A Very Educational Exchange

There is a school of thought that claims satire to contain a great deal more truth than any attempt at straight communication. It certainly seems to be much more revealing of character, goals and direction. If that is the case, then this post is a view of the more illuminating portion - the satirical portion - of the presently active public debate over healthy life extension within the gerontology community.

If you're new to this all, you'll find a little background on conservatism in gerontology both here at Fight Aging! and over at the Longevity Meme, alongside an introduction to the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). You may also recall that editor Jason Pontin of the MIT Technology Review is presently offering $20,000 for a coherent challenge to SENS.

But on with the satire. This piece from researcher Richard Miller is from the GRG mailing list and reproduced via transhumantech:

Dear Jason:

My colleagues have called to my attention the excited fascination with which the MIT Technology Review has been treating Dr. Aubrey de Grey's program to conquer aging. As you know, the SENS strategy delineates seven problems that from Dr. de Grey's perspective are the key components of aging, and suggests that they can be solved by a combination of stem-cell therapy, senescence-marker tagged toxins, allotypic mt-coded proteins, IL-7, total telomerase deletion, genetically-engineered, hormone-secreting muscle cells, and Phenacyldimethylthiazolium Chloride. Dr. de Grey has challenged gerontologists to debate the merits of the SENS program, and has expressed his opinion that we are now at or near a historical 'cusp;' those born after the cusp will be able to stay alive and youthful forever by adherence to the SENS strategy. Although Dr. de Grey's assertions have enjoyed wide circulation in the lay press, at scientific meetings, and in your own journal, it is fair to say that many experienced gerontologists still remain somewhat skeptical about his claims. Nonetheless, his success in developing such a well-regarded plan to solve the aging problem has prompted me to ask for his help on a similarly complex technological challenge. Alas, I have lost Aubrey?s phone number, and so I was hoping the MIT Technology Review might be willing to publish this open letter to him, along with these introductory remarks, as a public service to those of us who look forward to hearing his insights into problems of this kind.

Best regards,

Richard Miller
University of Michigan


Dear Aubrey:

I saw you on TV the other day, and was hoping that now that the aging problem has been solved, you might have time to help me in my publicity campaign to solve a similar engineering challenge, one that has been too long ignored by the ultra-conservative, fraidy-cat mainstream scientific community, the problem of producing flying pigs.

A theoretical analysis of the problem, using the fastest available modern
computers, shows that there are a mere seven reasons why pigs cannot, at present, fly.

1. They do not have wings.

2. They are too heavy to get off the ground.

3. The so-called 'law' of gravity.

4. They cannot climb trees.

5. Hair, instead of feathers.

6. They do not wish to fly.

7. They do not go tweet.

Although I have been too busy in my day job to find time to work in a laboratory, I have been able to show clearly that these problems can be solved, using an approach I call Plan for Engineered Porcine Aviation, or PEPA.

1. No wings: genetic engineering will be used to alter Hox-box promoters and micro-RNA gene enhancers to re-activate the pre-wing somite program. A dab of stem cell therapy might help here, too; at any rate, it cannot hurt, can it?

2. Too heavy: although the average pig cell is a chunky 20 microns in diameter, microbiologists have recently documented (R. M. Morris et al., Nature 420:806, 2002) free-living organisms as small as 0.8 microns in diameter. By the well known inverse cube law, a reduction in mean cell diameter of 25 will lead to a reduction in volume of 25^3 = 15,625, with a corresponding reduction in pig weight.

3. Gravity problem: This one?s easy ­ either move the pig to Phobos, one of the low gravity satellites of Mars, where people are going anyway and they can just drop the pig off on the way, or else use transient hypergravity attractivity to hollow out the Earth by removing the heavy and unnecessary core. As a side effect, if this is done properly, it just might speed up the Earth's rotation sufficiently to provide the pig with a bit of a push to get it started, too.

4. Can't climb trees: Who says pigs cannot climb trees? Because so far most of their food has been placed in troughs or in the undergrowth of French forests, pigs have not previously been motivated to climb trees. In any case, toxin-constrained nano-bonsai ought to do the trick here.

5. No feathers: the Drosophila antennapaedia gene, for which a Nobel prize was recently awarded, allows the transformation of bristles into legs or antennas, and there's no reason this wouldn't work for feathers and pigs, too.

6. Lack of motivation: easy to solve: LySergic Acid Diethylamide.

7. Tweet problem: implantable helium sacs, just under the armpits, so whenever they flap their wings a bit of helium gets squirted into their vocal cavity. I read an article about this in MIT's distinguished and highly respected alumni journal, Technology Review, so I know it can be done.

Although each of these strategies is based upon sound scientific precedent or fantasy, nonetheless some of my conservative critics here on the local faculty have argued, from their ivory tower, that no one has yet proven that any one of these methods has been shown to convert porkers to parakeets. But no one has yet tried all seven of them together, don't you see! In addition, funding for porcine avionics research has to date been very very low, due to the stubborn insistence of NIH on peer review. The PEPA program, however, has been endorsed, or at any rate not publicly pilloried, by dozens of eminent scientists whose names I could give you if necessary.

Amazing though it may seem, I believe that we are now at what I call a 'cusp' in the history of either porkiculture or aviation or both. Pigs born before April 14, 2009, will be destined to a life on the ground, rooting about for scraps, grunting unpleasantly, and constantly getting their curly little tails entangled in low-lying shrubs. Pigs born after April 15, 2009 (or perhaps a few days later), will in contrast waft lazily through the lambent skies, tweeting merry greetings to one another, nibbling at an occasional air-truffle, and enjoying panoramic views of either Cambridge or Phobos, depending. Also, they?ll get to live forever, by following the practices so stirringly depicted in your own articles.

