Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

The Life-Extension Project: A Sociological Critique

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

The Life-Extension Project: A Sociological Critique

Article excerpt

The scientific debate

It is unclear from a scientific perspective what causes ageing. Of course medical interest in ageing goes back at least to writers such as Luigi Cornaro (1464-1566) who in his Discorsi della Sobria (Discourses on the Temperate Life) of 1558 argued in four discourses that his own longevity and happiness in old age were a consequence of temperance, exercise and a good diet. The body's finite supply of vital spirits could be husbanded by temperate practices of diet and exercise. His discourses, which were translated in 1903 and had an impact on American temperance ideas, are regarded as one of the earliest defences of a low-calorie diet. George Cheyne (1671-1743) took a similar view of the relationship between diet and healthy living in his The Natural Method of Cureing the Diseases of the Body in 1742. Despite the development of these medical regimens, the idea that the ageing of the human body is inevitable has been a basic presupposition of gerontology ever since. If ageing is an inevitable process of cellular degeneration, then the question about life-extension does not arise, apart from mere fanciful speculation.

In most conventional gerontology, living a long life might in practical terms mean living a full life, according to some agreed cultural and social criteria, and achieving the average expectation of longevity by gender and social class. More recently however, there has been considerable speculation as to whether medical science could reverse the ageing process. Between the 1960s and 1980s, biologists expressed the view that normal cells had what was known as a 'replicative senescence', that is normal tissues can only divide a finite number of times before entering a natural stage of inevitable quiescence. Cells were observed in vitro in a process of natural senescence, but eventually experiments in vivo established an important and far-reaching distinction between normal and pathological cells in terms of their cellular division. Pathological cells appeared paradoxically to have no such necessary limitation on replication, and therefore a process of 'immortalisation' was the defining feature of a pathological cell line. Biologists concluded therefore by extrapolation that finite division at the cellular level meant the ageing of whole organisms was an inevitable process. These laboratory findings supported the view, shared by most religious and philosophical traditions, that human life had an intrinsic and predetermined limit, and it was only through pathological developments that some cells might out survive the otherwise inescapable senescence of cellular life. Ageing is natural and normal, but it is also necessary if human societies are to avoid chronic overcrowding and the burden of an adverse dependency ratio.

This traditional framework of ageing was eventually disrupted by the scientific discovery that human embryonic cells were capable of continuous division in laboratory conditions, where they showed no sign of any inevitable 'replicative crisis' or natural limitation. Certain non-pathological cells (or stem cells) were capable of indefinite division, and hence were in biological terms 'immortalised'. The cultivation of these cells as an experimental form of life has consequently challenged existing scientific assumptions about the distinctions between the normal and the pathological, and between life and death. Stemcell research begins to redefine the arena within which the body has reserves of renewable tissue, suggesting that the limits of biological growth are not immutable or inflexible. The human body has a surplus of stem cells capable of survival beyond the death of the organism. With these developments in micro-bio-gerontology, the capacity of regenerative medicine to expand the limits of life becomes a plausible prospect of medicine, creating new economic opportunities in the application of life sciences. This new interpretation of replication locates human ageing within a shifting and uncertain threshold between biological surplus and waste, or between obsolescence and renewal. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.