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I wanted de Grey to justify his conviction that living for thousands of years is a good thing. Certainly, if one can accept such a viewpoint, everything else follows from it: the push to research beyond the elucidation of the aging process; the gigantic investment of talent and money to accomplish and apply such research; the transformation of a culture based on the expectation of a finite and relatively short lifetime to one without horizons; the odd fact that every adult human being would be physiologically the same age (because rejuvenation would be the inevitable result of de Grey’s proposals); the effects on family relationships – it goes on and on.

De Grey’s response to such a challenge comes in the perfectly formed and articulated sentences that he uses in all his writings. He has the gift of expressing himself both verbally and in print with such clarity and completeness that a listener finds himself entranced by the flow of seemingly logical statements following one after the other. In speech as in his directed life, de Grey never rambles. Everything he says is pertinent to his argument, and so well constructed that one becomes fascinated with the edifice being formed before one’s eyes. So true is this that I could not but fix my full attention on him as he spoke. Though many possible distractions arose during the hours in which we confronted each other across that pub table, as people came and went, ate and drank, talked and laughed, and smoked and coughed, I never once found myself looking anywhere but directly at him, except when going to fetch food – a full lunch for me and only potato chips for him – or another pint. It was only when reflecting upon the assumptions on which his argument is based that a listener discovers that he must insert the word “seemingly” before “logical” in the second sentence of the present paragraph. Here follows an aliquot of de Grey’s reasoning:

The reason we have an imperative, we have a duty, to develop these thera­pies as soon as possible is to give future generations the choice. People are entitled, have a human right, to live as long as they can; people have a duty to give people the opportunity to live as long as they want to. I think it’s just a straightforward extension of the duty-of-care concept. People are entitled to expect to be treated as they would treat themselves.

It follows directly and irrevocably as an extension of the golden rule. If we hesitate and vacillate in developing life-extension therapy, there will be some cohort to whom we will deny the option to live much longer than we do. We have a duty not to deny people that option.

When I raised the question of ethical or moral objections to the extreme extension of life, the reply was similarly seemingly logical and to the point:

If there were such objections, they would certainly count in this argument. What does count is that the right to live as long as you choose is the world’s most fundamental right. And this is not something I’m ordaining. This seems to be something that all moral codes, religious or secu­lar, seem to agree on: that the right to life is the most important right.

And then, to what would seem the obvious objection that such moral codes assume our current life span and not one lasting thousands of years:

It’s an incremental thing. It’s not a question of how long life should be, but whether the end of life should be hastened by action or inaction.

And there it is – the ultimate leap of ingenious argumentation that would do a sophist proud: by our inaction in not pursuing the possible opportunity of extending life for thousands of years, we are hastening death.

No word of the foregoing quotes has been edited or changed in any way. De Grey speaks in formed paragraphs and pages. Many readers of Technology Review are all too familiar with how garbled we often sound when quoted directly. Not so de Grey, who speaks with the same precision with which he writes. Admittedly, some may consider his responses to have the sound of a carefully prepared sermon or sales pitch because he has answered similar questions many times before, but all thought of such considerations disappears when one spends a bit of time with him and realizes that he pours forth every statement in much the same way, whether responding to some problem he has faced a dozen times before or giving a tour of the genetics lab where he works. His every thought comes out perfectly shaped, to the amazement of the bemused observer.

De Grey does not fool himself about the vastness of the efforts that will be required to make the advances in science and technology necessary to attain his objective. But equally, he does not seem fazed by my suggestion that his optimism might simply be based on the fact that, having never worked as a bench researcher in biology, he may not appreciate or even understand the nature of complex biological systems, nor fully take into account the possible consequences of tinkering with what he sees as individual components in a machine. Unlike engineers, the adoption of whose method­ology de Grey considers his main conceptual contribution to solving the problems of aging, biologists do not approach physiological events as distinct entities that have no effect on any others. Each of de Grey’s interventions will very likely result in unpredictable and incalculable responses in the biochemistry and physics of the cells he is treating, not to mention their extracellular milieu and the tissues and organs of which they are a part. In biology, everything is interdependent; everything is affected by everything else. Though we study phenomena in isolation to avoid complicating factors, those factors come into play with a vengeance when in vitro becomes in vivo. The fearsome concerns are many: a little lengthening of the telomere here, a bit of genetic material from a soil bacterium there, a fistful of stem cells – the next thing you know, it all explodes in your face.

He replied to all this as to so much else, whether it be the threat of overpopulation, the effect on relationships within families and whole societies, or the need to find employment for vibrantly healthy people who are a thousand years old: we will deal with these problems as they come up. We will make the necessary adjustments, whether in the realm of potential cellular havoc or of the tortuosities of economic necessity. He believes that each problem can be retouched and remedied as it becomes recognized.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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