Updated - 8/8/13 - see link at bottom
The most persistent aspect of this intriguing book is the questions it raises. Why do we age? Can we do anything to halt or at least slow the aging process? What might be the implications of extending our time on Earth?
Jonathan Weiner builds his look at the science of immortality around Aubrey de Grey, an odd duck of a British theoretician, a sort of Methuselahn gadfly. De Grey, who looks like he might either play back up with ZZ Top or live in a moss-covered cabin in the depths of a Middle-Earth forest, has big-picture notions of what it would take to significantly increase the human lifespan. He has written professional papers in the gerontological field, although he was not professionally trained, and his wide knowledge of fields related to aging make him one of the planet’s experts on the subject. He has also established an organization, SENS, (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) to promote research into extending human life.
Using Aubrey as his central trunk, Weiner branches off to a variety of fascinating subjects. He gives us a look at how people have viewed the notion of immortality through our history, in religion, literature and mythology. I was most surprised by a biblical account of a city named “Luz” in which the residents remained immortal. It was news to me. He writes about the history of theories of aging, and interviews several scientists working in diverse aging research projects.
In the last two hundred years the human lifespan has approximately doubled. Who’s to say that it might not double again? Improvements in child health were responsible for much of the earlier gains, but lately the focus has shifted to extending life for those who have already achieved maturity. Why are we so plagued today with late onset maladies like cancer and heart disease? What is the role of natural selection in longevity?
Why do our bodies do such a good job of building through our youth, then slow down? Are we really rusting from the inside out? Like a city, our bodies generate considerable quantities of garbage. Thankfully, our bodies also include a sanitation squad that takes care of most of that, but in time the garbage trucks begin to fail and the sort of garbage we leave out on the curb doesn’t catch the crew’s attention. Clog up, shut down, game over. Why does the clean-up crew fail to keep up? Can the technology that uses designed microbes to detoxify contaminated soil be applied to the human body’s difficulties identifying and composting or taking out the internal refuse?
Technical advances over the last century have allowed researchers to see deeper than ever into the operations that go on inside cells and even molecules, giving hope for new understanding and new ways to remain healthy.
Weiner does not look into potential global hindrances to life extension. Things like global warming, resource exhaustion, overpopulation. He does recognize the potential for longevity to be applied to the wrong sort, cautioning that extended lives might produce thousand-year Hitlers, Stalins or Maos. One could certainly see implications for westernized societies, in which those who routinely reward themselves at the expense of everyone else, (think Wall Street and corporate execs) buy themselves onto the beginning of that line. It would not be a huge leap to envision extensions to the existing class divides, with longevity as yet another privilege of wealth, eternal masters and expendable proles. How many Ghandis, Aung San Suu Kyis, or Mandelas would likely gain access to life-lengthening treatments?
In a world of widely available life extension, would we all become risk-averse to the point of stasis?
There are so many questions raised here, that it might take an extended life to consider them all. But I would not wait too long before reading this intriguing book. You don’t have forever.
The May 2013 issue of National Geographic featured a cover story on longevity
. Definitely worth a look. But hurry. You know why.
A nice article on longevity researcher Cynthia Kenyon
, from Smithsonian Mag.
8/7/13 - Radical Life Extension
, an item by NY Times columnist Charles Blow