The Pursuit of Anti-Aging
Immortality has been a recurring aspiration since the ancient Greeks. The Fountain of Youth is a myth about a fountain that can restore the youth of its drinker that has its roots in ancient Greece. The search for this mythical fountain inspired explorations across cultures. There are also scientific roots in the alchemical endeavor to create an Elixir of Life, a way to prolong life. During the 16th century, philosopher Francis Bacon advocated for “extracting nature’s secrets from her bosom through science and technology”. Bacon’s fixation on understanding nature in order to control or exploit it has echoes in today’s scientific research, particularly anti-aging. Firstly, this essay will discuss Francis Bacon and his relationship with anti-aging. Next, we will explore the French physiologist, Charles Brown-Sequard, and his hormone therapy research representing the reappearance of the anti-aging obsession. Finally, we will discuss how this attitude can be seen in modern times with stem-cell therapy research. Therefore, the obsession of age prevention espoused by Francis Bacon weaves its way through human history, carrying the implication that nature can be controlled.
Francis Bacon was a philosopher during the transition from the Renaissance to the early modern era. Bacon particularly focused on natural philosophy and scientific methodology. In his book Novum Organum, Bacon proposed a new method for the sciences to replace the old Aristotelian methodology. During his time, many of Bacon’s contemporaries believed that the ancients had understood all the secrets of the universe and it was just a matter of recovering what was lost. However, Bacon believed that there were new things to be known and sought to determine how such knowledge could be employed practically. Bacon believed that the “Fall from Eden” caused man to lose both his “innocency and dominion over creation” but that these losses could be recovered. “Innocency” could be regained through religion and faith; and “dominion over creation” could be regained through the arts and sciences. ‘Let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest,’ he asserted. It was through a new knowledge to be gained from sciences that the lost dominion could be reclaimed. One of Bacon’s main ambitions was in exploring anti-aging. As Bacon explains in De Sapienta Veterum (1609):
“natural philosophy proposes to itself, as its noblest work of all, nothing less than the restitution and renovation of things corruptible, and (what is indeed the same thing in a lower degree) the conservation of bodies in the state in which they are, and the retardation of dissolution and putrefaction.”
This effort was further explained by Bacon in Historia Vitae et Mortis, which provides the basis of future endeavours by physicians to “become the instruments and dispensers of God’s power and mercy in prolonging and renewing the life of man”. Bacon clearly had an obsession with unravelling nature’s ‘secrets’, particularly those to do with anti-aging as it is present in many of his publications. This attitude sets a precedent for later scientific research, particularly during the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. An obsession with understanding the ‘laws of nature’ was significant in the works of several philosophers, crossing borders and centuries. This differed from the medieval view that the regularities in nature were a matter of mere custom, not law. This view of natural laws was prevalent across early modern philosophy, which allowed for scientific discussions of anti-aging in 19th century physiology.
During the 17th century, French philosopher René Descartes first explored the distinction between the mind as an immaterial substance, and the body as a purely material substance. This formed the basis of Descartes’ mind-body dualism, which meant that the mind (or the soul) was connected to the body. The substances are ontologically independent of each other but are ultimately connected as the mind is consciously correlated with the physiological mechanism of the body. To Descartes, since the body is material it could perish; however, due to the mind’s ontological independence, the soul could survive without the body. Therefore, the soul can be considered immortal. Furthermore, Oswei Tenkin explained that “passions, instincts, thought and will could be studied as phenomena dependent upon our external and internal sensations, and therefore, upon biological organization.” While there are several stances one could take in opposition to Descartes’ mind-body dualism, the rise of materialism in the 19th century by German and French anatomists challenged Descartes’ conception of the immaterial mind, and ultimately the immortality of the soul. Scientific advancements postulated that “feeling” and “sensibility” was the central phenomenon for an explanation of the body’s nature, as well as the mind’s nature. Consequently, there is no distinct division between mind and body, and the mind is material. The result was a philosophical insecurity as to the status of the mind and its immortality.
This insecurity led to the work of French physiologist, Charles Brown-Séquard who, in the 19th century, endeavoured to study the therapeutic effects of endocrine gland and other organ extracts. As Descartes’ ideal of an immortal mind had been effectively extinguished, Brown-Séquard sought to establish the body’s immortality in its stead. Patrick Walsh explains Brown-Séquard’s view “that ‘life’ resided in the glandular liquid and the blood, and that an individual could experience this ‘life’ effect if it were located, harnessed and then therapeutically injected in their body”. This view gave rise to his infamous rejuvenation experiments, which he claimed rejuvenated his aging and failing body. Thus, the scientific obsession of anti-aging continues. Brown-Séquard’s work in re-establishing youthfulness demonstrated the continuing attitude of manipulating natural processes for humankind’s advancement. While his work assisted in establishing endocrinology as a discipline, it is evident that Brown-Séquard’s motivation was not just in understanding the way the body works but also reversing the natural processes of aging.
Brown’s-Séquard’s anti-aging aspirations and efforts have reappeared in modern times in two different ways: “(1) the commercial and clinical enterprises that offer anti-aging products, regimes, and treatments; and (2) research and development efforts of biogerontologists – scientists who study the biology of aging”. This essay will focus on biogerontological research, particularly in stem cells and their uses in anti-aging. In 1998, Dr Michael West managed to immortalise skin cells and since then, West has been developing novel therapeutics using pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells are considered the body’s master cell as they are self-replicating and can potentially produce any cell or tissue the body needs for repairment. These scientists aim to increase the span of “healthy living” years of humans. West predicts that the lifespan for healthy children born today could extend farther than what humanity has seen before:
“It is at least 150 years of age … I have no doubt, zero doubt, that in the foreseeable future, we’ll hear of a person who has lived to about 150. We know now it’s possible.”
There is a negative connotation with aging that has reappeared throughout history. West is reminiscent of this battle against aging that has permeated since Francis Bacon: “Aging is a universal phenomenon,” states West “it’s mankind’s greatest enemy, but as a species we’ve adapted to the realities of finite lifespans and death.” This demonstrates the incessant need to control natural processes. Today, it seems like stem cell research has replaced rejuvenation as the key to unlocking eternal youth. But is this even a door we need to unlock? The implications of extending the lifespan for humans would further exacerbate the over-population and misdistribution of resources currently experienced throughout the world. Extracting nature’s secrets could have the same implications as opening Pandora’s box. The consequences of anti-aging could have the opposite effect of hastening our demise.
There has been a continuing obsession with controlling the natural aging process of the human body. Francis Bacon endeavoured to revolutionize scientific processes with the underlying theme of extracting nature’s secrets. His ambitions with anti-aging epitomized this attitude which can be seen throughout the history of anti-aging experiments. Charles Brown-Séquard’s rejuvenation experiments sought to reverse the processes of aging against the background of a materialist surge in physiology. His idea that ‘life’ resided in the glandular liquid and blood and could unlock eternal youth was replaced in the modern era by stem cell therapy research. Dr Michael West believes that people living well beyond the expected lifespan today could happen in the near future. However, the implications of humanity living longer needs to be properly assessed: the question is no longer ‘can we expand our lifespan’ but should we.
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