Will There be Class Conflict Over Life-Extension Technologies?

I was going to post about longevity and family issues today, but since there were so many comments yesterday about inequality, I decided to post on that issue instead. Again, please remember that as average life span extends, health will extend with it. If you weren’t fully convinced by my short intro post, I invite you to read chapter two of my book (or, if you don’t have time an excerpt of it in the WSJ).

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Could class conflict or even warfare break out over life-extension technologies?

It is true that technology is rarely adopted by everyone at the same time, and when life-extending science hits the market, it will almost certainly be used by the wealthy first. In the early stages of the technology’s rollout, disparities in life expectancy between people within developed countries will surely grow, as will the difference in life expectancy between developed and developing countries.

In light of this reality, it should be noted that rather shocking differences in life expectancy already exist, marking an unequal starting point in the first place.

Internationally, the gap between the world’s longest lived country and the shortest lived country is a whopping 51 years – almost an entire lifetime. Angola, in South-Central Africa, has the lowest life expectancy at 38.76 years, whereas Monaco, near southern France, has a life expectancy of 89.73 years. The United States ranks 50th, with a life expectancy of 78.37 years.

In the United States, when the most extreme cases are considered, there can be as much as a thirty-three-year gap in life expectancy between groups. For instance, a 2006 study by researchers at Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco found that Native American males in South Dakota had a life expectancy of fifty-eight years, compared with Asian American females in New Jersey, whose life expectancy was ninety-one years.

That’s a huge divide. Scholars attempt to explain it on a number of levels, including community, race, education, health care access, and income. If advances in biotechnology wind up increasing this disparity by decades or more, this could become the biggest hot-button issue the country has ever faced.

New technologies are almost always adopted by the rich first, but over time they eventually reach everyone, and the historical record shows that the distribution of new technology is speeding up, not slowing down.

For instance, it took forty-six years for one-quarter of the population to get electricity and thirty-five years for the telephone to get that far. It took only sixteen years, however, for one-quarter of American households to get a personal computer, thirteen years for a cell phone, and seven years for Internet access. A more vital example may be AIDS drugs which started off costing about $30,000 per patient per year 15 years ago. Now, better drugs are available and cost $100 per patient.

Biology is fast becoming an information technology, and genomics, which will help usher in personalized medicine, already shows positive signs, since costs are dropping at lightening speeds. While the first Human Genome Project cost roughly $2.7 billion and Craig Venter spent about $70 million to sequence his own genome, by 2009 it was possible to get a genome sequenced for $5,000 and the $1,000 genome (or less) is in sight. Indeed, a partial DNA scan can already be had for only $99 at consumer genomics companies like 23andMe, and that company is using its data sets to attempt to link certain diseases to specific genes, important work on the way toward individually tailored pharmaceuticals and cures.

The fact that the first users of life-extending technologies will tend to be wealthy increases the chances that the technologies will thrive and eventually reach everybody. Without private investors who believe in the value of a new product and want to support its development, many great ideas would be stillborn. History bears this out, from Queen Elizabeth owning some of the first silk stockings, to wealthy New Yorkers paying $20 in 1915 for a three-minute phone call to San Francisco.

That said, nothing is guaranteed and if huge inequalities exist for a long period of time, there could be serious unrest. People may literally fight (with weapons) for their lives.

Tomorrow, I will post on how greater longevity might impact the family.