May 17, 2022 - 7:30am

In case intergenerational solidarity wasn’t bad enough, news arrived this week that scientists have discovered yet more ways to help the elderly by cannibalising the young.

Researchers have discovered that infusing the cerebrospinal fluid of young mice into older mice improved brain function, which according to Dr Tony Wyss-Coray of Stanford’s School of Medicine in California, suggests that the ageing process is “malleable”. Previous research seems to suggest that blood transfusions from the young to the old have a rejuvenating effect, too.

How long until someone tries to apply this to humans? With the youngest boomers approaching 60, they’re now collectively confronting their own mortality. As such, this cohort is the most obvious demographic to drive demand, economically as much as culturally: they’re wealthier than subsequent generations, and also saw the swiftest decline in religious faith.

Boomer ageing, then, is a perfect storm: a taboo-smashing demographic, often lacking the kind of religious framework that would encourage acceptance of mortality — and, in aggregate, the money to fight back. Indeed, while there’s no evidence he’s cannibalising children’s body fluids, ultra-rich boomers such as Jeff Bezos now pour immense resources into seeking the secret of eternal life.

The spinal-fluid and blood-transfusion experiments were conducted with mice, and no one at present is suggesting harvesting body fluids from young humans in order to rejuvenate the elderly. But still, it’s not such a huge stretch to imagine that at least some of the generation that first embraced the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” might ask themselves: why shouldn’t I?

A company offering transfusions of teenage blood plasma to wealthy Silicon Valley retirees was shut down in 2019 by the FDA only to start up again a few months later — albeit with more evasive marketing materials and health claims. And if someone with a net worth of $182 billion wanted a supply of human infant cerebrospinal fluid, I dare say he’d be able to get one.

Let’s hope biotech dystopias of this kind remain science fiction. Even so, the scenario underlines an unsettling sense that seemingly abstract and objective scientific research into new biotech skates far too lightly over power asymmetries with potentially ghoulish consequences.

It’s quite possible that the vast majority of the baby-boomer generation, and indeed those that come after, would balk at literally cannibalising the young in pursuit of eternal youth. But so far the 21st century is delivering an unsettling combination of widening economic inequality and advances in biotech that leave the door wide open for horrifying new kinds of exploitation: the killing to order of Chinese political prisoners for the organ transplant industry is just one glimmer of where this could go.

Meanwhile, we’re losing any sense of a shared moral framework that might be able to hold such developments in check. Elon Musk, for one, thinks we’re all already cyborgs. Those comforting themselves with the thought that we have bioethicists to help us think through the moral consequences of such research, might want to check in with the kind of things bioethicists say. Brace yourselves: biotech is going to deliver the mother of all culture wars.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.