All I need is a clever marketing gimmick ­ perhaps a prize of some sort, that will fool journalists and conference organizers into thinking that the only reason none of this works yet is that scientists are afraid to debate with me. Any advice?

All the best,

Prof. Richard Miller, M.D., Ph.D.
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Here we have Aubrey de Grey's response in kind, also from the GRG list and via transhumantech:

My dear Rich, how delightful to hear from you. I am so heartened that you have chosen to dissociate yourself publicly from the anti-SENS sentiment recently expressed by some of our colleagues in EMBO Reports [November 2005 issue]. I hope you will succeed in extracting from them an apology for including your name in the list of authors (and even so outrageously parodying your inestimable writing style). Perhaps, since your name was midway down a long author list, they thought no one would notice.

What an interesting problem you raise. I confess I had not considered the hardship endured by pigs as a result of their flightlessness, but you articulate it most effectively. I think I can indeed help.

Before addressing the marketing aspect, I feel it is worth examining this problem for alternative solutions that may be even more straightforward than those you list -- and which may indeed be applicable to those unfortunate pigs who are already alive, so for whom your strategies 1, 2 and 5 are inapplicable. It would surely be best to alleviate as much porcine suffering as possible, so this would be a definite improvement. Further, since those who might fund your project are also already alive, this might facilitate marketing too.

In considering this question I have adopted the age-old strategy of looking to evolution for clues. Evolution has of course created flying creatures from flightless ones several times. However, most of these processes are thought to have been slow, progressing through long periods of aeronautical semi-competence that far exceed that of contemporary pigs. Moreover, almost all flying species share with birds most of the seven differences from pigs that you list. However, after much research I have identified a remarkable exception to this pattern. Amazing though it may seem, the little-known species Homo sapiens progressed, about a century ago, from a state of absolute flightlessness (unless we count floating, which you clearly do not count) to one of quite considerable competence at flying, and they did so over a period of only a few years. I am therefore inclined to look to the methods H. sapiens have adopted, as a starting-point for freeing our porcine friends from their current misery.

This approach seems most promising. The technique employed by H. sapiens involves no alterations to their anatomy or genetics, only the use of large prostheses. These "machines" are of essentially the same design when built to carry one organism or many, so should be rather easy to adapt for porcine use despite the anatomical differences between the two species. Further, my research indicates that in recent years H. sapiens has automated nearly all the operating procedures of these machines, such that a method for the pig passenger to express its desired destination may be all that is needed to complete the design.

This, however, brings me to perhaps the greatest challenge to either my proposal or yours, namely item six in your list of reasons why pigs remain so obstinately ground-dwelling. Pigs are well known to be among the more intelligent mammalian species. It is a sad fact that some of the brightest among us are inclined to presume that everyone else is stupid, such that when someone articulates an idea that they do not consider obviously correct they tend to dismiss it -- sometimes even ridicule it -- without bothering to familiarise themselves with the details. (Do you know, I once even encountered an American who thought so highly of himself that he believed he could outdo an Englishman at sarcasm!) As I'm sure you agree (and as I duly noted in my demolition of their piece in the same issue), your so-called coauthors in EMBO Reports are conspicuous examples of this flaw. Another case would be a learned immunologist's presumption that the word "allotopic" is merely a careless mis-spelling of the immunological term "allotypic", when in fact "allotopic" can trivially be looked up in, for example, PubMed. These individuals are also prone to resist debate on such matters, perhaps out of a subconscious reluctance to risk the possibility of being proved wrong. I therefore fear that the intended beneficiaries of your efforts may, by virtue of their intelligence (and awareness of it), spurn this chance to improve their lot; they may even refuse to entertain debate on whether the curious "engineering solution" we offer them will work. After all, the term "pig-headed" was not coined for nothing.

I am confident that this can be overcome, however. The clear feasibility of adapting for porcine use a technique used to such effect by another mammalian species can only be denied for so long; media exposure of the absurdity of the nay-sayers' position will bring the public around soon enough. After all, that position ultimately consists of arguments so laughable as that H. sapiens' methods will not work because the reasons pigs might want to fly (the air-truffles you mention) are not high on the H. sapiens agenda. Such tunnel vision cannot delude people for long, however great the supposed authority of its proponent -- we all meet our match some time. In particular, your characteristic eloquence on this matter, as exemplified in your letter, will surely suffice to sway the occasional billionaire to your cause, thereby circumventing the NIH conservatism you so rightly deplore. Best of luck!

Cheers, Aubrey

It should be noted that all these folks in the gerontology community have a fine working relationship with one another. The disagreements here are over what they (and I, and everyone else should) consider to be matters of great importance - can we cure aging, how soon can we cure aging, and how plausible are the proposed paths towards a cure for aging? If you found this satirical exchange as entertaining as I did, I would hope you are motivated to take a look at the serious side of the debate within gerontology over dedicated anti-aging research and healthy life extension.

To my eyes, there is a real danger of the "slowly slowly, it's impossible" school of thought winning out for another decade or two in this field, and that would greatly lower the chances of radical life extension occuring in our lifetimes. The way to avoid this fate is for us - all of us, working together - to ensure that funding is directed to plausible strategies, research communities and infrastructure dedicated to rapid advancement towards a cure for degenerative aging. The goal is most certainly possible, but only if we dedicate resources to making it so.

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This was a very funny exchange. I think it highlights the ignorance of supposedly objective scientists and also illustrates their institutionalised thinking. Richard Miller thinks that flying/aging will always be self directed by biology whereas Aubrey thinks it is something that can be transcended by human intelligence i.e. engineering.

Posted by: Glen at November 22nd, 2012 3:33 AM
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