Probing de Grey Matters

Throughout history, human beings have quested after rejuvenation – in myth and in fact. Here in the US, legend has it that Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon came to Florida looking for the Fountain of Youth. It is perhaps a great irony, then, that Florida — famous for its retirees — is a place where the fact that aging still rules is most evident.

During the 1960s, some individuals began to suggest that radical increases in longevity – even immortality – was within our grasp, not by dint of the discovery of some magic waters, alchemical elixirs, or Taoist methodologies, but through the use of science and technology. In 1964, Robert C. W. Ettinger published The Prospect of Immortality, which encouraged the notion of cryogenic preservation in the expectation that our understanding of biology and other advances in science and technology would allow us to defeat death.

By 1993, Mike West had formed Geron corporation, hoping – among other things – to someday market cures for aging. And, in 1999, Cynthia Kenyon formed Elixer Pharmaceuticals, a company that was even more explicitly dedicated to finding a pharmaceutical solution to the aging problem. During that same decade, a very lively community of transhumanists and extropians were exploring and extrapolating about the possibilities of resolving this aging thing – and what the world would look like if we did.

Sometime around the turn of the millennium, Aubrey de Grey, an English biogerontologist who is now as famous for his long beard that makes him look like Father Time as he is for his outspoken vision of radical life extension — looked at aging as an engineering problem and decided… Eureka!… we can do this.

I think it’s vital to get all of them (categories of damage) fixed as soon as possible, because any one of them could kill us on its own.

Since then de Grey has appeared on 60 Minutes, The Colbert Report, and a Barbara Walters special report: “Live to be 150.” He is chairman and chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has raised $10,000,000. Among its activities, Methuselah offers prizes for major experimental breakthroughs in aging using mice.

De Grey’s recent book, Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, is coauthored by Michael Rae, and published by St. Martin’s Press.

Michael Anissimov covered many of the basics about de Grey’s theories in the previous article (“Engineering an End to Aging” – it really functions as an introductory piece to this interview, so please take the time to read it). So rather than asking de Grey to regurgitate the basics of his theory one more time, I decided to probe his thinking on a few peripheral issues.

Probing de Grey Matters

H+: Are there still people who study aging that cling to the notion of a biological clock, and do you think there’s any possibility that new evidence might turn up for a more centralized mechanism leading to aging?

AUBREY DE GREY: A small minority of gerontologists do still propound the idea that aging is “programmed” in most or all species, yes. (Everyone accepts that it’s programmed in a minority of species, those that age extremely fast after reproduction, such as salmon.) The widespread rejection of programmed aging is actually over fifty years old, dating back to a paper by Peter Medawar from 1952. Basically the mainstream view is that slow aging (of the sort we see in most species) can’t be controlled by genes because the presence of those genes would give the species just the same life span and health span as it would have if it lacked those genes and had slightly less powerful inbuilt anti-aging machinery. This lack of a function of pro-aging machinery means that there would be no selection to maintain such machinery, so it would have mutated into oblivion even if it had ever existed. There’s really no chance that new evidence could overturn this. The only reason there’s still any controversy is that there are a few rather artificial circumstances that at first sight seem to look like programmed aging – but closer inspection shows that they aren’t really.

Initially… journalists “knew” I must be crazy. More recently most journalists have begun to realize that what I’m saying is actually quite plausible…

H+: Does the fact that there are — your account — seven different causes of aging ever worry you, in the sense that there might be some frustration when one or two of those causes won’t budge?

ADG: There are actually many more than seven – my seven strands are just categories of damage, within each of which there are many examples. But still, sure, I think it’s vital to get all of them fixed as soon as possible, because any one of them could kill us on its own. That’s why my own work has historically focused on the hardest strands.

H+: What are these foci and what is happening with them?

