As I'm sure many people are aware these days, with the greater availability of historical materials and their analysis, Isaac Newton was as much alchemist as scientist. His worldview encompassed mysticism, mathematics, and cosmology in equal parts, a function of his time. You can't really pick apart Newton the scientist from Newton the mystic, Newton of the equations and proofs from Newton of the search for the philosopher's stone. A person is a fusion, not a collection of parts. You also can't paint Newton as somehow distinct from his peers in this - he was an outlier in his intelligence, his vision, and his work ethic, not in his views on alchemy. Keep this in mind as a framing device; I point it out because the mix of futile, magical endeavors and the sound application of science, both pursued with equal vigor, is far from left behind in Newton's era. It continues today, and it is of great relevance to progress (or lack thereof) the field we all care about, advancing the state of the art in living longer, healthier lives.
I, and others in our community, believe that the "anti-aging" marketplace as it stands is both terrible and an opportunity. Ultimately if the good can chase out the bad, then these are people with clinics, funds, and the desire to do something about aging, exactly those who could do a great deal of good in pushing forward research, development, and clinical availability if they so chose. As real rejuvenation therapies emerge, the entrepreneurs of that marketplace will stop trying to sell products based on cherry-picked scientific studies, outright lies, and magical thinking. You can't make money selling tables that fall apart when the people next door sell tables that work. The same applies to medicine. Consider what a medical market with even partially effective treatments looks like: no-one today makes much of a business selling charms against heart disease. For sure, it exists, but will-workers and traveling tinkers certainly aren't the first port of call for the average individual - patients seek out doctors and clinicians in the knowledge that there are treatments that can product useful results. The end result is never an end to fraud and superstition, but the crushing of it into a tiny corner of economic activity. I suspect that this is going to be a drawn out and messy process for longevity science, however, just as it has been elsewhere in the past. Will we see clinics selling working rejuvenation therapies such as senescent cell clearance infusions in a package with nonsense like apple stem cell skin cremes? No doubt. Caveat emptor, just as true ten years from now as it is today.
Many folk feel that the "anti-aging" market is too much of a threat to have anything to do with. That it will not reform and will poison whatever it touches. Certainly there are people in there with that mix of adherence to mysticism and science that has characterized many figures in the history of science and technology, whether giants like Newton or the rank and file who get far lesser mention in the pages of history. The Life Extension Foundation principals are comfortable pushing useless nonsense on the one hand (overhyped supplements based on dubious research results taken out of context, anything that Suzanne Somers has to say about health, and so forth) while on the other hand helping to fund stem cell research trials and SENS-like programs of development such as thymic regeneration. They've given a good deal more money to those worthy causes than I have. Nonetheless, the alchemy, the alchemy. It is painful. There is a certain anxiety that people we might persuade to the cause of human rejuvenation take in things like the recent RAAD Festival, and as a consequence throw out everything they see, baby and bathwater, as the author did here. When the first few samples raised up to the light for examination are evident nonsense, why check the others carefully?
A weekend watching the promise of immortality get sold and bought at the Revolution Against Aging and Death Festival
I was invited to attend RAAD after I wrote about people who want their pets to live forever. I was initially confused by the phrase "age reversal." As it turns out, RAAD sells something more audacious than pricey cosmetics or Li'l Brad Pitt. RAAD stands for Revolution Against Aging and Death. It sells the promise of eternal youth. Also, Suzanne Somers was going to be there. The people who organized RAAD are members of the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, which is the nonprofit offshoot of People Unlimited, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based group that describes itself as "a community of people living physical immortality." People Unlimited charges a monthly membership fee, and holds regular meetings where members swap antiaging tips and listen to guest speakers. The coalition's online mission statement shoehorns immortality into a historical narrative of moral and social progress. Radical life extensionists believe that eternal life will eventually be viewed as a sort of buried human right, as soon as they convince people that they're not delusional.
Though immortalists aren't mainstream, radical life extension has a burgeoning fan base in the tech industry. Along with Alphabet's Calico, which is a secretive Google spinoff focused solely on the study of aging, other prominent antiaging research labs and biotech firms have budded up among the techno-utopians. While the search for ways to stop aging and "cure" death is booming from a business perspective, the reality of biotech solutions for age-related problems is far more nuanced than the vision presented at RAAD, where researchers spoke in highly optimistic terms about progress just around the corner. Assuming that this research will lead to insight on how we age is one thing. Assuming it will free us from the bonds of mortality is an enormous leap. And so even within the community of researchers who study old age and life extension, immortalists are considered radical, and sometimes accused of peddling pseudoscience.
To cast the widest possible net for converts, RAAD touted many different twists on the concept of living forever. No one path to immortality was placed above another. There were many different denominations of immortalists present, with a patchwork of philosophies and goals: stem-cell facials, telomerase research, transhumanism, cryonics, brain uploading, cyborgism, vitamins, blood transfusions, marathon running, sex. After she ran through her spiel, Suzanne Somers sat down with Bill Faloon, another superstar within the life extension movement. Faloon founded the Life Extension Foundation in 1980, and he was ready to back up every last irresponsible word Somers uttered. "There is a tremendous amount of peer-reviewed literature to substantiate what Suzanne has said, including diet and health," Faloon said. Faloon applauded Peter Thiel for donating money to antiaging causes. Thiel has donated to gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, who founded the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation. De Grey is a British man with objectively too much beard who is famous among futurists and infamous among scientists for claiming that the first person who will live to a thousand years old is alive today. He's good at raising money for antiaging research and courting celebrities to join his cause. SENS has an ad campaign that features Steve Aoki, Herbie Hancock, Edward James Olmos, and the guy who played Little Carmine on The Sopranos.
This is the messiness of the business of persuasion in action. Though I have to say that the author here is evidently smart enough to realize there's something down there at the science end of the pool, but chose to write the article this way anyway rather than working harder at the more interesting picture that is presented. Work on telomerase is arguably pretty important in aging research. Cryonics is a logical response to death in an age of technological progress. Aubrey de Grey's SENS Research Foundation is serious business, a part of the very real, very promising road to working rejuvenation therapies. Suzanne Somers on the other hand is a great illustration of the fact that business fundamentals trump everything else, including having products that actually work, or making claims that are actually sound, true, and supported by evidence. The Life Extension Foundation's Faloon has a foot in both camps. There you have the span from science to mysticism in just three people.
This is what human endeavor looks like when existing products have very marginal effects, and thus fraud is both easier to carry out and harder to suppress. But as I noted above, that will start to change soon enough. Senescent cell clearance will be in clinics five to ten years from now, alongside before and after DNA methylation biomarkers of biological age, and that will be indisputably effective in comparison to everything else out there claimed to have an impact on aging. From there matters might start to clean up somewhat, as the first of the frauds and the mystics begin to exit, stage left. Where am I going with this? Well, it would be great if everyone thought more or less the way I do about longevity science, but you have to live in the world that is, not the world that you'd like to exist. You work with the hand you've been dealt. Newton was an alchemist, and fundamentals of human nature haven't changed since then. The people getting things done today will inevitably tend to spend only a fraction of their time on projects and publicity that you or I might consider to be the most important items on the list, and many will embrace mysticism and counterproductive activities along the way. This is the way things go. It is certainly far from ideal, but still we move ahead. The end goal of a "anti-aging" community even halfway converted and backing the right approaches to human rejuvenation is, I think, too much of a potential boost to throw away because of the present situation. That means building the bridges now, in exactly the same way that bridges must be built to Big Pharma, governments, and other relevant institutions that are themselves less than ideal.