Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

Transcendence Reconsidered

The most widely read Technology Review story this year was our February cover story, Do You Want to Live Forever?, a profile of the British theoretical biologist and computer scientist, Aubrey de Grey (pictured). Since I began blogging more…

  • May 30, 2005

The most widely read Technology Review story this year was our February cover story, Do You Want to Live Forever?, a profile of the British theoretical biologist and computer scientist, Aubrey de Grey (pictured). Since I began blogging more than two weeks ago, by far the most trafficked posts were those that considered de Grey’s monomania. He believes it is theoretically possible to defeat aging within the life-times of those now living. Clearly, there is an abiding interest in how to escape oblivion - there always has been.

In my February editor’s letter, I wrote “Against Transcendence:” I said, “When technology appropriates the transcendental, it becomes science fiction.” I meant that de Gey’s prescriptions were fantastical, because science couldn’t abolish aging. I was also suggesting, I suppose, that de Grey was something of a pseudo-religious charlatan - because throughout the ages the founders of religious movements have always promised their followers some relief from the maddening fact of our humanity: we are animals who know we have to die.

Readers who were attracted to de Grey’s ideas wrote to our fora, very angry indeed. Many of the postings to those fora attacked me personally, but there were two complaints that have led me to revise my opinion of de Grey - at least a little.

Some of de Grey’s followers pointed out that the author of the February profile, Dr. Sherwin Nuland (who is Professor of Clinical Surgery at Yale), did not directly criticize the biology behind de Grey’s “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence” (or SENS). I promised readers to find a working biogerontologist who would do so. But while some biologists have criticized SENS to me privately, none have been willing to do so in public. I attribute this to their desire to preserve their careers: whilst the science of aging is an interesting and expanding area of scientific research, the field of human life-extension is peopled with crazies. It is not - at least not yet - a respectable field of study. Perhaps, too, there is this: biogerontologists have their own jobs, and they don’t have the time to study something that seems outside their immediate area of specialization. Still, I am increasingly sympathetic with de Grey about this at least: if he is so wrong, why won’t any biogerontologists say why he is wrong? If he is totally nuts, it shouldn’t be so hard to explain the faults in his science, surely?

Second, I would like to amend - or at least clarify - my remarks about transcendence. I remain convinced that no matter how much human nature is altered by biotechnology or nanotechnolgy, “we will remain creatures limited in space, time, and knowledge.” Any science that pretends that it can burst these limitations is no science at all, but religion. When I said that we could not transcend our human nature, I was talking about transcendence in this narrow, specific sense. But many of the readers who contributed to our fora pointed out that in the more ordinary, colloquial sense of the word, technology has long permitted us to transcend human nature. One reader prettily wrote that it is not in our nature to run faster than fourteen miles per hour, breathe in a vacuum, fly, or see beyond one lux of light - and yet technology has permitted us to do all of these things. If you had asked a classical Greek, he might have answered that such powers were the attributes of transcendental beings like Gods or heroes. Therefore, in fairness to de Grey, I have to concede that he has never said we could live forever - something transcendental in the strict sense of the word - only that technology could one day permit us to live indefinitely. And while I think it fantastically unlikely that we will ever live so long, I cannot prove a negative, nor can I argue against the possibility by extrapolating from the past.

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