Friday, October 29, 2010

Aubrey de Grey Interview in Wired.com

Aubrey de Grey's life extension diet emphasizes the importance of beer.
Aubrey de Grey's life extension diet emphasizes the importance of beer.

One of my favourite people in the world, the British gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, recently did an interview with Wired Science (link). If you've read his interviews before, you pretty much know what to expect, but there were a couple of new things in there that I found interesting (he's swearing, for one thing).

The gist of Aubrey de Grey's work is keeping people healthy indefinitely. You can call this unlimited healthspans or radical life extension or rejuvenation therapies or whatever, but the idea remains the same: to cure the biological process of progressive deterioration known as aging. For most people, the word "immortality" still has something of a negative connotation. This has not gone unnoticed by de Grey:

I’ve been out there represented as an immortality merchant since forever. These days, I can afford to not just acquiesce and let journalists use phrases like “immortality,” or at least not in the title of the bloody ass thing.

The reason he doesn't like titles like "Aubrey de Grey is here to make you immortal" is because it makes biogerontology sound like science fiction; something that a handful of people are working on in their garage. The public is apparently not ready for immortality.

And yet there are a growing number of people in the world who are ready to live longer and healthier lives. To any reasonable person, the word "immortality" is a positive thing, as long as one understands what the concept of biological immortality means. What it doesn't mean is that you'll be hurling through space long after the earth has been destroyed in a nuclear war, unable to die. It also doesn't mean that you'll be able to survive getting hit by a truck (although if it did, that would be a positive thing too).

What biological immortality means is that the chronological progress of time no longer dictates when and how you die. Your health will no longer be a simple function of time. Your body will remain youthful and vigorous regardless of how old you are. You can still die – certainly so if you want to die for some reason – but it won't be because of your body deteriorating every year. How this is a bad thing to some people has been beyond me for quite some time now.

The first step in solving the problem of aging will be done in mice. From there on, says Aubrey de Grey, it'll be smooth sailing:

What’s going to happen is the curmudgeons — the card-carrying gerontologists who think it’s very dangerous to be over-optimistic — will eventually recognize the data available to us from mice is so solid we can go out publicly and say, “It’s only a matter of time.” That’s going to take a panel of interventions in mice that’s so comprehensive we actually add two whole years to the lifespan of mice that are already in middle age before we start.

That may be overcautious. We may be able to get gerontologists on board with a more modest result than that. However, at that point, game over. My job will be done. I can retire. Because that will be the point when Oprah will be all over it and the following day it will become impossible to get elected unless you have a manifesto commitment to have a war on aging.

I agree with de Grey. People like Oprah have such a big influence on public opinion that it's ridiculous. I can even imagine someone being very pro-aging before hearing someone like Oprah promoting it, and then changing their mind completely. Once you get the public behind the idea, you'll get the politicians as well. Not that I give a damn about influencing politicians – without all the bureacracy and regulations in the field of medicine, I bet we'd already made a much larger progress in rejuvenation therapies! I'd rather take care of my own health than put it in the hands of any government official.

Another crucial point about people like Oprah: they have a lot of money. And since people with lots of money tend to be interested in preserving their wealth, it makes sense that the same people are also interested in preserving their health. After all, what's the point of having billions of dollars if you're not going to be around to enjoy them?

One thing that de Grey has not really commented on before is how come he doesn't get massive donations from aging billionaires. Some of them have already made plans to cryopreserve themselves, but if you have the chance to stick around without spending five decades in an ice box, why not do that instead? The biggest reason seems to be that billionaires haven't taken the organizations seriously enough:

Wired.com: For most of the billionaire philanthropists that travel in the same circles you do, out of the three things, is it mainly that they just don’t like your organization?

de Grey: I think for a very large, a very sufficient proportion of such people, yes, it’s that third thing. Because I see these people a lot. I go to TED, and there’s no holding back when it comes to 1) the desirability of the goal, and 2) the demonstration of sufficient comprehension of what I’m talking about to understand they believe the plan is feasible. So yes, absolutely.

In other words, there's a lack of professionalism, not necessarily in what the organizations actually do but in how people view them. The Methuselah Foundation is a case in point:

In the beginning, the only thing the Methuselah Foundation did was the longevity prizes for mice. Then, we started funding research directly. We thought it was a really cool idea to have one organization with two very complementary approaches to the same mission. But in fact, it didn’t really work, especially not in terms of messaging.

The foundation has now been split into two, one for prizes and one for funding research. Hopefully this will attract more investors. Besides business and funding, Aubrey talks about some personal things as well. And his love of beer, of course:

I drink exactly the right amount of beer evidently. [laughs] It’s ridiculous, really. Yet, I have to show I’m enjoying my life. It’s public knowledge I am polyamorous as well. That’s something that goes down not so well with some of my more politically sensitive friends and colleagues. But it goes quite well with some other people. [laughs]

Polyamorous, huh? He even goes to say that the whole monogamy thing is "archaic" and will probably be a thing of the past some time in the future. I didn't know de Grey was against monogamy, but I happen to agree. I think the whole concept of jealousy is an unnecessary biological impulse that was useful in the past but will no longer be needed in the future. It certainly isn't a product of the rational side of the brain.

I guess contrarians tend to have a lot in common. When you start to question the official truth in one area, you begin to wonder about other obvious truths as well. I'm sure you've noticed the disproportionate amount of libertarians among the paleo crowd, for example. In many cases it boils down to questioning whether government really knows best.

For some reason, the paleo community is still mostly stuck in the "aging is good" dogma, however. They're determinately against diabetes, obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and every other modern plague, and yet they are unwilling to strike the problem at the root.

Basically, they want to live healthy for 80 years and drop dead. To me that's nonsensical. What's your opinion?

For more information on longevity and aging, see these posts:

Russian Scientist Claims to Have Found Cure for Aging
How Do People Feel about Life Extension?
Aubrey de Grey in Helsinki, Finland
Why Aging Is a Global Disaster That Needs to Be Solved

Read More......


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