The future of gerontology in a public culture reshaped by biological reductionism
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Andrea G. Drusini University of Padova, Italy. The Future of Gerontology in a public culture reshaped by Biological Reductionism. EuMag Malta, June 2005. Research Projects on Ageing Physical Anthropology Unit, University of Padua (Italy).

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The future of gerontology in a public culture reshaped by biological reductionism l.jpg

Andrea G. Drusini

University of Padova, Italy

The Future of Gerontologyin a public culture reshaped by Biological Reductionism

EuMag

Malta, June 2005


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Research Projects on Ageing

Physical Anthropology Unit, University of Padua (Italy)

  • THE ANCHYSES Project 1996– 2001 A Multidisciplinary Research on Ageing EXCELSA 1996 – 2001 Cross –European Longitudinal Study on Ageing

  • Adelaide, Australia 1999– Migration and ageing

  • Nasca, Perù 2003– Biocultural determinants of ageing


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The Anchyses Project

Anchyses was the father of Aeneas, the mythical ancestor of the Veneti, a population that arrived on the Adriatic sea together with the Trojans some 2000 years ago, peopling the vast territory of North-East Italy that Romans named ‘X regio Venetia et Histria’

A Multidisciplinary Research on AgingAndrea G. Drusini, M.D.,Ph.D.

University of Padua, Italy

Aeneas carrying the old father Anchyses (Vatican Rooms, Rome)

Anchyses is also an emblem of old age wisdom.The roman poet Virgil ( Aen. I, 242-252) wrote that Trojan King Antenor, a Veneti chief, was the founder of the city of Padua


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THE HUMAN COMPLEXITY

Edgar Morin, 1973

REDUCTIONISM: dividing up, separating, breaking down

THE REAL WORLD: complexity, globality, planetarian

“Our Universities educate all over the world too many specialists in specific, artificially circumscribed disciplines, while most social activities, like the same development of science, requires men with a wide perspective, capable at the same time to deeply focusing the problems, looking at a new progress beyond the historical boundaries of disciplines”

(A.Lichnerowitz)


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THE AGEING PROCESS

Aywhere something lives, there is, open in some place, a register in which time is inscribed

(Henri Bergson, 1859-1941)


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THE ATOMIZED APPROACH IS UNPRODUCTIVE

“In the most common and probably the most important phenomena of life, the constituent parts are so interdependent that they lose their character, their meaning, and indeed their very existence, when dissected from the functional whole. In order to deal with problems of organized complexity, it is therefore essential to investigate situations in which several interrelated systems function in an integrated manner”

(René Dubos, 1965)


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CRITICS OF REDUCTIONISM

"Extreme analytical reductionism is a failure because it cannot give proper weight to the interaction of components of a complex system.

An isolated component almost invariably has characteristics that are different from those of the same component when it is part of its ensemble, and does not reveal, when isolated, its contribution to the interactions"

Ernst Mayr

Mayr E., 1982a, The Growth of Biological thought. Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., London, England, p. 61.


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THE “HOLY GRAIL” OF BIOLOGY

“Over the course of the past decade billions of dollars have been invested in the“Holy Grail of Biology”– the mapping of the human genome” (M. Lock, 2003)

DNA


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THE “HOLY GRAIL” OF BIOLOGY

Knowledgeable commentators suggest that human genome maps are equivalent to having a list of parts for a Boeing 747, but with no idea as to how they go together and no knowledge of the principles of aeronautics

DNA

?

=


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DNA

The Human Genome Mistery

Neuroscientist Alberto Oliverio stated that the human genome map is equivalent to have a map of the Adriatic coast, but with no idea of where cities and villages are located


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S.J. Olshansky, B.A. Carnes,2001

THE QUEST FOR IMMORTALITY

In 1990, biodemographers Olshansky, Carnes, and Cassel published a review in Science entitled "In Search of Methuselah: Estimatingthe Upper Limits to Human Longevity" (Science, 250:634-640).

In the article they argued that, despite the astounding increase in life expectancy during the 20th century (increasing, in the United States, from a mean age of 45 at the beginning of the century to 78 at its end), it was doubtful that we would witness an increase in longevity to ages older than 85 during the foreseeable future.


