In addition to accelerating demand for research, the tripling of a middle-aged mouse’s remaining life span would bring in entirely new sources of funding. Because governments and drug companies tend to favor research that promises useful results in a relatively short time, de Grey is not counting on them as a source. He is relying on an infusion of private money to supply the funds (significantly more than the cost of reversing aging in mice) that it will take to successfully fight his war against aging in humans. De Grey believes that once aging has been reversed in mice, billionaires will come forward, intent on living as long as possible.
Is it likely that the photograph of a long-lived mouse on the front page of every newspaper in the world would be greeted with the unalloyed enthusiasm of a unanimous public? I doubt it. More probably, acclaim would be balanced by horror. Ethicists, economists, sociologists, members of the clergy, and many worried scientists could be counted on to join huge numbers of thoughtful citizens in a counterreaction. But of course, if we are to accept de Grey’s first principle, that the desire to live forever trumps every other factor in human decision-making, then self-interest – or what some might call narcissism – will win out in the end.
De Grey projects that 15 years after we have rejuvenated mice we might begin to reverse aging in humans. Early, limited success in extending the human life span will be followed by successive, more dramatic breakthroughs, so that humans now living could reach what de Grey calls “life extension escape velocity.” De Grey concedes that it might be 100 years before we begin to significantly extend human life. What he does not concede is that it is more likely not to happen at all. He cannot seem to imagine that the odds are heavily against him. And he cannot imagine that not only the odds but society itself may be against him. He will provide any listener or reader with a string of reasons that are really rationalizations to explain why most mainstream gerontologists remain so conspicuously absent from the ranks of those cheering him on. He has safeguarded himself against the informed criticism that should give him cause to rethink some of his proposals. He has accomplished this self-protection by constructing a personal worldview in which he is inviolate. He refuses to budge a millimeter; he will not give ground to the possibility that any of the barriers to his success may prove insuperable.
All this makes de Grey sound unlikable. But a major factor behind his success at attracting a following has less to do with his science than with himself. As I discovered during our two sessions at the Eagle, it is impossible not to like de Grey. Despite his unhesitant verbal trashing of those who disagree with him, there is a certain untouched sweetness in the man, which, combined with his lack of care for outward appearance and the sincerity of his commitment to the goals that animate his life, are so disarming that the entire picture is one of the disingenuousness of genius, rather than of the self-promotion of the remote, false messiah. His likability was pointed out even by his detractors. It is a quality not to be expected in such an obviously odd and driven duck.
But the most likable of eccentrics are sometimes the most dangerous. Many decades ago in my naïveté and ignorance, I thought that the ultimate destruction of our planet would be by the neutral power of celestial catastrophe: collision with a gigantic meteor, the burning out of the sun – that sort of thing. In time, I came to believe that the end of days would be ushered in by the malevolence of a mad dictator who would unleash an arsenal of explosive or biological weaponry: nuclear bombs, engineered microörganisms – that sort of thing. But my notion of “that sort of thing” has been changing. If we are to be destroyed, I am now convinced that it will not be a neutral or malevolent force that will do us in, but one that is benevolent in the extreme, one whose only motivation is to improve us and better our civilization. If we are ever immolated, it will be by the efforts of well-meaning scientists who are convinced that they have our best interests at heart. We already know who they are. They are the DNA tweakers who would enhance us by allowing parents to choose the genetic makeup of their descendants unto every succeeding generation ad infinitum, heedless of the possibility that breeding out variety may alter factors necessary for the survival of our species and the health of its relationship to every form of life on earth; they are the biogerontologists who study caloric restriction in mice and promise us the extension by 20 percent of a peculiarly nourished existence; they are those other biogerontologists who emerge from their laboratories of molecular science every evening optimistic that they have come just a bit closer to their goal of having us live much longer, downplaying the unanticipated havoc at both the cellular and societal level that might be wrought by their proposed manipulations. And finally, it is the unique and strangely alluring figure of Aubrey de Grey, who, orating, writing, and striding tirelessly through our midst with his less than fully convinced sympathizers, proclaims like the disheveled herald of a new-begotten future that our most inalienable right is to have the choice of living as long as we wish. With the passion of a single-minded zealot crusading against time, he has issued the ultimate challenge, I believe, to our entire concept of the meaning of humanness.
Paradoxically, his clarion call to action is the message neither of a madman nor a bad man, but of a brilliant, beneficent man of goodwill, who wants only for civilization to fulfill the highest hopes he has for its future. It is a good thing that his grand design will almost certainly not succeed. Were it otherwise, he would surely destroy us in attempting to preserve us.
Sherwin Nuland is clinical professor of surgery at Yale University’s School of Medicine and teaches bioethics. He is the author of How We Die, which won the National Book Award in 1994, and Leonardo da Vinci. He has written for many magazines, including the New Yorker. Over three decades, he has cared for around 10,000 patients.