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Aubrey de Grey Responds

February’s cover story has created quite a buzz, particularly in the Technology Review forums. The response has been wildly fun to follow, but here, de Grey himself gets a chance to respond.
January 18, 2005

Jason Pontin, Technology Review’s Editor-in-Chief, and Brad King, Technology Review’s Web editor, have invited me to respond to the trio of articles about me and my work that appear in the February 2005 issue of Technology Review with this online-only piece, in addition to a short “letter to the editor” from me that will appear in the print edition.

Dr. Sherwin Nuland’s article covers three topics: (a) me, (b) the desirability of greatly postponing aging, and (c) the feasibility of doing so. In the time he and I spent together we discussed (c) very little indeed, not least because, as a physician rather than a biologist, Nuland well appreciated that he is not equipped to evaluate the difficulty of developing technologies that even I do not expect to be available to humans for at least 20 years. He notes this as follows:

“But others can challenge de Grey’s science. My purpose was something else entirely.”.

For reasons that remain obscure, however, Nuland later changes his mind and takes it upon himself to give a reason (not mentioned during our discussions, needless to say) why we will probably never postpone aging much:

“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 the next thing you know, it all explodes in your face.”

Engineers reading his article may beg to differ concerning whether they can successfully manipulate systems consisting of mutually interacting subsystems, and the briefest consultation of my publications will reveal that it is precisely the management of those interactions, by the judicious choice of which places to intervene, that defines my approach. 

Most upmarket writers, having hit belatedly on a new reason why their subject is deluded, might have thought to raise it with that subject before risking committing such a serious error – by some way the worst in his article, overshadowing a variety of overstatements of how far we currently are from developing some of the components of my SENS scheme.

Or if not the writer, at least the magazine’s staff. By contrast, the Technology Review staff instead chose to use this offhand evaluation as the foundation for a commentary piece. They first compliment Nuland’s ability to judge my science even more effusively than Nuland compliments my intellect:

“Sherwin Nuland would not be satisfied by anything less than rigorous scientific reasoning and evidence. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a writer more qualified to profile the eccentric de Grey.”

And then, overlooking the facts that Nuland noted just the opposite (see above) and that his article duly offers no specifics whatsoever to back up his view that aging is essentially immutable, they buy his assertion of the impossibility of major life extension as uncritically as a child buys an ice cream – not quite what one would expect from the staff of a serious technology publication.

Nuland is amply qualified, however, to comment on the desirability of defeating aging – but, curiously, he doesn’t do so. He notes that he raised most of the usual concerns with me, but rather than provide or comment on my responses (which the reader can find here) he merely describes the style in which I deliver them.

The only aspect of my views on this that appears in the article is the ethical one (we have a duty to save lives). He makes only two errors in this part of the article (I, in fact, regard the choice of future global society, not the individual, as paramount and I view the role of philanthropy in advancing this work as relevant mainly to research on mice); thus, his only major failure is to recognize the contradictions inherent in his own position. 

Here is a telling quote:

“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.”

I trust that if Nuland’s goals are achieved soon enough for him, such that he reaches the age of 119 in the same fine shape that he is in today, he will not mysteriously forget to buy that cyanide pill to place at his bedside for the fateful moment when he wakes to find himself transformed, Cinderella-like, into a 120-year old and thus a burden on society and on himself – but I’m not holding my breath.

Comment on February’s editorial is superfluous. Pontin is as desperate as Nuland and the Technology Review staff are to put the real issues out of his mind, but unlike them he does not take the trouble to cloak this in careful words; the editorial speaks for itself all too well.

What can we conclude, observing three such egregious departures from normal logical standards by educated adults?

I can identify only one explanation: most of society is in a pro-aging trance. This is no surprise: after all, aging is extremely horrible and until a few years ago could indeed be regarded as probably immutable for a very long time indeed. Hence, a reasonable tactic was to put its horror out of one’s mind, however absurd the logical contortions required.

Just as stage hypnotists’ subjects provide sincere and lucid justifications for any false statement that they have been instructed is true, so most of us (not having dared to consider in detail whether aging might recently have come within our technological range) energetically defend the indefinite perpetuation of what it is in fact humanity’s primary duty to eliminate as soon as possible. 

Some people find stage hypnotists highly entertaining. I don’t – not any more, at least.

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