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.

Sherwin Nuland slams Aubrey de Grey

Via Sentient Developments

The February 2005 edition of MIT's Technology Review has been published and it features a cover article about biogerontologist and transhumanist Aubrey de Grey. Interviewed by Sherwin Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University’s School of Medicine, the article is yet another PR breakthrough for the man voted most likely to solve the aging problem. As Dale Carrico noted to me at TransVision 2004 last year, de Grey is truly the first transhumanist superstar.

But the victory of the cover article aside, and despite it being a well written and researched piece (Nuland spent 10 hours in person with de Grey), the article is peppered with Nuland's rants in condemnation of both the quest to cure aging and those who, like de Grey, are actively working to solve the problem. While at times overtaken by de Grey's charisma, articulateness and brilliance, Nuland is at other times filled with great unease in regards to the man and the nature of his work. Consequently, the piece comes off as being quite schizo and unbalanced. It feels as if Nuland, by soiling himself with a de Grey interview, needs to assure everyone that he's not among the True Believers:
I should declare here that I have no desire to live beyond the life span that nature has granted to our species. For reasons that are pragmatic, scientific, demographic, economic, political, social, emotional, and secularly spiritual, I am committed to the notion that both individual fulfillment and the ecological balance of life on this planet are best served by dying when our inherent biology decrees that we do. I am equally committed to making that age as close to our biologically probable maximum of approximately 120 years as modern biomedicine can achieve, and also to efforts at decreasing and compressing the years of morbidity and disabilities now attendant on extreme old age. But I cannot imagine that the consequences of doing a single thing beyond these efforts will be anything but baleful, not only for each of us as an individual, but for every other living creature in our world.
As for Nuland's critque of radical life extension, in addition to falling for the 'nature as ought' fallacy, he's really all bark and very little bite. There's virtually no discourse given to ethics issues, choosing instead to resort to abstract and broad-based fears. His rants are largely rhetorical and filled with fear mongering. And of course, what would a slam against life extension be without the proverbial stab about violating 'humanness,':
But the most likable of eccentrics are sometimes the most dangerous. Many decades ago in my naïveté and ignorance, I thought that the ultimate destruction of our planet would be by the neutral power of celestial catastrophe: collision with a gigantic meteor, the burning out of the sun—that sort of thing. In time, I came to believe that the end of days would be ushered in by the malevolence of a mad dictator who would unleash an arsenal of explosive or biological weaponry: nuclear bombs, engineered microörganisms—that sort of thing. But my notion of “that sort of thing” has been changing. If we are to be destroyed, I am now convinced that it will not be a neutral or malevolent force that will do us in, but one that is benevolent in the extreme, one whose only motivation is to improve us and better our civilization. If we are ever immolated, it will be by the efforts of well-meaning scientists who are convinced that they have our best interests at heart. We already know who they are. They are the DNA tweakers who would enhance us by allowing parents to choose the genetic makeup of their descendants unto every succeeding generation ad infinitum, heedless of the possibility that breeding out variety may alter factors necessary for the survival of our species and the health of its relationship to every form of life on earth; they are the biogerontologists who study caloric restriction in mice and promise us the extension by 20 percent of a peculiarly nourished existence; they are those other biogerontologists who emerge from their laboratories of molecular science every evening optimistic that they have come just a bit closer to their goal of having us live much longer, downplaying the unanticipated havoc at both the cellular and societal level that might be wrought by their proposed manipulations. And finally, it is the unique and strangely alluring figure of Aubrey de Grey, who, orating, writing, and striding tirelessly through our midst with his less than fully convinced sympathizers, proclaims like the disheveled herald of a new-begotten future that our most inalienable right is to have the choice of living as long as we wish. With the passion of a single-minded zealot crusading against time, he has issued the ultimate challenge, I believe, to our entire concept of the meaning of humanness.

Paradoxically, his clarion call to action is the message neither of a madman nor a bad man, but of a brilliant, beneficent man of goodwill, who wants only for civilization to fulfill the highest hopes he has for its future. It is a good thing that his grand design will almost certainly not succeed. Were it otherwise, he would surely destroy us in attempting to preserve us.
Like the Kassites, Nuland also buys into the false assumption that society will come to the rescue and prevent the scourge of radical life extension. This will hardly be the case, something I argue in my column, "Deathist Nation." Moreover, as fellow WTA Board member Giulio Prisco noted in a discussion today, the tone of the comments section at the end of Nuland's article is nearly exclusively in support of Aubrey de Grey.

Despite all this, however, I do strongly recommend that this article be read. It's probably the most detailed piece I've read about de Grey yet, touching upon his background and other personal aspects of his life. Nuland also does a decent job articulating de Grey's concepts and his SENS mission.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Hughes Vs. Smith on Betterhumans

Via Sentient Developments

We published dueling book reviews on Betterhumans today.

In this corner, we have democratic transhumanist James Hughes:
Drawing a Stem Cell Line in the Sand
Former lefty Wesley J. Smith is now a right-wing bioconservative, says James Hughes, and Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World will make you nostalgic for when progressives believed in progress.

And in the other corner, lawyer-activist Wesley Smith:

An Epistle for the New Religion of Transhumanism
James Hughes is a transhumanist evangelist, says Wesley J. Smith, and Citizen Cyborg urges followers to be true to their faith while revealing its nihilistic shortcomings.

Now boys, play nice...

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Carrico and Cascio on Changesurfer Radio

I know you all eagerly listen to my radio show Changesurfer Radio every week, but these are some recent shows you may have missed:

2005.1.8 - TechProgressives

Dr. J. chats with Dale Carrico, the Human Rights fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He writes the "Progressive Futures" column for, and blogs at Cyborg Democracy and Amor Mundi.

Part 1:

Part 2 (includes interviews with Francis Fukuyama, Art Caplan, and a speech by bioconservative Adam Keiper:

2005.1.1 - WorldChanging

Dr. J. chats with Jamais Cascio, blogmaster of, a blog devoted to promoting technologies that are changing the world for the better. Jamais also serves as one of the Global Health fellows of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.