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Forever Young

While reading Sherwin Nuland’s portrait of Aubrey de Grey (“Do You Want to Live Forever?” February 2005), I couldn’t help but imagine how Nuland might have portrayed a budding Newton, Darwin, or Einstein. My guess is they would also get painted as brilliant but wrongheaded. Just for fun, let’s assume de Grey is right and that somehow all the biological interactions among the seven agents of death work in some miraculously advantageous way, paving the way for our great-grandchildren to choose whether they want to extend life indefinitely. Even if society sanctions extension, innumerable questions arise about temporal issues. Unless our feeble prophetic abilities are considerably enhanced, the horizon of our judgment will be no match for the life span de Grey envisions. Meanwhile, Darwin must be wondering how long it will take Extenders to out-survive individuals sufficiently humble to make way voluntarily for a next generation. Then what?

William E. Cooper
President, University of Richmond
Richmond, VA

Visionary thinking is often considered to be the dream of fools. But great strides can be made by paying attention to people like Aubrey de Grey. I applaud de Grey’s courage, commitment, and audacity for shouting his ideas to the world. Even if those ideas do not unfold the way he envisions, the fact that this man of elegant thoughts and words has a vision, an idea of how humanity can get from point A to point B, may help to answer the age-old question regarding the limits of life itself.

Donna Manobianco
Mano Nanotechnologies
Melbourne, FL

I count myself in the mainstream of scientific aging research and I think the problem of life extension is far more vexing than does Aubrey de Grey. In fact, his plan for extending human life does not account for several recent scientific discoveries. Some of these discoveries should give the immortalist or transhumanist particular discomfort, as they suggest that de Grey’s approach does not address the primary, and maybe the most difficult to control, aspect of aging: entropy, i.e., the widespread loss of order and information.

Many of the factors that likely guide and regulate cellular differentiation, genomic stability, and cellular information content have not yet been identified. And we are expected to have full control of these extremely complex processes within the next 20 years? While such an achievement is not impossible, we are nowhere near the engineering phase, since we do not clearly understand the nature of the problem. Obviously, writer Sherwin Nuland and editor in chief Jason Pontin share a single attitude toward life extension: if it is conventional, it is good. Nuland claims he doesn’t want to live excessively long, just a really long time for a human. From Pontin’s comments, it seems that he wishes this for himself as well. So this is how they feel—for now. Once others live beyond the current upper limit, then they’ll want to do it too.

While de Grey has compiled some -evidence to support his theories, it is far from sufficient to tackle the problem. Nevertheless, at least he is trying—very hard—to do something noble and worthwhile: he is attempting to advance the cause of humanity. But he cannot succeed if he continues to pretend that his fellow scientists don’t agree with his theories out of ignorance. Nobody, not even de Grey, is above the normal scientific exchange in which unpleasant or unanticipated facts must be accounted for by modification of existing theory. It is not enough to dismiss the messengers as being too “ignorant” to understand these brave and advanced conjectures.

Preston Estep III
President and CEO, Longenity
Waltham, MA

Aubrey de Grey—Troll?

I feel I must remark on the almost comically ad hominem tone of Jason Pontin’s editorial (“Against Transcendence,” February 2005). Pontin adopts the desperate strategy of clutching at one hypothetical shortcoming of a postaging world (cognitive ossification); declaring it as a fact; rushing to another topic before the reader can question whether it will happen at all or, even if it did, whether that is worse than condemning 100,000 people a day in perpetuity to an unnecessarily early death; impugning my credentials by calling me a computer scientist despite my extensive publication record in biogerontology; -insinuating that my publicizing of my predicted timescales for progress is irre-sponsible, without saying why; casting aspersions on my lifestyle and appearance; and concluding with an aphorism as absurdly evidence free as one can imagine (that “aging is the condition on which we are given life”). People know what publications to buy if they want to read that sort of logic; I didn’t think TR was one of them. Of course, this is the level of rationality that many educated people descend to when trying to make excuses for aging, but that is hardly a justification.

Aubrey de Grey
Cambridge, England

Opinions differ as to whether antiaging medicine will or should exist in the future. Aubrey de Grey favors it; Sherwin Nuland does not. Both are entitled to serious consideration of their views. Neither deserves to have his sanity questioned on the cover of Technology Review (“Is he nuts?”) or to be described as a “troll.” The possibility that aging can be slowed, stopped, or reversed is not in the same category as the design of perpetual-motion machines. It is more like the possibility of flight before the airplane. Some single-celled organisms, while not immortal, do not age. Someday it may be possible and desirable to reverse human aging.

Henry R. Hirsch
Department of Physiology
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY

Your attack on Aubrey de Grey is irrelevant to the patronizing view that you wish to project of a lone, isolated, visionary evangelist whose brilliant mind should be better employed on other more “appropriate” projects. So I wish to disabuse your readers that Aubrey is alone in his convictions. The Gerontology Research Group, founded in 1990, is an international group of 130 scientists and physicians, all of whom are dedicated to slowing and then reversing human aging in the next 50 years. Aubrey is a member and has been an invited speaker to our group. I have personally followed this vision, since founding a prior organization dedicated to that goal in 1960. Moreover, I would hope that you reconsider your antitechnology stance (“even if it were possible to ‘perturb’ human biology in the way de Grey wishes, we shouldn’t do it”). The Wright brothers would not have flown if they did not believe hard problems were worth pursuing.

L. Stephen Coles
Los Angeles, CA

Shame on you for your personal attack on Aubrey de Grey. I happen to agree with you that his outlook on defeating aging is far-fetched and even undesirable. However, when you try to disparage him for his attire (“dresses like a shabby graduate student”), his hair (“Rip van Winkle’s beard”), his lack of children, or what you believe to be his social life, you lose credibility. Some of our most accomplished scientists and inventors have had many of the characteristics you attribute to de Grey. Was Einstein also a troll?

Alex Kotlarchyk
Boca Raton, FL

Calling Aubrey de Grey a troll does nothing to address any flaws in his research. The way a man dresses or the number of his children has nothing to do with the validity of his work. And so what if de Grey is only a computer support technician to a research team? When Einstein published his three seminal papers in 1905, he was only a patent clerk. De Grey has no children? Neither did Newton.

Geoff Dean
Surrey, British Columbia

Jason Pontin Responds:

When I called Aubrey de Grey a “troll,” I was alluding to a famous remark by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, who said, “People who take [transcendence] seriously end up turning into trolls.” It was not an ad hominem attack—that is, a rhetorical device where the writer discredits his opponent’s argument by trashing his person. I was arguing that when technology appropriates the transcendental, and abjures humanist concerns, it becomes science fiction. I was pointing out that the man who wants to transcend death has a life that most of us would consider sadly circumscribed. I meant: what does de Grey know?

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