EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2004
Alex Mauron, University of Geneva, Switzerland
A Swiss and French citizen, Alex Mauron was born in 1951. Initially trained as a molecular biologist in Lausanne and Stanford, he moved to the field of bioethics during the late eighties. He is presently professor of bioethics at the University of Geneva Faculty of Medicine. He has published widely on the ethical issues of genetics and reproduction, as well as on various issues of medical ethics. He is a member of the Swiss National Advisory Commission on Biomedical Ethics, the Swiss Council of Science and Technology, and the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences. In addition, he is a regular contributor on bioethics to the Swiss French-language daily Le Temps.
The choosy reaper: from the myth of eternal youth to the reality of unequal death
Our increased biological understanding of aging has revived prospects for a radical anti-aging medicine and even for the abolition of mortality. Ethicists have often tried to argue against these endeavours, with little success. Arguments appealing to the natural order are either circular or self-defeating. For instance, it is claimed that the death of death would bring evolution to a halt, since no new organisms would come forward to be selected for or against. Now it is true that to have something to work on, evolution 'needs' mortality. But who needs evolution? Not Homo sapiens, who dislikes the prospect of being superseded by a 'new and improved' species, unless it has directed its design. Indeed, current post-humanist utopias posit the replacement of blind evolutionary chance by the self-directed reengineering of human nature. Similarly, invoking the invariants of the human condition cuts no ice as rational argument and often turns into an avowedly irrational appeal to the wisdom of the 'yuck reaction' evoked by exotic technologies. Does that mean that anti-mortality technologies are ethically innocuous? Not if we consider the reality of unequal death in today's world. Differences in longevity match the gap between the haves and the have-nots. More interestingly, even in affluent societies where the basics of food, shelter and medicine are widely available, the Reaper is very much class-conscious (as shown for instance by Marmot's pioneering epidemiological studies). Therefore, until molecular genetics provides new miracles, the best proven recipe for longevity is obvious: be born in a rich country. Even more important: be affluent yourself and/or find yourself in a position of authority. Be a self-reliant, self-satisfied, entrepreneurial alpha male.The life-extending eugenics of tomorrow will increase inequality, not because these technologies are evil in themselves – they are not – but because they will flourish in a world that has turned its back on the passion for equality that was once a hallmark of the Enlightenment.