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Aubrey de Grey – Delusional Life Extensionist or Visionary?

Updated on July 2, 2010

Anyone with a keen interest in extending their lifespan has read or heard something about Dr. Aubrey de Grey. He has spoken at TED, countless universities, life extension seminars and is no stranger to being interviewed by the mainstream media. Aubrey makes his prime objective clear by both his commitment and words. During the conclusion of most talks he passionately emphasizes the importance of awareness about aging.

Is Aging a Disease?

Dr. de Grey wants the world to see aging differently: as he sees it. He argues that aging is not a fact of life that should be accepted, but instead is a disease responsible for more deaths than any other condition. Since young people typically don’t have to worry about heart disease, cancer and diabetes nearly much as their elders the very root of most health problems is aging itself.

Escape Velocity or Methuselarity

The slide outlining Aubrey’s concept of escape velocity (recently re-dubbed methuselarity) is extraordinarily popular, one reason being that it’s controversial nature divides believers from skeptics. Although there are currently no proven methods to intervene in the aging process, life-extensionists point to advances in nano-engineering and stem cell research as a good indication that treatments are just around the corner.

The idea behind escape velocity is that we don’t need the very best anti-aging solutions to extend lives. We merely need to work with the best solutions available as technology progresses to catapult ourselves forward. In other words, true solutions only exist for those able to live long enough.

This de Grey guy loves beer.
This de Grey guy loves beer.

Long Live the Rich

One point that Aubrey fails to mention is that time alone does not guarantee access to the latest interventions. Another key item in the equation is money. A perfect example is the state of healthcare in rich parts of North America and Europe in comparison to the third world. We take treatments such as routine vaccinations for granted while Africans continue to die of measles. These deaths could be prevented with less than $1 worth of vaccine.

The few companies working on aging interventions such as increasing telomere length (a marker of age) are funded by wealthy individuals salivating at the chance to receive a ticket to immortality. With for-profit motives, investors and the highest bidders will benefit as soon as clinical trials deem it safe, and maybe even before.

Clearly, the first people that will be in line for authentic anti-aging treatments will be someone like Sergey Brin or Bill Gates, not your next-door neighbor and certainly not the less privileged among us.

Can We Really Fight Aging?

With all his optimistic predictions it is easy to write off de Grey as a quack. However, this assumption simply isn’t true by the very definition. A quack makes unfounded outlandish promises about a medical treatment, hoping to sell you worthless herbs and modern day “potions”.

Aubrey on the other hand sends a message of hope but promises nothing and is quick to admit that there aren’t any adequate anti-aging treatments known. He isn’t the one writing sensationalist headlines like “We Could Live to 1,000 in the Future”, it is the media. Even then, the headline reads “could” and that is the whole point. Perhaps we could do it, if the scientific establishment tried hard enough for long enough.

What skeptics often overlook is Aubrey de Grey is all about shifting our attitudes about aging. Before the research can happen on the grand scale mainstream science must also embrace the dream of defeating aging. Wealthy investors are equally important to fund the work.

A major roadblock lies in the fact that every person that tried to find the fountain of youth historically failed and died along with everyone else. Ko Hung, Roger Bacon and Juan Ponce de León didn’t want to accept the fact that life is temporary, but it didn’t stop them from dying. This viewpoint was pointed out by S. Jay Olshansky in his article entitled “Don’t fall for the cult of immortality”.

Failure in the past does not mean that success is impossible in the future. Flight was attempted for centuries and seen as “impossible” to many until the Wright brothers built the world’s first successful airplane. Perhaps a skeptical outlook is well suited to some but even skepticism cannot deny that immortality is possible, even if it is to happen far beyond our lifetimes.

Conclusion

Aubrey de Grey likes to sip on pints of beer dreaming of the society of immortal, god-like beings as proven by a recent documentary about his life and work. He has the hugest aspirations but doesn’t have a tiny fraction of the resources need to follow his vision through.

Maybe the problem isn’t that Aubrey is crazy, it is that the world we live in isn’t crazy enough. If scientific credibility is attained by playing it safe, hopefully the next generation will prize the notion of the mad scientist that is willing to test anything. Sometimes it takes a little dumb luck to get it right.

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      Nicolas 7 years ago

      "Maybe the problem isn’t that Aubrey is crazy, it is that the world we live in isn’t crazy enough."

      Very well said, which reminds me of this:

      "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." - George Bernard Shaw

      Or maybe that:

      "I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act." - Buddha