De Grey has been indefatigable as a missionary in his own cause, joining the appropriate professional societies and evangelizing in every medium available to him, including sponsoring his own international symposium. Though he and his ideas may be sui generis, he is hardly an isolated monkish figure content to harangue the heavens and desert winds with his lonely philosophy. In addition to everything else, he has a remarkable talent for organization and even for his own unique brand of fellowship. The sheer output of his pen and tongue is staggering, and every line of that bumper crop, whether intended for the most scientifically sophisticated or for the general reader, is delivered in the same linear, lucid, point-by-point style that characterizes all his writings on life prolongation. Like a skilled debater, he replies to arguments before they arise and hammers at his opposition with a forceful rhetoric that has just enough dismissiveness – and sometimes even castigation – to betray his impatience with stragglers in the march toward extreme longevity.
De Grey is a familiar figure at meetings of scientific societies, where he has earned the respect of many gerontologists and that new variety of theoreticians known as “futurists.” Not only has his work put him at the forefront of a field that might best be called theoretical biogerontology, but he swims close enough to the mainstream that some of its foremost researchers have agreed to add their names to his papers and letters as coauthors, although they may not agree with the full range of his thinking. Among the most prominent are such highly regarded figures as Bruce Ames of the University of California and the University of Chicago’s Leonid Gavrilov and S. Jay Olshansky. Their attitude toward de Grey is perhaps best expressed by Olshansky, who is a senior research scientist in epidemiology and biostatistics: “I’m a big fan of Aubrey; I love debating him. We need him. He challenges us and makes us expand our way of thinking. I disagree with his conclusions, but in science that’s okay. That’s what advances the field.” De Grey has by his vigorous efforts brought together a cohort of responsible scientists who see just enough theoretical value in his work to justify not only their engagement but also their cautious encouragement. As Gregory Stock, a futurist of biologic technology currently at UCLA, pointed out to me, de Grey’s proposals create scientific and public interest in every aspect of the biology of aging. Stock, too, has lent his name to several of de Grey’s papers.
De Grey enjoys increasing fame as well. He is often called upon when journalists need a quote on antiaging science, and he has been the subject of profiles in publications as varied as Fortune, Popular Science, and London’s Daily Mail. His tireless efforts at thrusting himself and his theories into the vanguard of a movement in pursuit of a goal of eternal fascination to the human mind have put him among the most prominent proponents of antiaging science in the world. His timing is perfect. As the baby boomers – perhaps the most determinedly self-improving (and self-absorbed) generation in history – are now approaching or have reached their early 60s, there is a plenitude of eager seekers after the death-defiant panaceas he promises. De Grey has become more than a man; he is a movement.
I should declare here that I have no desire to live beyond the life span that nature has granted to our species. For reasons that are pragmatic, scientific, demographic, economic, political, social, emotional, and secularly spiritual, I am committed to the notion that both individual fulfillment and the ecological balance of life on this planet are best served by dying when our inherent biology decrees that we do. I am equally committed to making that age as close to our biologically probable maximum of approximately 120 years as modern biomedicine can achieve, and also to efforts at decreasing and compressing the years of morbidity and disabilities now attendant on extreme old age. But I cannot imagine that the consequences of doing a single thing beyond these efforts will be anything but baleful, not only for each of us as an individual, but for every other living creature in our world. Another action I cannot imagine is enrolling myself – as de Grey has – with Alcor, the cryonics company that will, for a price, preserve a customer’s brain or more until that hoped-for day when it can be brought back to some form of life.
With this worldview, is it any wonder that I would be intrigued by an Aubrey de Grey? What would it be like to come face to face with such a man? Not to debate him – a task for which, as a clinical surgeon, I would in any case be scientifically unqualified – but just to sound him out, to see how he behaves in an ordinary situation, to speak of my concerns and his responses – to take his measure. To me, his philosophies are outlandish. To him, mine would seem equally so.
With all of this in mind, I contacted de Grey via e-mail this past fall, and received a response that was both gracious and welcoming. Addressing me by first name, he not only had no hesitation in offering to give up the better part of two days to speak with me, but moreover suggested that we spend them close to the lubricating effects of invigorating fluids, as follows:
I hope you like a good English beer, as that is one of the main (open) secrets of my boundless energy as well as a good part of my intellectual creativity (or so I like to think…). A good plan (by which I mean a plan that has been well tested over the years!) is to meet at 11:00 a.m. Monday 18th in the Eagle, the most famous pub in Cambridge for a variety of reasons which I can point out to you. From there we may (weather permitting) be able to go punting on the Cam, an activity with which I fell in love at first sight on arriving here in 1982 and which all visitors seem to find unforgettable. We will be able to talk for as long as you like, and if there is reason to meet again on the Tuesday I can arrange that too.
The message would prove to be characteristic, including its hint of immodesty. And in a similar vintage was his response when I expressed hesitation about punting, based on friends’ tales of falling into the Cam on a chilly autumnal day: “Evidently, your friends did it without expert guidance.” As I learned, de Grey is not a man who allows himself to be less than expert at anything to which he decides to devote those prodigious energies so enthusiastically trumpeted in the e-mail, nor does he allow himself to hide his expertness under a bushel.
Of course, to conceive of oneself as the herald and instrument of the transformation of death and aging requires a supreme self-confidence, and de Grey is the most unabashedly self-confident of men. Soon after we met, this unexampled man told me that “One must have a somewhat inflated opinion of oneself” if success is to crown such great endeavors. “I have that!” he added emphatically. By the time he and I had said our good-byes after a total of 10 hours together over a period of two days, I was certain many would accept his self-estimate. Whether one chooses to believe that he is a brilliant and prophetic architect of futuristic biology or merely a misguided and nutty theorist, there can be no doubt about the astonishing magnitude of his intellect.