, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 547-560,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

The Right and Wrong of Growing Old: Assessing the Argument from Evolution

Abstract

One argument which is frequently levelled against the enhancement of human biology is that we do not understand the evolved function of our bodies well enough to meddle in our biology without producing unintended and potentially catastrophic effects. In particular, this argument is levelled against attempts to slow or eliminate the processes of human ageing, or ‘senescence’, which cause us to grow decrepit before we die. In this article, I claim that even if this argument could usefully be applied against attempts to enhance other human traits, it cannot be valid in the case of attempts to enhance the various processes that constitute senescence. I begin by reviewing the biology of ageing to show how it consists of a number of unrelated traits. Then, following the arguments of a number of evolutionary biologists, I explain that every one of these traits is a product of evolutionary ‘neglect’ rather than ‘intent’. Finally, I consider the strongest version of the argument against enhancing senescence, which acknowledges these facts about the evolution of ageing but insists that we have nevertheless have prudential reasons to avoid enhancement wherever there is some uncertainty about the genetics or evolutionary function of a trait. I provide two reasons for rejecting this version of the argument as well, even in the case of human senescence, where such uncertainty is currently significant.