Thursday, January 13, 2005

Aging IS an engineering problem

Yesterday I wrote about the very disturbing Technology Review article "Do You Want to Live Forever? (Aubrey de Grey thinks he knows how to defeat aging. He's brilliant, but is he nuts?)" by Sherwin Nuland. Answer: according to the opinion of all readers who posted a comment in the article's discussion forum, de Grey is not nuts.
This morning I found out that the current issue of the magazine contains an even more disturbing editorial "Against Transcendence" by Jason Pontin. The editorial shares with the article a complete lack of appreciation of scientific facts and the scientific method, and has even more hooliganish personal attacks against de Grey, e.g. "he dresses like a shabby graduate student and affects Rip Van Winkle's beard; he has no children; he has few interests outside the science of biogeron­tology; he drinks too much beer. Although he is only 41, the signs of decay are strongly marked on his face. His ideas are trollish, too". Please, leave a comment in the editorial's discussion forum.
Pontin says: "[de Grey] believes he can defeat death by treating human aging as an engineering problem... Aging is not a disease. Aging is the condition on which we are given life".
Think of how the word "disease" is formed: dis - ease. Now ask anyone who has been reduced to a poor shadow of her/himself by age, if aging is a disease or not. Of course aging is a disease. Medical science is about curing diseases, and has already defeated many diseases on its march. There are diseases that today's medicine cannot cure yet, and that is why we must develop tomorrow's medicine. This is common sense.
Since the discovery of fire to the development of the Internet, the history of the evolution of our species has been marked by those moments where a "condition on which we are given life" has been attacked as an engineering problem. We would still be living in caves of our ancestors had considered living in caves as an inalterable condition in which they were given life. Fortunately our cave dwelling ancestors were saner than today's "bioethicists".
Pontin says "For even if it were possible to "perturb" human biology in the way de Grey wishes, we shouldn't do it. Immortality might be okay for de Grey, but an entire world of the same superagenarians thinking the same kinds of thoughts forever would be terrible".
The possibility to "perturb" human biology in the way de Grey wishes is an engineering problem. Today's medical science has started developing the necessary detailed understanding of human biology, and based on this understanding, tomorrow medical science will permit, I believe, improving it (an engineer does not say "perturb" a device, (s)he says "improve" a device). Please try explaining to me what is wrong with this.
All humans who have lived so far have been forced to consider aging as a "condition on which we are given life", because the engineering problem of aging was not operationally solvable at their time. Today's life extension science is about solving this engineering problem. I have no doubt that it will be solved like other engineering problems of the past. The impossibility of talking to someone far away used to be a condition on which we are given life, now we have the phone.
Please try understanding that we want to improve neurology as well as biology. A world with operational life extension technology will not be populated by "superagenarians thinking the same kinds of thoughts forever", but by smart, youthful, ever changing and evolving human beings.


Jason Pontin said...

Dear transhumanists,

Thank you for your posts to the site. I've
read them all with great interest. You're a passionate group!

Let me begin by writing: as many of you suggested, we will
invite Aubrey de Grey to reply to Dr. Nuland's article, the leader
"Be Sane about Anti-Aging Science," and my editorial "Against
Transcendence." You can read Mr. de Grey on early next week.

That said, when an editor so completely fails to express his
meaning to his readers, he may be tempted to try again. A few
notes to that end.

1. I recognize the anger in many of your posts, and apologize if I
have offended any of you.

When I called Mr. de Grey a "troll" it was of course a literary
device: a reference to a line earlier in my editorial where I
quoted the writer Bruce Stirling about the paradox that those
who were most intersted in using technology to transcend
human nature often lived circumscribed lives that seemed
anything but transcendent when viewed from the outside.
Stirling says that people who take transcendence seriously "end
up turning into trolls." This is my personal view. However,
neither Dr. Nuland's article, which I commissioned, nor our
leader on anti-aging, which I edited, made this point.

2. My list of the ways that Mr. de Grey seemed circumscribed by
his humanity was not intended as an ad hominem attack on de
Grey. An hominem attack seeks to discredit an argument by
attacking the person who makes it. As many of you noted, I did
not seriously grapple with Mr. de Grey's views in my editorial.

This is because my editorial was written as an introduction, by
the editor-in-chief, to the print edition of Technology Review.
An exhaustive list of all the reasons why I think de Grey
mistaken in his confidence that human cellular aging can be
reversed would have been redundant. The two other articles on
biogerontology, in addition to a synopsis of a scholarly
publication on the role of mitochondria in the diseases of aging,
expressed all I believe about biogerontology.

Those views, in short, are as follows: while I am fascinated by
the study of how and why human tissues age, I think it
exceedingly unlikely that human aging can be "defeated" in any
meaningful sense. All organisms--indeed, all things in
creation--age. I think it possible that we might one day extend
human lifespan significantly, and I am reasonably sure that in
the next 50 years we will "compress the morbidity" of the elderly
to a brief period before death. I have to note that most serious,
working, responsible biogerontologists published regularly by
peer review journals would agree with me--with the possible
exception of Cynthia Kenyon at UCSF, who entertains dramatic
hopes for human life extension, and who has significantly
extended the life span of nemotodes.

My editorial was about what it said it was about: it was written
"against transcendence." It was not written about Aubrey de

3. Finally, and I write this with a little trepidation, many of your
posts reveal a degree of misinformation about Mr. de Grey's
accomplishments and publications.

I would not accuse Mr. de Grey, whom I have never met, of
being a charlatan. But there is a certain vaguness in the
transhumanist community about his role in the Department of
Genetics at Cambridge University. Mr. de Grey is not an
academic biogerontologist. He is the computer support
for a research team in Cambridge's Genetics Department. His
formal academic background is in computer science. If you
consult Mr. de Grey's publications in a resource like PubMed,
you will see they vary more than glowing profiles of de Grey
sometimes imply. For instance, his contributions to Science and
Biogerontology are commentary and letters. His publications in
Tends in Biotechnology and Annals of the New York Academy of
Sciences were not, strictly speaking, peer reviewed.

That said, Mr de Grey's paper, "A Proposed Refinement of the
Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging," (de Grey, ADNJ,
BioEssays 19(2) 161-166, 1997) is, I am told, genuinely original,
and he is, obviously, a fascinating, charismatic, and provocative

My assessment of Aubrey de Grey would be that of the
biogerontologist Jay Olshansky: "I am a big fan of Aubrey. We
need him. I disagree with some of his conclusions, but in science
that's OK. That's what advances the field."

In sorrow and contrition,

Jason Pontin
Technology Review

7:18 PM  
dagon said...

I am squarely in favor of the research conducted by Aubrey de Grey. It's difficult to envision how it wil pan out but it needs to be done.

Every fiber of my nature, my entire intuition, my entire belief system screams that humanity is supposed to evolve, individually and as a species. We need to become better, more human, more humane.

A lot of people won't like the proces but they won't be around to object afterwards - or if they take part, I'm sure they'll agree when it's done. It's like birth, painful and traumatic, but the result is so much better than staying in the womb.

Humanity is a larva. The future lies in gossamer wings, high in the sky. It's beautiful !

7:05 AM  

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