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The Paradox of a Long Life: A Q&A with Dr. Christopher Scott

November 12, 2015 • By Christopher T. Scott The Paradox of a Long Life: A Q&A with Dr. Christopher Scott

For thousands of years, humans have sought to conquer death. But the question of whether—and how—we should pursue immortality is being brought into sharp relief by the emergence of new technologies that promise to cure diseases of aging like dementia and cancer. Dr. Christopher Scott, a bioethicist and the director of Stanford University’s Program on Stem Cells in Society, is using his support from the Enhancing Life Project to investigate the future of human longevity research. As part of his project, Dr. Scott will interview the scientists, activists, and business leaders who are setting the tone for longevity research, and help illuminate what human enhancement means for their work.

What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project?

I’m a scientist who studies science, so I’m very interested in how members of the scientific community and their supporters talk about where research is going. And one thing I noticed, just by following the general track of my research, was that when it comes to new biomedical discoveries, there’s a tremendous amount of hype. Some folks say, “we don’t have to worry about problems like dementia or muscle wasting, you’ll just take a pill and live until you’re 90 and then drop dead.” And of course that’s very far from the truth, and can set up false expectations for people. But such talk it also has the effect of creating a kind of future world, in a way, bringing the future into the present, where we can ask questions like: What will a society look like if people are able to be productive all the way up until 95? What will happen to the retirement age? What will happen to health resources and family social structures? Do we want to go full speed ahead or do we want to limit this in some way while we think about the ethical and social implications? Those questions are at the center of my project.

What are some of the implications of longevity research?

There’s something called parabiosis research, which is kind of creepy and wonderful at the same time. It’s based on this idea that younger blood can rejuvenate old tissues. And from an ethics perspective, this raises some really thorny questions. There are concerns about medical tourism—people traveling to other countries where blood may be procured from kids without their consent. You can imagine social situations where younger family members might be pressured to give blood to the older family members. And it’s also an issue of allocation of scarce resources. Getting the blood plasma that’s used in parabiosis requires a different kind of donation, and it’s also got some risks attached. So we need to think hard about whether this is the best way to use a precious resource like plasma or if we want to use it to save people who are dying in surgeries or from horrible accidents.

What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life 

My project is all about figuring out what enhancing life means in different corners of the field of longevity research. Some people are trying to modify expectations because progress is slow, and there’s always a gap between the promise of science and the reality of science—they don’t want to overpromise, because that can be very harmful. But then other people are much more optimistic—they think this is the thing that’s going to save us, that it will allow us to choose what kind of humanity we want to be. Those are two very different visions of enhancing life, and of course there are many others in between.

What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?

I’ve been trying to uncover notions of spirituality in the [longevity research] stakeholders I’ve been interviewing, and that can sometimes be a challenge. I want to get a handle on their belief systems, what gets them up in the morning, whether they have some kind of spiritual driver. Some of the things longevity scientists are doing could have a profound impact on the quality of human life—but also the nature of human life. I’m interested in what they think about having control over something that could radically change what it means to be human. But to ask a scientist what they think about God, or about “playing God”—well, you have to be careful how you frame those questions. 

You don’t spend all your time doing research—what’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?

I was thinking this morning that I want to travel to Africa. I’m a mountain climber, so I like the big mountains. Climbing Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya is something I’ve always wanted to do.

Interview conducted and condensed by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux.