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Debating Immortality – 2

Biologist Aubrey de Grey still believes humans could live indefinitely – or at least that it’s worth discussing.
November 30, 2005

In March 2005, Technology Review published “Do You Want to Live Forever?,” an article by renowned physician and writer Sherwin Nuland that took a deeply skeptical view of the claims by Aubrey de Grey, a theoretical biologist at the University of Cambridge who believes that human aging can be “fixed.” Our story elicited much lively debate among readers, including Dr. de Grey, his followers, and his critics.

Yesterday, published an open letter by Richard Miller, MD and professor of pathology at the University of Michigan, responding to de Grey’s theories (in a decidedly humorous vein). This is de Grey’s response to Miller’s letter. – Editors.

Dear Rich,

How delightful to hear from you. I am so heartened that you have chosen to dissociate yourself publicly from the anti-SENS sentiment recently expressed by some of our colleagues in EMBO reports [the November 2005 issue of this molecular biology journal published a letter critical of de Grey’s theories, signed by 30 or so scientists, as well as a reply by de Grey. – Editors.]. I hope you will succeed in extracting from them an apology for including your name in the list of authors (and so outrageously parodying your inestimable writing style). Perhaps, since your name was midway down a long author list, they thought no one would notice.

What an interesting problem you raise. I confess I had not considered the hardship endured by pigs as a result of their flightlessness, but you articulate it most effectively. I think I can indeed help.

Before addressing the marketing aspect, I feel it is worth examining this problem for alternative solutions that may be even more straightforward than those you list – and which may be applicable to those unfortunate pigs who are already alive, and so for whom your strategies 1, 2, and 5 are inapplicable. It would surely be best to alleviate as much porcine suffering as possible, so these alternatives would be a definite improvement. Further, since those who might fund your project are also already alive, this might facilitate the marketing of your idea, too.

In considering this question I have adopted the age-old strategy of looking to evolution for clues. Evolution has of course created flying creatures from flightless ones several times. However, most of these processes are thought to have been slow, progressing through long periods of aeronautical semi-competence that far exceed that of contemporary pigs. Moreover, almost all flying species share with birds most of the seven differences from pigs that you list.

However, after much research I have identified a remarkable exception to this pattern.

Amazing though it may seem, the species homo sapiens progressed, about a century ago, from a state of absolute flightlessness (unless we count floating, which you clearly do not) to one of considerable competence at flying – and they did so over a period of only a few years. I am therefore inclined to look to the methods that our species has adopted, as a starting-point for freeing our porcine friends from their current misery.

This approach seems to be most promising. The technique employed by homo sapiens involved no alterations to their anatomy or genetics, only the use of large prostheses. These “machines” are essentially the same design when built to carry one organism or many; so they should be rather easy to adapt for porcine use, despite the anatomical differences between the two species. Further, homo sapiens has automated nearly all the operating procedures of these machines, so that a method for the pig passenger to express its desired destination may be all that is needed to complete the design.

This, however, brings me to perhaps the greatest challenge to either my proposal or yours – namely, item six in your list of reasons why pigs remain so obstinately ground-dwelling. Pigs are well known to be among the more intelligent mammalian species. And it is a sad fact that some of the brightest among us are inclined to presume that everyone else is stupid – so that when someone articulates an idea they do not consider obviously correct they tend to dismiss it – sometimes even ridicule it – without bothering to familiarize themselves with the details. (I once even encountered an American believed he could outdo an Englishman at sarcasm!)

As I’m sure you agree (and as I duly noted in my demolition of their piece in the same issue), your so-called coauthors in EMBO reports are conspicuous examples of this flaw. (Another case would be a learned immunologist’s presumption that the word “allotopic” is merely a careless misspelling of the immunological term “allotypic,” when, in fact, “allotopic” can be looked up in, for example, PubMed.)

These individuals are also prone to resist debate on such matters, perhaps out of a subconscious reluctance to risk the possibility of being wrong. Therefore, I fear that the intended beneficiaries of your efforts may, because of their intelligence, spurn this chance to improve their lot. They may even refuse to entertain debate on whether the “engineering solution” we offer them will work. (After all, the term “pig-headed” was not coined for nothing.)

I am confident that this can be overcome, however. The clear feasibility of adapting for porcine use a technique used to such great effect by another mammalian species can only be denied for so long. Media exposure of the absurdity of the naysayers’ position will bring the public around soon enough. Such tunnel vision cannot delude people for long, no matter how great the authority of its proponent. We all meet our match some time. In particular, your characteristic eloquence on this matter will surely suffice to sway the occasional billionaire to your cause, thereby circumventing the NIH conservatism you so rightly deplore.

Best of luck!

Aubrey de Grey

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