Yiddish joke: “If the rich could get the poor to die for them, the poor would be very wealthy.”
Craig Venter, whose name is always uttered with a curious mix of admiration and scorn, was the first to sequence the human genome (in a race with the US National Institutes of Health), and the first to create a somewhat artificial cell using synthetic biology. He made headlines again a year ago when he founded a new company, Human Longevity, Inc.
“Your age is your number one risk factor for almost every disease, but it’s not a disease itself,” he declared in an interview. He wants to “make 100 the new 60”, and he wants to profit from it.
Venter plans to decouple disease and ageing by sequencing 40,000 genomes a year, aiming for a million by 2020. He believes that by scrutinising enough blueprints, you can understand why some houses collapse and others don’t. He is largely funded by X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis and K. T. Lim, a Malaysian billionaire who runs a gambling conglomerate, Genting Group. The Genting Group owns casinos, the Star Line Cruises and resorts, including America’s most successful, Resort World in Queens. In 2013, Resort World posted revenues of $696.5 million – 38% of the combined revenues for all nine racinos (merged race track and casinos) in New York State.
Human Longevity, Inc. is not the first of its kind. Last year, Google chief Larry Page announced his company was creating the anti-ageing company Calico. And Lawrence J. Ellison, chief of technology corporation Oracle, finances anti-ageing research through his foundation.
One wishes these ventures well, but the bioethicist in me worries that when wealthy men fund research with no public oversight, no ethics reviews, no civic participation – but are ready to patent and sell for a profit – it may go badly for the people would cannot afford access to the results.
Genes may reveal much about the mysteries of the body, but we already know what most influences longevity: poverty. Your income level is more closely correlated to your lifespan than any single other factor, which Lim failed to understand when nearly 2,000 of his casino workers went on strike last year, asking for a living wage and health care benefits. He refused. A New York appellate judge settled the matter, doubling their wages after hearing testimony about how they were unable to afford blood tests for diabetes, or were working two jobs to cover health care costs.
US life expectancy has marched steadily upward, reaching 78.5 years in 2009, but a growing body of research shows those gains are going mostly to those at the upper end of the income ladder. Take the Washington region. In 2009 in Montgomery County, men’s life expectancy was 81.4 years while in the District, where 18.7% of the population lives in poverty, it was 72.6 years – nearly a decade of life lost if you are poor. And the life span of the rich also increases faster: a 2007 Social Security Administration study found that over the previous three decades, the life expectancy of men retiring at 65 had risen six years in the top half of the income distribution but only 1.3 years in the bottom half.
In 1516, when Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia, one of his concerns was how to create a happy society. It was an English Renaissance sort of question, and we still puzzle over it. We now believe the answer lies inside us; coiled, mysterious and coded, but possible to know. More was concerned about the human soul; DNA occupies that place today.
When imagining a perfect life for the old, More placed them in an egalitarian classless society where there was no property or ownership. The people who could work, did, and the people who couldn’t were cared for. So 500 years ago, More noted that the best way to extend life’s pleasures may be in a radical redistribution of wealth: “But, of all pleasures, they esteem those to be most valuable that lie in the mind, the chief of which arise out of true virtue and the witness of a good conscience.” In More’s utopia, all have a place at the table. It was a radical book then, and a good one to remember, as we think about what else it might take to live to a good old age.
Laurie Zoloth is a professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University, Chicago.
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