Home > Uncategorized > John A. Vincent “Ageing, Anti-ageing, and Anti-anti-ageing”

John A. Vincent “Ageing, Anti-ageing, and Anti-anti-ageing”

Vincent, John A. 2009. Ageing, Anti-ageing, and Anti-anti-ageing: Who are the Progressives in the Debate on the Future of Human Biological Ageing? Medicine Studies 1(3): 197–208.


I have come to use the anti-ageing label to describe a wide variety of groups whose practices construct old age as a naturalised, selfevidently negative, biological phenomenon which must be overcome. (198)


Firstly there is anti-ageing as activity aimed at modifying the appearance of old age. This concept of old age locates it on the surface of the body and associates it with particular phenomena such as skin tone, hair colour and posture. (198)


The second approach to anti-ageing is to consider ageing as a disease to be cured. This locates the phenomena as malfunctions inside the body (Lupton 2000; Katz and Marshall 2004). The objective of these kinds of anti-ageing interventions is to avoid the illness of old age and restore the body to the health of youth. This involves the development and use of a full range of medical expertise including drugs, hormonal therapies, dietary supplements, exercise regimes and surgery. This kind of approach to old age is embedded in the institutions and cultures of the medical profession and can be seen as part of the processes of the medicalisation of old age (Estes and Binney 1989; Katz 1996; Vincent 1999). (198)


The third view of ageing is that it is a fundamental biological process. Here ageing is located at the cellular level and below. There have been major developments in the biology of ageing whereby the life span of laboratory-bred model species such as yeast, worms, fruitflies and mice can be modified such that they live two or three or more times longer than ‘standard’ specimens (Carey 2003). (199)


There are others for whom ageing is seen primarily as the prelude to death. For these people the objective of an anti-ageing strategy is to achieve immortality, or at least something close to it. The practices of this type of anti-ageing include raising funds for and the design of programmes of research which are intended to avoid deaths which come as the result of ageing (De Grey et al. 2002; De Grey 2003, 2004). (199)


Within all four of these categories of the anti-ageing movement there are a diverse set of people: hard scientists working in well funded and established university laboratories, slick corporate-marketing executives and new-age entrepreneurs selling herbal elixirs (Vincent2006b; Fishman et al. 2008). (199)


Ackerman describes Kass’s position on extended longevity and in favour of death as ‘‘the worse philosophical position ever’’ (Ackerman 2007, p. 325). She suggests that it is not possible to argue that immortality will harm an individual or bring harm to other people. The ‘commonsense’ position that death is bad, she believes, is a position that can be vindicated through philosophical questioning. She sees ending death as similar to other examples of more mundane scientific progress: “The achievement of greatly extended human life and even (or especially) immortality would be like the discovery of electricity. It would bring many problems and dislocations and would even do some people more harm than good, but overall it would be an enormous boon to humanity.” (Ackerman 2007, p. 325) (201)


The key problem with this position is that it constructs science not as a tool of society but as an infallible institution capable of creating the ideal order. When questioned, many researchers, who frequently see themselves as practical men of science, show some irritation at the overblown and apocalyptic debates on extended longevity and regard such abstract theorising as a distraction from the proper, and taken for granted, job of science (Vincent 2008; Settersten et al. 2008). However, a belief in the progressive nature of science comes with an implicit utopian belief in human perfectibility—the ultimate myth of modernity (cf. Bauman1991). (202)


The least that can be said is that in the 21st century the progressive nature of science as an institution cannot be taken for granted. These critiques should caution us against endeavours to create the ageless utopia. Such a goal carries the risk of creating a society with an ‘enlightened’ authoritarian elite who are able to discipline their bodies and achieve immortality, while the unenlightened are seen as less worthy and disposable. (203)


We might ask: at what age do you wish to stop ageing and become immortal? There are no programmes which construct the immortal with the body of a 6-year-old, or a 60-year-old; their vision is dependent on a cultural image of the ‘prime of life’ to the exclusion of alternatives. There is a danger that the anti-ageing movement will devalue the diversity of humanity and thereby reinforce damaging self-perceptions of body image. (203)


In a little more than 100 years death has changed from a common occurrence which could strike at any time to the almost exclusive province of old age. Old age has become the only time people are expected to die (Cole 1992). It is this latter, modern construction of old age which is now being challenged by anti-ageing protagonists who seek to surmount the unfairness of this age discrimination by the grim reaper. (203-204)


Our culture favours the view that the individual is the sole repository of moral value (Dumont1985; Habermas 2003). Hence the desire to preserve personal identity indefinitely through corporeal immortality is a highly culture-bound product of our own society and not a universal human characteristic (Palgi1984; Barley 1995; Franklin and Lock2003). (204)


Kinship is the cultural system that forms the basis of the original and all subsequent human societies. Human biological and social characteristics have co-evolved through the successful transmission and modification of culture from one generation to another. Without ageing and death there would be no succession of generations. The cost of a successful ‘‘strong’’ anti-ageing endeavour would be the abandonment of the succession of generations and thus the loss of the key, fundamentally progressive, dynamic to human society, the one that originally produced it. (204)

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