The War on Death
Death is an integral part of life. Every animal kills something in order to survive, be it a small plant eaten by a deer or a wildebeest taken down by a pride of lions. But even if an animal is able to eat every day, death is still an inevitability; the process known as aging leads to cellular decay, primarily due to the decay of telomeres. Telomeres are structures at the end of DNA strands that keeps DNA stable after mitosis, which is the process of cellular reproduction. The inability of an animal to maintain healthy cellular production leads to diseases such as cancer and organ failure.
Humans are no exception to this. We are one of a few animals that are aware of our own mortality, and this knowledge has had a profound affect on our history. Fear of death was a propellant for religions, which usually promoted a wondrous afterlife for virtuous believers. A desire to be remembered was a catalyst for innumerable works of art, music, and literature. Carl Jung hypothesized that death was a direct cause of creativity and activity, as it puts a time limit on those that would spend their days in leisure.
Death has been a spectre over humanity for all of our history, because we have had no means to fight it. We have delayed its icy grip with medicine, social planning and education, but the reaper will eventually have his day. But medicine, as most sciences, are expanding - our knowledge of the human body grows deeper by the day. In the past, medical discoveries such as the smallpox vaccine and penicillin would have seemed like magic to those seeing it for the first time; we may be on the brink of a development that is truly magical.
The Human Genome Project was an ambitious 13-year program that attempted to document the entire genetic code of humanity, and while it was not able to link each gene to a specific affect on humanity, it did give future geneticists a map to follow and decipher. Slowly but surely, the character and effect of genes was unlocked for scientific application. Interesting discoveries came to light; it was discovered that up to 8% of the human genome came from a virus, known as endogeneous retroviruses. These came from the earliest vestiges of human evolution, and have remained dormant much like a vestigial organ.
The most important result of the Human Genome Project may be its foundation for CRISPR. CRISPR is an acronym for "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats", which is absolutely nonsensical to the layman. The important thing to focus on is that CRISPR has the ability to alter genes; with further refinement and experimentation, any genetic disorder that leads to disease can be eliminated. A world without sickle cell anemia, cancer, ALS and Down Syndrome might be mere decades away; whatever breakthroughs lead to that world would be accelerated with increased funding for research.
Even more tantalizing is the prospect of anti-aging drugs. There is an increasing volume of voices in the scientific community pushing for aging to be considered a disease. To treat this disease, drugs such as rapamycin and metformin are undergoing clinical trials. There are several ways that anti-aging drugs could work on the human body - they might extend the length of time a person is self-sufficient in old age, they might extend the amount of years people could expect to live, or they might even be able to reverse the aging process in those that are already up in years. The most optimistic of people believe that biological immortality may be on the horizon - as long as the brain can be kept lucid, the body can remain in a viable state indefinitely.
Helping this dream of biological immortality is the development of lab-grown meat. The science of cloning has gotten more sophisticated since Dolly the sheep made her entrance into the world, and meat has begun to be grown in labs for the purpose of consumption. The benefit of lab meat is that it avoids the cost overhead, time and environmental impact of natural meat farms, not to mention the ethical dilemma some people have about animal suffering.
But the leap from growing pork belly or filet mignon to growing a human lung or a liver isn't that big of a leap. We are still many years away from being able to grow replacement organs for people, but the basic concept is already in development. The prospect of being able to swap out decrepit organs for brand new ones would be encouraging for the majority of humanity.
But all of this hope and excitement runs into three barriers. The first is the matter of cost - it is likely that these technologies and treatments will be too expensive for the majority of Americans to have access to. We may very well see the wealthy live to be hundreds of years old as the plebeians still age and die. Comparisons to Tolkien's elves spring to mind. Even a universal healthcare system might not be enough to combat this, as a two-tier system may make certain treatments available only to those that can afford it. There is also the nefarious possibility that these treatments may be made cost-effective for the plebeians, but the costs are held artificially high to give the wealthy an added advantage in life.
The second is the matter of religion - accusations of playing God have been levied against scientists for centuries, but we've really been playing God for millennia. Dogs are the most prominent example of this - we took wolves and bred them in a way that encouraged traits that we liked. We did the same with agriculture, as we made wheat, bananas, and berries bend to our desire. Genetically modified crops are simply a new tool to apply to agriculture - why shouldn't genetically modified humans be an application of healthcare? To this end, a demand must be issued to the religious - do not make us age, suffer and die because of your beliefs. If they do not want these treatments, it should not be forced upon them. But these treatments should not be withheld from us because of how they feel about it.
The third is the matter of overpopulation. Generally speaking, the more advanced a nation's economy gets, the less children are born in that nation. But how would the prospect of living 200, 300, 500 or 1000 years affect that birthrate? If every American were to live 300 years and have 2 kids around 30 years of age, the population would explode. Even if life were sustainable, the quality of life would dramatically decrease. Might sterilization in return for life extension be necessary? Might Ender's Game come into real life as families are restricted to two kids?
The darkest possibility is that of genetic modification being weaponized. If a virus can be synthesized to target a specific person for assassination or a subset of a population for genocide, it will eventually happen. Even if the United States military does not go down this path, China certainly will. Biological weapons are alongside chemical and nuclear weapons as the most heinous tools of war, and even though the United States, Russia and the majority of the world agreed to the Biological Weapons Convention, testing and research was nevertheless continued.
Whatever the answer may be, it is something that can be answered later on. New problem always arise from technological progress, this is no different. For right now, we all have the vested interest that these technologies are rolled out as soon as possible, as broadly as possible. Your body's cells start to decay faster than they can be replaced at 25, and it is all downhill from there. The sooner we stop that roll downhill, the better.