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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Andrea G. Drusini
University of Padova, Italy
Malta, June 2005
Research Projects on Ageing
Physical Anthropology Unit, University of Padua (Italy)
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
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”
Aywhere something lives, there is, open in some place, a register in which time is inscribed
(Henri Bergson, 1859-1941)
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)
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"
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.
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)
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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…
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…
…and that’s the same today!
ANY CRITICS TO REDUCTIONISM IS CONSIDERED AN ATTACK AGAINST SCIENCE AND A BACK TO MIDDLE AGES
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.
THE HARVARD UNIVERSITY GAZETTE
November 16, 2000
THE REDUCTIONISTS LAST DISCOVERY:
“Ageing as a disease”
Cato Maior de Senectute
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Senectus ipsa morbus est…
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)
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)
The Extraordinary deeds of Caenorhabditis elegans
Caenorhabditis elegans is a small (about 1 mm long) soil nematode found in temperate regions, used worldwide for genetic ageing experiments
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.
Biologists estimate that our cells undergo every day some 10.000 potential sources of damage
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
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
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…”
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”
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
The elderly are living today
in a new milieu…
..intermediary between nature and man…
... the technological world
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?
Old age is completely subjective…
Technique pretends subjects to be uniform, interchangeable, not creative (as the transplants industry)
Science is measuring
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
…as Nietzsche said, being human is the real illness…
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
AGEING IN A TECHNOLOGICAL WORLD
BIOMEDICINE AS JANUS BIFRONS
BIOMEDICINE AS JANUS BIFRONS
Decreased infant mortality
Increased life expectancy
Disappearance of many infectious diseases
Revolutionary scientific discoveries
More effective therapies
How are you?
Fear of future
Increasing expectation for medical care
Increasing distress, depression, suicide
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.
AGEING: ACHIEVING A RECORD
1911 Jean Bouin (FRA)
1939 Taisto Mäki (FIN)
1954 Emil Zatopek (TCH)
1965 Ron Clarke (AUS)
1993 Yobes Ondieki (KEN)
2000 Pavarotti & Friends (ITA)
2050 Robokop (DE)
2100 Superman (USA)
2200 Batman (USA)
2300 Spiderman (USA)
2400 Fantaman (JAP)
2500 Goldrake (JAP)
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.
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
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’
TOWARDS A NEW POLICY FOR AGEING
“The inventors of new values are born far from markets and from glory "
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
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)
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)