When you discuss any major issue, sooner or later someone will say it: there are more urgent issues than whatever it is you’re advocating for. Sometimes it may be true; other times, and probably most of the time, it’s a logical fallacy known as appeal to worse problems (or “not as bad as”, or even “fallacy of relative privation”).
For example, say you’ve got two issues, A and B, that cannot possibly be both dealt with at the same time; if A is life-threatening and B isn’t, well, then I think it’d make sense to reply “there are more urgent issues” to whoever suggests B should be taken care of first. However, all too often, this answer is abused to play down the importance of a problem that doesn’t happen to be one’s personal favourite—and yes, I’ve seen this happen with rejuvenation therapies.
If the appeal to worse problem reasoning was iterated for all problems humanity has to face, we’d end up with over seven billion people all concerned only about the absolute worst problem and entirely neglecting the others. I really don’t think we could ever get everyone to agree on what human problem is the worst, but even if we could, second and third place alone would probably be enough to wipe us off the face of the Earth, if we turned our back on them to focus only on the winner of the “worst catastrophe of all times” contest.
It’s clear beyond doubt that this is not a wise plan of action, and perhaps more importantly, it’s not necessary; we have more than enough people and resources to face several issues at once, so there’s no reason to let children in developing countries starve while we fix pollution, nor is there a reason to halt research against malaria while we research how to bring aging under medical control.
Why should aging be a “second-class” priority?
My mentioning of malaria and aging together is no accident; it’s an example from a real-life conversation I had that stuck with me. During the conversation, it was suggested that resources and effort would perhaps be better spent on malaria than rejuvenation biotechnologies. To this day, I still can’t help wondering, on what grounds this would be the case?
Unlike malaria, starvation, and many other global issues—all of which, make no mistake, are extremely serious and deserving of attention—very few resources are dedicated to the problem of aging, and nearly none to rejuvenation biotechnologies. Without initiatives such as SENS, Lifespan.io, etc, and the efforts of few philanthropists, it’s likely that no rejuvenation research would take place at all, and the research itself is often even opposed by some.
On the other hand, efforts to solve more traditional problems, such as the aforementioned malaria and starvation, enjoy the endorsement of the world at large, the full attention of FAO, WHO, and various NGOs, and the financial support and personal commitment of personalities such as Bill Gates—who recently announced he now wants to tackle Alzheimer’s disease, which is extremely good news.
If we’re talking just numbers, I really see no reason why the few resources currently devoted to rejuvenation should be diverted to other, already better-funded issues, and there’s no reason why currently unallocated resources that could be used for the largely neglected field of rejuvenation research should instead go towards solving other, more popular problems.
I don’t think that trying to establish whether malaria is a more serious problem than aging would be very respectful of either issue; both cause tremendous suffering, and both kill. However, if you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see that aging causes, by far, more suffering and deaths than not only malaria but all other causes of death put together: every day, roughly 100,000 people die of age-related causes; that’s two-thirds of the total deaths happening around the world in a day, which is around 150,000. Malaria, and all the other causes of death, each cause only some of the remaining 50,000 deaths, so it’s absolutely obvious that aging wins hands down. Also, causes of death other than aging concern only part of the population, whereas aging concerns every single human being, directly and indirectly.
Does this mean that we should stop worrying about malaria or starvation and worry only about aging? Not at all! If we did that, malaria might spiral out of control and turn into a pandemic, and even if it didn’t, it might cause far more suffering than it already does and claim even more lives than now. However, the lives of people sick with malaria are just as important as those of geriatric patients, and both deserve the best we can give them. Refusing to put resources into rejuvenation research would mean deeming the lives of the elderly less important than those of other patients, and their suffering less worthy of our attention, which would be just as horrifying as the opposite.
Research is always research
Whether or not we think there are more urgent problems than aging doesn’t change the fact that rejuvenation research is nothing more and nothing less than medical research. Human biology being the entangled mess that it is, unexpected connections are paradoxically to be expected, and research on the fundamental mechanisms of aging—which involves studying mitochondria, stem cells, cancer, genomics, and many other things—can and does shed light on biological phenomena and pathologies that may happen well before old age. If aging research was neglected entirely, progress in other areas of medicine would likely be not as fast as it could be.
December 22, 2017
Also, curing aging would free up enormous amounts of ressources currently going into the (health-)care of old people. Those ressources could be freed up and used on the “more urgent issues” once aging is cured. Hence, curing aging seems like a good investment to me – even if you have those “more urgent issues” in mind.
January 11, 2019
Malaria was a great comparison vs aging – I hadn’t thought about contagious diseases being more of a problem than aging but if treatments of these diseases are neglected, multiple pandemics could make aging take a far-off second place at least temporarily..
January 31, 2019
Malaria kills around 1000 people per day. It is a lot, but it is 100 times fewer victims than aging kills every day. Even in the developing countries, age-related diseases are the primary killer. So no, there can be no doubt that aging is a health problem number one, that does not get the attention that would correspond to its severity.
April 29, 2021
Awesome article Nicola! Well written! Thanks!
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