ADG: The three hardest aspects of SENS (at present – this could of course change!) are: the relocation of the mitochondrial DNA to the nucleus to make mutations in the original mitochondrial DNA harmless; the introduction of microbial (or other foreign) enzymes into our cells to destroy molecules that accumulate in them; and the elimination of our cells’ ability to prevent the ends of their chromosomes from shortening with each cell division, combined with stem cell therapies to address the side effects that this will cause. Research is proceeding healthily in all these areas, largely funded by the Methuselah Foundation.

H+: In your book, you write that to be truly immortal or nonaging we will need to lose the meat. Some people don’t think that’s too far away. What do you think?

ADG: I’m not sure. Actually I think it’s risky to think in terms of “truly immortal” even in a non-meat scenario – after all, nearby supernovae can fry most things. But as to the time frame of technologies such as uploading, I’m not equipped to speculate.

H+: Longevity advocates have finely thought-out, statistically oriented arguments as to why longevity will not strain resources or the environment. But does the longevity movement, nevertheless, have a responsibility to do everything it can to prevent or end scarcity and ensure a survivable environment for however many long-living people?

ADG: I have a number of arguments as to why the defeat of aging may not strain the environment, but I never say that those arguments are certain. I don’t think prolongevists have a duty to solve that problem themselves, but I do think we have a duty to bring the parameters of the problem to the attention of society, so that society neither overestimates nor underestimates it and so that those best placed to shape public policy act accordingly. The same goes for all aspects of the sociological consequences of the defeat of aging.

H+: In talking about the culture of long-lived people, you say that people will be less inclined to take risks. I can see this being a big problem, in a lot of different ways. Don’t we gain benefit and novelty from people who are inclined to take risks? (I see you as a big risk taker, reputation being the currency of the current age.) And aren’t people who will preserve their lives at any cost easily controlled by an authoritarian state or some other type of oppressive imposition?

de GreyADG: Benefit and novelty come from the taking of risks, yes, but not the type of risks that will be inhibited by the defeat of aging; that will cause aversion to risks of death, but risks to one’s career (for example) will be more acceptable, because there’ll be so much more opportunity to make amends for misjudgment. As for being controlled, heh, my reaction is that only someone from a country that still cherishes the right to bear arms could ask such a question… the rest of the civilized world has amply demonstrated that there is no such danger.

H+: Really? So no one will ever have to risk their lives again to stop oppression?

ADG: Since you press me… my closing words “no such danger” were perhaps a misstatement, but not a material one. I should have said “insufficient such danger to affect our choices today” — but that’s the same thing in practice, because your question was about risks, and therefore about quantifying risks rather than about what will or will not “ever” happen. It’s hard to dispute that the need to risk one’s life to stop oppression is generally lower in democracies than elsewhere and is lower in longer-standing democracies than in younger ones, and further that long-lived democracies very rarely cease to be democracies whereas non democracies embrace democracy at a steady rate. Those claims are all that are needed to justify my previous answer.

I’m… not mainly driven by a desire to live a long time. I accept that when I’m… 100 years old… I may have less enthusiasm for life…

H+: You’ve been in the media a fair bit introducing this very unfamiliar concept of a radically expanded life span. On the whole, how would you review the response that you’ve received?

ADG: Very positive, especially recently. Initially a lot of the coverage was quizzical – journalists “knew” I must be crazy but were impressed by my ability to run rings around their attempts to demonstrate it. More recently most journalists have begun to realize that what I’m saying is actually quite plausible and that the more derisory comments made about SENS by some of my colleagues should not be taken at face value.

H+: One hundred years of life can wear you down physically, but it can also wear you down emotionally… perhaps even existentially. For you, is a desire to live long accompanied by a desire to live long in a much-improved human civilization, or is this one satisfactory?

ADG: I’m actually not mainly driven by a desire to live a long time. I accept that when I’m even a hundred years old, let alone older, I may have less enthusiasm for life than I have today. Therefore, what drives me is to put myself (with luck) and others (lots and lots of others) in a position to make that choice, rather than having the choice progressively ripped away from me or them by declining health. Whether the choice to live longer is actually made is not the point for me.


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