This week’s inescapable big science story is that of Brooke Greenberg, the teenage girl whose physical and mental development has seemingly stalled at the stage of an 11 month old infant. In addition to the lamentable tabloid freak-show component to the story, however, is the claim from a researcher that Brooke’s genetic make-up may hold the key to arresting the ageing process.
Walker thinks that Brooke is the first recorded case of what he describes as “developmental disorganization”. His hypothesis is that the cause is disruption of an as-yet unidentified gene, or genes, that hold the key to ageing by orchestrating how an organism matures to adulthood, reproduces, then gradually ages and dies.
Walker believes that Brooke lacks this “regulator” of development – first proposed in 1932 by British marine biologist, George Parker Bidder. Like Bidder, Walker believes that the regulator guides organisms through to adulthood, but also works beyond then to orchestrate ageing and, eventually, death.
It bears repeating that this is one man’s hypothesis rather than a species-wide day-pass to the fountain of youth, but let’s assume for a moment he’s right. The first ethical question here is whether Brooke should be treated as a potential source of human immortality rather than simply as an unfortunate girl in need of a lifetime of care. Personally I don’t see a problem with researching the implications of a condition alongside giving palliative care for it, as discussed in the neo-eugenics post the other day.
The second ethical question – and, to my mind, the much more important one – is whether we’re right to be chasing after human immortality as a goal. It’s a much fuzzier line; while I don’t see any problem with wanting to extend the human lifespan and eradicate the negative aspects of the physical ageing process (a matter on which I am somewhat on-side with the transhumanists), I’m not sure that we’re yet in a geopolitical state as a species where we could cope with radically extended lifespans.
Most of our modern wars revolve around resources, and resources are becoming scarcer because people already live much longer than they did a century or two ago; how much more of an issue will energy supply be in developed nations when the average life expectancy has an extra handful of decades tacked onto it? Will birth rates decline in proportion to increased lifespan, and if not, how will we cope with a population that is both expanding and greying?