Are There More Urgent Issues Than Aging?
When you discuss any major issue, sooner or later someone will say that 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 (also “not as bad as” or “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, then it would 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 life-threatening problem that might not be considered imminent, such as aging.
If this reasoning were iterated for all of humanity’s problems, we’d end up with over seven billion people all concerned only about the absolute worst problem and entirely neglecting the others. There is no way to get everyone to agree on what human problem is the worst, but even if it were possible, 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 time” 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?
Mentioning malaria and aging together is no accident; it’s been mentioned before that resources and effort would perhaps be better spent on malaria than rejuvenation biotechnologies. However, on what grounds this would be the case?
Unlike malaria, starvation, and many other global issues that are also 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 a 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 announced that he wants to tackle Alzheimer’s disease, which is extremely good news.
There is 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.
Trying to establish whether malaria is a more serious problem than aging would not be very respectful of either issue; both cause tremendous suffering, and both kill. However, aging causes, by far, more suffering and death 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 is only a small fraction of the remaining 50,000 deaths. Individual causes of death other than aging concern only part of the population, whereas aging concerns every single human being, directly and indirectly.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should stop worrying about malaria or starvation and worry only about aging. 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.