AC Grayling: Will this step towards a longer life create yet another divide in our society?

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The Independent Online

Discovering the genes that may contribute towards longevity is a step towards making us all live longer. Future human beings are going to have a very different perspective on the definition of a human life – it will take a different shape.

There is huge promise in this type of genetic research. If it helps us to cure or detect diseases, to tackle life-threatening problems, then it would be very useful and powerful knowledge to have.

Of course there are challenging aspects to this research. We have yet to answer serious questions such as: Where do we stop? What kind of research do we not need? What sort of things do we really not want to know?

But we should never underestimate the human capacity to cope with bad news. If I found out that I would only live to, say, 60 or 90 and everyone else was going to live to 150, would I be able to cope with it? Of course I would, eventually.

It would be horrible to begin with. I'd moan and groan. But one would adjust and we cope with it. In itself, it is not a reason to get frightened, stop this research too soon and hide your head in the sand.

We all live under the life sentence of death but we have evolved not to think about it. There's a great deal to be said for all the natural uncertainties that human beings have lived with. We shape our lives around the belief that we are all going to be healthy and live a long time. That's only true for actually quite a small proportion of us. But that's the premise we work with.

When someone employs us, when someone insures us, when we make plans for the future, when we have children, we are assuming the best scenario.

If we adjusted our lives according to the possibility that we could be knocked down by a bus tomorrow it would be anarchy: we would never get anything done. We'd never team up with anyone. We'd never plan a family.

One issue in all this that poses a serious dilemma is: what if third parties like employers or insurance companies began to discriminate against people on the basis of their genetic makeup?

There is a danger, particularly in the next few years as this knowledge trickles out in partial dribs and drabs, that third parties begin to use it against us.

We have to ask ourselves what we are going to do about it and how are we going to manage it because we don't want people being discriminated against.

You also have to ask yourself who will benefit from this kind of knowledge. Throughout human history there has always been the haves and the have-nots. That division still exists now, most familiarly in the form of the rich and poor divide.

Will knowledge of our genetic make-up one day create another divide? Those who have access to gene therapy, longer life or wider knowledge of their genetic makeup are going to be in a far stronger position compared to those who don't have that knowledge.

It could become another wedge to drive people apart.

* AC Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, was speaking to Jerome Taylor.