On the history of life-extension research: Does the whole have parts? - Ilia Stambler

Video Overview

This presentation will explore the history of life-extension research in the 20th century. I will argue that the search for life-extension has often constituted a formidable, though hardly ever acknowledged, source for biomedical research and discovery, in such diverse fields as endocrinology (Steinach, 1910s-1920s); probiotic diets (Metchnikoff, 1900s); blood transfusion (Bogdanov, 1920s), systemic immunotherapy (Bogomolets, 1930s-1940s) and cell therapy, including human embryonic cell therapy (Niehans, 1930s-1950s). This presentation will briefly recapitulate some of the biomedical interventions (actual or potential) which were investigated as possible means for life-extension over the century. A taxonomy will be suggested between reductionist/therapeutic and holistic/hygienic approaches to potential life-extending interventions. Both approaches sought to achieve biological equilibrium and constancy of internal environment, yet emphasized diverging means and diverging perceptions of what constitutes equilibrium and constancy. The reductionist approach saw the human body as a machine in need of repair and internal adjustment and equilibration, seeking to achieve material homeostasis by eliminating damaging agents and introducing biological replacements, in other words, working by subtraction and addition toward balance. The holistic approach, in contrast, focused on the equilibration of the organism as a unit within the environment, strongly emphasizing the direct sustaining and revitalizing power of the mind and hygienic regulation of behavior. In the holistic approach, internal equilibrium was sought not so much through calibrating intrusions, but through resistance to intrusions. The apparent relative weight of each approach in public discourse will be shown to change with time, in several western countries, reflecting the initial hopes, disappointments and reactions to those disappointments in a variety of scientific programs.