Sunday, September 17, 2017

Cure Cancer, Kill Social Order

We appear to have turned a corner, where cures for many forms of cancer may finally be within sight. This is very bad news. I'm not sure humanity will survive it.

First, it helps to understand that "cancer" is another way of saying "dying of old age". If you don't develop actual disease (a heart attack, a stroke, flu, malaria, etc.), or get eaten by a lion, then, congratulations, you've won, and will live long enough to be taken down by the normal processes of old age, which usually involves tumors and other familiar signs of DNA break-down, like a calculator running on depleted batteries.

I'm talking about prevalent cancers, e.g. liver, prostate, etc. Rarer and earlier-onset forms of cancer are exceptional, and I'm certainly rooting - and contributing - for their cures ASAP.

Why is there so much cancer now? The Whole Foods crowd will attribute it to those nasty chemicals everywhere. But the actual reason is that many of us are finally living long enough to get cancer. And that's a win. Cancer's not a scourge. Mortality is the scourge, and cancer is a symptom.

Removing cancer from human society would change everything. We're well aware of the mounting problems of financial inequality, though it's seldom pointed out that it skews toward the elderly. Society counts on parents dying and passing stuff on. But that process has been seriously disrupted by people living into their 90s the way they once approached their 70s. That's like wedging in a whole extra generation, and meanwhile our inflation-adjusted income and standard of living have, for the first time ever, gone stagnant. There's less upward mobility in the workplace, college grads are listless and blocked, and it can't possibly be coincidence that so many 70 and 80 year olds are holding the reigns of control (Reagan was a shocking and precarious 70 when he took office, yet no one had serious trepidations about Trump and Clinton both being that same age).

We've messed with our churn, and curing cancer will mess with it way, way more. If, twenty years from now, 95 year olds hold on to their jobs and their assets, consider the fate of 70 year olds (much less 25 year olds), finding themselves caught in a half-century holding pattern, perhaps many of them still living in mom and dad's basement. The pitiful experience of England's Prince Charles may turn out to have foreshadowed a looming new normal.

Who knows; we might manage to shift our social norms to adjust to this radically different framework. But history shows that far less massive shifts can be enormously destabilizing. This is not good.

I touched upon a similar point in this posting from last year. Here's an excerpt:
You may have noticed some tension in our body politic these days, on both right and left. Income inequality is a huge, toxic problem, poisoning society in all sorts of ways. Same for power inequality. As the Olds enjoy greater and greater lock on both, and maintain that lock for longer and longer, there will come a tipping point when the imbalance becomes parsed in these terms. Youngs aren't going to like it. The energy and momentum of Occupy Wall Street, and the anger of Bernie and Trump's followers may be recalled as minor foreshadowings once a generation is clearly seen as refusing to step out of the way.


Jim Leff said...

Projecting one possible reaction:

Q: So what are you proposing? We turn our backs on curing cancer, and encourage oldsters to die sooner rather than later?

A: My point is that we've spent so long trying, as an obvious greater good, to extend life and fight disease, that we've never had reason to consider the end game of that. It was always so far away! But now that it's not, it's time to pay careful attention to the full implications. I don't see anyone doing so, and that's frightning.

As I once wrote (here: ), it's never wise, when struggling to achieve something difficult, to aim for infinity. Difficult problems at first appear to require infinite effort, but if throttles are kept fully open ad infinitum, you'll likely overshoot, often disastrously. It's the mother of all unintended consequences. It's the reason, for example, that we fail to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism.

An excerpt from the post linked just above:

"...a great insight from my yoga teacher, who's observed that students working to achieve a difficult stretch often aim for infinity. That's a big mistake. If you don't aim toward a specific arrival point, you will, over time, wind up overdoing, pushing your body to do things it's not made to do, as you stretch further and further toward infinity like an out-of-control robot."

Jim Leff said...

Some Facebook discussion. A reader notes:

"My brother-in-law (a doctor...) was at a conference where they were demonstrating a procedure performed live on a 90 year old patient... one of the young doctors in the room was overheard saying: "Who the heck would want to live to be 90?"... someone quieted him by saying: "Everybody who's 89..."

I replied:

"For sure. That's why, for eons, we've made life extension and disease countermeasures two of society's paramount struggles.

But the problem with paramount struggles is that it's awfully tough to stick the dismount - i.e. to spot the point where mitigating factors begin to pile up.

I'm not saying everyone needs to jump off a cliff at age XX, nor do I think we need a moratorium on cancer research. I just think we need to open our eyes.

I'd bet good money that, 50 years from now, life extension at the turn of this century will be seen as a much more significant driver of current social problems and unrest than is currently realized. And if we cure cancer, that can of worms will break wide open. It will not be pretty. Cancer's not pretty and death's not pretty, either. But we may be approaching - if not passing - a critical tipping point.

Humans have millennia of experience with illness and aging. We have no experience at all with hordes of 75 year old slackers living in mom's basement and waiting to assume their place in the driver's seat (and 25 and 35 year-olds being utterly superfluous). It will not go well."

Jim Leff said...

Also: I'm 54. This should all happen just in time to help me as I dissolve into dotage. I'll have the brightest life expectancy prospects of any 75 year-old ever.

So If I'm questioning it, then it really merits questioning.

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