Saturday, February 09, 2013

Teaching the Ethics of Life Extension

This term I am teaching my graduate level seminar "Science and Justice" to approximately 14 (mostly) MA and PhD students from political science, philosophy and psychology here at Queen's. It's my favorite course to teach (I also teach an undergrad version of it as well) and we address a number of ethical and social issues related to the genetic revolution.

Here is the trailer for the course:

This course is the ideal course to teach with an interdisciplinary group of bright students, as they bring their own particular expertise, insights and assumptions to class discussions, which makes for more fruitful and interesting debates.

This year I devote two whole classes to aging and the ethics of life extension. Last week was our first class on the topic and I asked my students, who are all graduate level students in the humanities and social sciences, how many of them had taken a course where aging was either the focus, or even just a topic covered in, the course. Not a single hand went up! This simply reinforced my conviction that it is absolutely essential to teach the course I am teaching, and to dedicate two weeks to aging and the ethics of life extension. I hope it helps to fill what is an unfortunate gap in the education our students receive.

In my opinion, the aging of the world's populations is the most interesting and important development of the 21st century. And yet the education our students (many of whom will go on to be teachers, professors, politicians, work in public policy, law, medicine, etc.) receive is one that is completely blind to this reality. This neglect is itself an oddity worthy of serious reflection. Why do so many scholars in the humanities and social sciences appear to have "aging blinders" on? I think the answer to this question is complex, and many distinct cultural and institutional factors account for this neglect. I will write a longer post about this in a few weeks. I believe that one of the main reasons for this neglect is that scholars ignore the ultimate causation of morbidity, mortality and behaviour. While the proximate causation of mortality (such as poverty and war) is on the radar of many in the humanities and social sciences, they do not adopt as diverse an explanatory toolbox as they ought to. Once you add an evolutionary perspective into the mix, the questions, topics and debates to be discussed and pondered are wondrous and pressing. And doing this has profoundly altered the topics I work on, and the manner in which I approach them, in both ethics and political theory.

In the first week of our course we focused on the aspiration to slow human aging. We read this article and this one, and watched this Charlie Rose interview.

This week we consider the more ambitious aspiration of eliminating aging (or achieving "biological immortality"). The idea of a species being biologically immortal might sound like pure science fiction, but there are such species that exist today. Hydra, for example, are biologically immortal and constantly renew the tissues of their body. The turritopsis dohrnii, also known as the "immortality jellyfish", is another fascinating species worth mentioning. After reaching sexual maturity, this jellyfish can actually become younger and return to the earliest stages of development, thus starting the cycle of life over again. This process is called transdifferentiation.

The readings for this week's class include these two excellent articles: here and here. I start the class with the Lifestar video above. And then we shall have a class debate on the pros and cons of pursuing biological immortality. Should be fun!