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AGEING AS A MULTIFACTORIAL PHENOMENON

As all natural phenomena which are under the effects of uncertainty and disorder, the ageing process is greatlyunforeseeable

ENTROPY OF AGEING


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THE THERMODYNAMICS LAWS

THE FIRST LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS

You can't create or destroy energy

THE SECOND LAWOF THERMODYNAMICS

Energy spontaneously tends to flow only from being concentrated in one place to becoming diffused or dispersed and spread out

ENTROPY IS THE MEASURE OF THE DISORDER OF A SYSTEM


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ENTROPY

Entropy is no mystery or complicated idea:

Entropy is merely the way to measure the energy that disperses or spreads out in a process (as a function of temperature)

Also, entropy is the uncertainty associated with the nature of a situation


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A very conservative view of what can be done about aging

Considering the "entropy in the life table“, it would be far more difficult to increase life expectancy by curing illnesses in elderly persons than it had been to nudge life expectancy upward by reducing infant mortality

Any increase above the age of 85 would require biomedical breakthroughs in our ability to affect the basic processes of aging itself and not just in our ability to treat diseases


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THE BIODEMOGRAPHER’S PESSIMISM

The biodemographers pessimism, while controversial, provided a much-needed shot of realism in a field in which some researchers were seriously predicting that life expectancy would soon rise above 100


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UTOPIAS OF HEALTH

Plato and Aristote

It was common in premodern utopias of health associate “healty” minds and correct behavior with the health not only of individual bodies but with the collective of society

One of the best known examples is that of Plato’s Republic, where he argued that social justice would come about naturally if individuals conducted themselves correctly and virtue was lauded as salubrious

(M.Lock, 2003)


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UTOPIA = “NO PLACE”

Thomas More coined the term “utopia” in 1516, for which the original Greek meaning of “No place” is usually conveniently forgotten

In More’s book, Utopia, a calm and regular functioning of the body is considered one of the greatest pleasures in life

In order for his ideal society to thrive, however, More argued for the necessity of practicing active euthanasia

Thomas More

(1478-1535)


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Samuel Butler’s 1872 Erewhon – an anagram for nowhere – was perhaps the last example of the grand escapist tradition

Erewhon was set in New Zealand, the exotic Other

UTOPIA = NO PLACE ISLAND

THE REAL WORLD

More’s utopia, like so many similar premodern fantasies, was located on an island, a space removed from the “real” world…


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Nowhere Man- The Beatles (Lennon/McCartney)

He’s a real nowhere man

Sitting in his nowhere land Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Samuel Butler (1835-1902)

In the Butler’s mind, man’s moral nature is not adequate to rule machines, for the society would be unavoidably made corrupt by the materialism of a technologically dominated society

Writing at the same time as Herbert Spencer and later CharlesDarwin, Butler was accused by his contemporaries of being opposed to the advances of science…


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…and that’s the same today!

ANY CRITICS TO REDUCTIONISM IS CONSIDERED AN ATTACK AGAINST SCIENCE AND A BACK TO MIDDLE AGES


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DANGEROUS DIAGNOSTICS

In most developed countries, the ‘obsession of the absolute health’ became a prevalent pathogenic factor: in a world prostrated at the feet of the instrumental ideal of technological science, the medical system creates every day new care needs.

Everybody claims the progress must eliminate all diseases, extending the life span to infinity maintaining the freshness of youth: no more ageing, no more pain, no more death.


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THE HARVARD UNIVERSITY GAZETTE

November 16, 2000

THE REDUCTIONISTS LAST DISCOVERY:

“Ageing as a disease”


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Cato Maior de Senectute

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Senectus ipsa morbus est…


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Cato Maior de Senectute

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

Senectus ipsa morbus est…

“…If ageing is just a disease in se, how can we distinguish the unhealty elderly from the healty one?” (E. Durkheim, 1895)


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A telomere is a region on the very tip of chromosomes.

They are composed of a repeating series of six nucleotides (TTAGGG).

A typical human telomere may have more than 15000 such repeats in it.

Their relevance to the ageing process is being investigated.

(Source: Medina, 1997, p. 276, with permission of the Editor)


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The Extraordinary deeds of Caenorhabditis elegans

NEMATODA (ROUNDWORMS)

Caenorhabditis elegans is a small (about 1 mm long) soil nematode found in temperate regions, used worldwide for genetic ageing experiments


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THE BIONIC DROSOPHILA

Catalase and superoxide dismutase are two enzymes that destroy ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species).

