A View from Jason Pontin
The SENS Challenge
The most widely read story in Technology Review in 2005 so far was “Do You Want to Live Forever?,” a profile of Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a British theoretical biologist and computer scientist at the University of Cambridge’s Department of…
The most widely read story in Technology Review in 2005 so far was “Do You Want to Live Forever?,” a profile of Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a British theoretical biologist and computer scientist at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Genetics.
De Grey believes that aging, like a disease, can in principle be treated and defeated. He proposes approaching aging as a problem in engineering through something he calls “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence.” SENS claims to identify the 7 causes of human aging and describes how each cause might be circumvented. De Grey is also the guiding genius behind The Methuselah Foundation, an organization which offers monetary awards to biologists who make significant advances towards reversing aging in mice.
The profile, written by Sherwin Nuland, a professor of clinical surgery at Yale and the author of How We Die, was mildly critical of de Grey. My column in the same issue, “Against Transcendence” was much more so. SENS, Nuland and I argued, didn’t make sense — it was best understood as a provoking challenge to biogerontologists. De Grey, we said, was possibly brilliant - but also obviously a psychological curiosity.
But de Grey is not just a provocateur. He is a mass movement: many technologists who cannot believe in a supernatural afterlife want to believe in the possibility of indefinite life through science. Thus, thousands of people wrote to our print magazine letters and electronic fora — and in many cases, they were very angry indeed. The more reasonable pointed out that Nuland did not directly criticize the biology behind SENS. (In fairness to Dr. Nuland, he was not asked to: I commissioned what I called a “profile in the style of The New Yorker.”) In my reply to our readers, whilst conceding nothing, I promised to find a working biogerontologist who would take on de Grey’s ideas. But while a number of biologists have criticized SENS to me privately, none have been willing to do so in public.
This silence is puzzling (de Grey, less charitably, calls it “catatonia”). If de Grey 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?
One possible explanation for the silence of biogerontologists is that criticizing SENS would require time and effort—and that working scientists are too busy to waste time on something so silly. Another explanation (one obviously preferred by de Grey) is that biogerontologists reject SENS out of hand without examining its details.
Technology Review thinks it would be useful to determine which of the two explanations is correct. If SENS has some validity, then we should take it seriously. Because if we can significantly extend healthy human life, we will have to ask–should we? And at a purely practical level, if we can extend life, and we want to do so, then governments and research institutions will want to invest a lot more money in biogerontology
Regardless of which explanation is correct, biogerontologists apparently need an incentive to consider SENS. To that end, Technology Review is announcing a prize for any molecular biologist working in the field of aging who is willing to take up the challenge: submit an intellectually serious argument that SENS is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate, and you will be paid $20,000 if it convinces independent referees. In the case that even $20,000 is insufficient to motivate the relevant experts, we also invite contributions to the fund; anyone wishing to pledge should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Terms of the SENS Challenge
1. The Challenge is open to any molecular biologist with a Ph.D. from a recognized academic institution who is now associated with a recognized research institution and who has published on biogerontology in peer-reviewed journals. Technology Review will rule on whether a given individual can enter the Challenge.
2. The purpose of the Challenge is to establish whether SENS is worthy of serious consideration. Submissions are sought that attempt to demonstrate that it is not.
3. Submissions will be judged by a review panel, entirely independent of Technology Review and the Methuselah Foundation, composed of recognized molecular biologists, clinicians, and engineers. The members of panel are to be announced.
4. De Grey will reply to all submissions. The biologist may respond. All three documents will be considered by the panel.
5. The initial Challenge prize fund of $20,000 will be paid by matching funds from Technology Review and the Methuselah Foundation.
6. Anyone who wishes to pledge to the Challenge prize fund may do so; they should contact email@example.com, the Editor of Technology Review.
7. The form of the submission must be a core document of no more than 750 words, although additional footnotes, citations, and references can be of any length.
8. If the prize is won, the winning submission will be published as the “By Invitation” column in a forthcoming issue of Technology Review. The magazine will also print de Grey’s response.
9. Submissions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.