but the same mechanism seems to work in human liver cells. It certainly wouldn’t be improbable that humans, like other animals, have a cellular adaptation to starvation– it’s even been suggested that this is the root of anorexia nervosa.
So perhaps a pill which used these principles could be developed, and fed to humans past child-bearing age (it’s obviously a bad idea to knock out genes which assist growth and reproduction when you are trying to have babies, and experiments in mice thus treated produced horrible results). There would clearly be a gigantic market. If the pill were cheap to manufacture, it would, I think, be impossible to enforce the inevitable patents. All the problems that we have seen with anti-viral drugs for Aids would be replicated on a much larger scale. But the really interesting thing is this: for the drug to work, it would have to do so by a technique known as RNAi, which fools the body’s cells into treating some of their own genes as viruses and destroying them in their passage from DNA to protein, so that they are never expressed.
If you can knock out genes for a generally beneficient effect, you can do it for evil ends too. This technology for life extension would make possible weapons that we can hardly begin to imagine. Carriers of a particular genetic marker, common, perhaps, among Jews, or Africans, or Europeans, could have their capacity to make vital proteins invisibly destroyed. Jack Vance’s world, and even our own, today, would look remarkably civilised by comparison.