If these enzymes are inserted into embryonic fruit flies, their life span was extended 33% when compared to controls.


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ROS TWISTER

  • Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are:

  • molecules like hydrogen peroxide;

  • ions like the hypochlorite ion;

  • radicals like the hydroxyl radical: it is the most reactive of them all;

  • the superoxide anion which is both ion and radical.

  • A radical (also called a "free radical") is a clusters of atoms one of which contains an unpaired electron in its outermost shell of electrons.

  • This is an extremely unstable configuration, and radicals quickly react with other molecules or radicals to achieve the stable configuration of 4 pairs of electrons in their outermost shell (one pair for hydrogen).


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HEALTY ICONS

Mitochondrion

Biologists estimate that our cells undergo every day some 10.000 potential sources of damage

FREE RADICALS

Free radicals are simply the by-product of millions of chemical reactions that everyday happen in our organism: eliminating all the free radicals means eliminating the life itself


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THE FREE RADICALS WAR

The proposal of a massive use of vitamins and other anti- free-radical products to reduce cellular damage remembers the debate about the “ Star Wars ”: the mathematical demonstration of a lucid madness based on a “perfect” protection system of the world through nuclear weapons


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DON QUIJOTE & SANCHO PANZA:

UTOPIA & DISENCHANTMENT

“Scientist today should be a sort of di compromise between utopia and disenchantment. Utopia gives sense to life, because it demands life to have a meaning; Don Quijote is great because he insists on believing, against any evidence, that the barber’s basin is the Mambrino’s helmet, and that crude Aldonza is the enchanting Dulcinea. But Don Quijote, alone, would be sad and dangerous, like utopia when it coerces reality changing the dream with reality…”

(Claudio Magris)


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DonQuijote y Sancho Panza:

Between Illusion and Reality

“…Don Quijote needs Sancho Panza, who sees that the Mambrino’s helmet is the barber’s basin and perceives the Aldonza’s muck smell, but understanding that world should be neither complete, nor true without looking at that magic helmet and that shining beauty. Like Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, Utopia and Disenchantment must support– and correct – each other”


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An increasing technological level is always counterbalanced by a decreasing cultural level

Ageing as a bio-cultural process

The word culture comes from the Latin colere, which means “to cultivate”

 These concepts of culture and cultivation are indeed European

Technology + culture = healthy ageing


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The elderly are living today

in a new milieu…

..intermediary between nature and man…

... the technological world


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Biotechnology can save your life, but it is transforming pain – traditionally an ethical problem – into a technical problem, depriving suffering of its intrinsic personal meaning

BIOTECH UTOPIA: cui prodest?


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Old age is completely subjective…

Technique pretends subjects to be uniform, interchangeable, not creative (as the transplants industry)


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Science is measuring

Galileo Galilei

PPlato’s measures of man

-   « métron » is the measure we get approaching the object from the outside

- « métrion » represents what is « suitable », fitting, with regards to the inner status of any living being


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…as Nietzsche said, being human is the real illness…


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DOXA survey on the principal causes of physical decay and death in elderly (Italy, 1996)

  • 1. spouse/husband death

  • 2. abandonment by sons

  • 3. isolation

  • 4. disease

  • 5. economic necessities


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The elderly in the age of technique

In his work Prometheus, Aeschylus describes the two gifts the Titan gave to mankind: the oblivion of the hour of death – thanks to Hope, which cannot see, acting as a medicine – and fire, which represents technique


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AGEING IN A TECHNOLOGICAL WORLD

  • The three questions on the table:

  • Did reductionist techniques improve the quality of life of elderly people?

  • It Is it true that the « faith in the future » - that is the utopian research of biotechnologies – holds back the solution of some major problems such as ageing, handicap and malaise?

  • What shall gerontologists do in order to correct this direction toward a science and technique profitable to everybody?


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BIOMEDICINE AS JANUS BIFRONS


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BIOMEDICINE AS JANUS BIFRONS

STATISTICS

RESULTS:

Decreased infant mortality

Increased life expectancy

Disappearance of many infectious diseases

Revolutionary scientific discoveries

More effective therapies

ANTROPOLOGICAL

INQUIRY:

How are you?

