Episode 5. Larry Temkin on Extending Human Lifespans

In his victory speech, President-elect Obama singled out Ann Nixon Cooper. At 106 years old, she has borne witness to tectonic shifts in her society. Few of us would hesitate at a chance to live such a remarkably extended life. We can hardly imagine what our world will be like in forty, sixty, eighty years, but we’re certain it would be worth staying around to see. Today on Public Ethics Radio, we take a close look at that unhesitating certainty. What would a world in which everyone lived beyond 100 be like? Would it really be worth it for us?

We are aided in this process by Professor Larry Temkin, author of “Is Living Longer Living Better?” Temkin wonders just what it would be like if longevity researchers found the proverbial fountain of youth. Would multi-century lives really be desirable? The current expansion of lifespans is already presenting numerous ethical challenges: what to do with patients who can be kept alive physically but not mentally, how to maintain a system of social security in the face of an aging workforce, and so on. Temkin believes that we need to take a good hard look at all sides of the question of aging, rather than just blindly hoping for the best. If a scientist discovers a genetic switch that turns off cellular aging tomorrow, we had better be ready.

Larry Temkin is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. A version of his article “Is Living Longer Living Better?” was published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy in August 2008.

Click here to download the episode (36:31, 25.1 mb, mp3), or click on the online media player below. You can also download the transcript.


Christian starts with a quote from the New York Times about slowing down the process of aging. This is from Susan Dominus, “Life in the Age of Old, Old Life,” New York Times, February 24, 2004.

The professor of evolutionary biology at UC Irvine who Larry mentions is Michael R. Rose. He has written an eponymous book about the Methuselah flies, and you can read an interview with him on the subject here.

The other longevity researcher whose name is mentioned several times in this episode is Dr. Aubrey de Grey, chairman of the Methuselah Foundation. You’ll find plenty about him with a quick search—or you could just watch this interview on the Colbert Report.

Christian cites de Grey’s figure that 100,000 deaths per day are cause by aging and mentions the term “pro-aging trance.” The deaths figure is drawn from a global burden of disease study published in the Lancet (and originally cited in de Grey’s article, “Life Span Extension Research  and Public Debate: Societal Consderations”). The pro-aging trance, which de Grey calls his “preferred description of the irrationality in which most of those in the industrialised world indulge when they are called upon to consider the pros and cons of aging” (ibid, p. 2), is discussed in some detail in his article, “Life Extension, Human Rights, and the Rational Refinement of Repugnance.”

Ponce de Leon, fabled for his desire to find the fountain of youth, was a Spanish conquistador.

Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, wrote about the “virtues of finitude” in the essay “Mortality and Morality: The Virtues of Finitude” in his book Toward a More Natural Science.

You can read Benjamin Franklin’s story, “The Emphemera,” over at WikiSource.

Larry’s reference to Thomas Nagel is to the essay “The Absurd,” in Mortal Questions.

And for the record, Larry was talking about Angelina Jolie.


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2 responses to “Episode 5. Larry Temkin on Extending Human Lifespans

  1. Very good point. We do need to take more of a serious look at this issue as within a couple of decades we will have conquered at least several of the major factors which make us die as young as we do.

    Longevity is about extending healthy middle age – not keeping us alive longer in a decrepit state. This will happen faster than most people currently realize.



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