Aubrey de Grey wants to prevent aging and has an idea how to do it.
This weekend, I got a chance to see a presentation by the brilliant Dr. Aubrey de Grey. His visit to Finland came unexpectedly to me, but luckily I got the word a day before and managed to see him in person. Much of the things he talked about I was already familiar with from his earlier presentations, but there were also bits and pieces that were new to me.
The whole two hours was videotaped by the organizers – a rather surprising co-effort between the Finnish Transhumanist Association and the Green League of Finland – but as far as I know, it's not online yet. I will link to it from this post once it is. UPDATE: And here it is (it's in 12 pieces because of Youtube's limitation):
All in all, I found the presentation very understandable, concise and even entertaining. Everything except maybe the part about the seven types of aging damage was understandable even for the layperson. If you have doubts about whether ending aging is desirable or possible, I very much recommend watching some of his lectures online. They're also very useful if you want to convince others that the fight against aging is an important one.
One thing I noticed Aubrey does well (and I don't) is to counter arguments by people whose life philosophy is, in my opinion, grounded on bad logic. For example, he gave a good response to the religious objection that life extension is a sin, arguing that it's essentially the other way around, because not doing anything to aging is the same thing as allowing suffering, which must be wrong.
Personally, I have very little tolerance for this kind of religious arguments, because I mostly feel it's useless to try to convince a religious person of anything using rational arguments. Yet, to make the life extension meme spread, the patience to convince even irrational people using their own logic is necessary. My hat off to de Grey for having that patience.
There are all kinds of variations on the argument that stopping aging is a sin. Even many atheists fall for the idea that aging is natural and therefore good. Aubrey poked fun at this, saying that in any other field arguments like this would be considered childishly absurd, but that for some reason they pass as reasonable among gerontologists. One of the strongest arguments against this is that every kind of medical intervention we have is just as "unnatural" as curing aging. So logically, if you think we shouldn't do anything about aging, you should also oppose curing diseases such as cancer, diabetes, etc. Yet almost no one is willing to decline cancer treatments if they happen to get sick.
This is also related to another common display of irrational thinking: that if you ask people "what do you want to die of?" none of them will answer they want to die of cancer or diabetes. Instead, most people will answer that they prefer to die "naturally" of "old age". This is of course complete nonsense, because old people don't die just because they're chronologically old, they die because their bodies don't function as well as they did when they were chronologically young. Even when people say someone died of old age, in reality they died from the accumulation of damage in the body. If you want to prevent this damage from killing you when you're young, why wouldn't you want to do the same when you're old?
Another important point is that unlike what people imagine their own death to be like – quick and painless – for the overwhelming majority of the world's population it is nothing of the sort. What it is is a slow decline in physical and mental capabilities followed by a complete collapse and, ultimately, death. It is a process of slow deterioration that goes on for decades, with each decade being progressively worse in terms of biological functions than the previous one. To wish such a fate upon yourself is irrational, and to wish it upon others is just evil.
The overpopulation argument is a popular one but shows such incapability of imagination that I really have to push myself these days to counter it. I watched Aubrey counter it at least twice; once during the presentation and once during the Q&A session. It still blows my mind that people can even consider sacrificing the lives of millions now in order to avoid a possible risk of overpopulation in the future.
I really feel that this argument is not the result of rational thinking but rather the result of a need to avoid cognitive dissonance in someone who first encounters the idea of living significantly longer. It's a quick anesthetic, for the part of the brain that desperately tries to scream that ending aging is both desirable and possible, by the part of the brain that desperately wants to cling on to existing conditions.
Yet another typical objection to ending aging is that rejuvenation therapies would only be available to the rich. Aubrey's refutation to this is that governments simply cannot afford to do this, because aging costs society an incredible amount of money each year and that putting old people back into the workforce would bring wealth. While I agree with him that it would be foolish for a state to restrict access to rejuvenation therapies, I also find the idea of forcing people at gunpoint (i.e. collecting taxes) to pay for someone else's therapy repulsive. I think the private sector will play a much bigger role than the public sector once the first treatments hit the market. Offering them just to the extremely rich is economically stupid.
Naturally, Aubrey de Grey also talked about how we might go about fixing aging. I've written about the basic idea in the post about the seven types of aging damage, so I won't go into it here. There were some interesting points raised during the Q&A session, however, such as using nanotechnology in rejuvenation therapies and replacing organs or even entire bodies instead of rejuvenating them. While de Grey seemed to agree in principle with what Ray Kurzweil predicts will happen, his own prediction was that future rejuvenation therapies would take on a more traditional biological approach first – injections and stem cell treatments, for example. The second generation of therapies might be something more radical.
If you're in any way interested in anti-aging, I highly recommend you watch at least one of Aubrey's presentations online (see here and here for examples). The reason he's out there giving presentations in the first place is to make people aware that combatting aging is not just science fiction. It will happen sooner or later, and if we want to make it happen sooner, the message needs to be heard.
As I'm sure you've noticed, a part of the reason this blog exists is to inform people about the cause. This includes discussing both why life extension is desirable and how it might be possible. I urge everyone to get familiar with the most common objections people have to fighting aging, to understand the counterarguments to the objections, and to go out there and talk to people.
Yes, they will probably think you're crazy at first, and then they'll try to show that you're wrong. But in the end, they will be there in the rejuvenation therapy queue, telling you how they always knew we would one day conquer aging.
For more information on aging and how to prevent it, see these posts:
Anti-Aging in the Media: The Independent on Immortality
Why Aging Is a Global Disaster That Needs to Be Solved
The 7 Types of Aging Damage That End up Killing You
Biotechnology and the Future of Aging