ANSWER

Fear of future

Increasing needs

Increasing expectation for medical care

Increasing distress, depression, suicide


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Ageing and the conquests of modern medicine

According to the data by Jay Olshansky1if we consider the two major causes of death – cancer and heart disease – we shall notice how:

could cancer be defeated overnight, then the average age of the population would only increase by 2 years

by eliminating all heart disease the same would increase only by 3-4 years2

1 Olshansky S.J., Carnes B.A., 2001, Prospects for human longevity. Science 291: 1491-1492.

2 Olshansky S.J., 1998, On the Biodemography of Aging: A Review Essay. Population and Development Review 24(2): 381-393.


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WORLD RECORDS 10.000 m MEN

AGEING: ACHIEVING A RECORD

  • First under 31 min: 30:58.8 Jean Bouin FRA

  • 1911

  • First under 30 min: 29:52.6 Taisto Mäki FIN 1939

  • First under 29 min: 28:54.2 Emil Zátopek TCH 1954

  • First under 28 min: 27:39.4 Ron Clarke AUS 1965

  • First under 27 min: 26:58.38 Yobes Ondieki KEN 1993


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YearAthleteCountry

Time

Residuals

1911 Jean Bouin (FRA)

30.58.8

 -

1939 Taisto Mäki (FIN)

29.52.6

-1.06

1954 Emil Zatopek (TCH)

28.54.2

-0.98

1965 Ron Clarke (AUS)

27.39.4

-1.15

1993 Yobes Ondieki (KEN)

26.58.38

-0.81

2000 Pavarotti & Friends (ITA)

26.06.58

-0.52

2050 Robokop (DE)

23.47.83

-2.41

2100 Superman (USA)

21.29.08

-2.18

2200 Batman (USA)

16.11.58

-5.18

2300 Spiderman (USA)

10.54.08

-5.17

2400 Fantaman (JAP)

5.36.58

-5.18

2500 Goldrake (JAP)

0.19.08

-5.17

World Records 10.000 m men: linear regression with proiections calculated on real times from 1911 to 1993 (r = 0.90)


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MEDICINE MAY BE REDUCING THE HUMAN CAPACITY TO SURVIVE

C.N. Stephan, M. Henneberg

Medical Hypotheses (2001) 57(5), 633-637

It appears that limited natural selection is taking place in populations of developed countries, since most individuals survive and have the full opportunities to reproduce. This paper adresses contemporary natural selection in a developed country (Australia) using the biological state index.

This has two apparent consequences. First, the fitness of individuals will decrease, since less favourable genes can accumulate in the population, and secondly, disease processes will remain fit as they adapt to the selective pressures exerted by medicine.


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THE EXTENDING LIFE PROGRAMME

Biologists have loose control on the biological condition and biocracy..

..and biomedicine witnesses the transition from the “physical body” to the “fiscal body ”

The technical progress has overtaken the ethical progress


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A NEW FETISH: THE HUMAN LIFE

Biomedicine ceased to look at the suffering of a sick person: the object of its care became something called “a human life” (i.e “to save a life”)

This ambiguous fetish emerging from the scientific speech runs the risk to overshadow the (legal!) concept of ‘person’


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TOWARDS A NEW POLICY FOR AGEING

“The inventors of new values are born far from markets and from glory "

(F. Nietzsche)


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CHIRON

Chiron the Centaur, the inventor of medicine, wounded by Heracles with a poisoned arrow, embodies the image of the " wounded healer ", hinting to the pain intrinsic in human nature, linking doctor and patient well beyond their roles (G. Gadamer)

This is to say that not only is the patient himself a doctor, but that any doctor is himself a patient


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THE FASCINATION OF UTOPIA

“We only act under the fascination of the impossibility: that is, a society wich is incapable of generating an utopia and to devote itself to it, is under the threat of sclerosis and ruin. Wisdom, which is never fascinating, recommends the given, existing happiness; man refuses it, and this refusal alone makes him an historical animal, I mean, an imaginary happiness’s lover”

(Emil Cioran, TheHistory of Utopia)


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Ebisu, God of Fortune. Ceramic, height cm 15, Bardi’s Collection, XIXCentury

(Museum of Anthropology, University of Padova, Italy)

“You need sixty years of life to know your soul; then, you will stay young forever”

(Chinese old saying)


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