Willful Ignorance Amidst Progress and Plenty

There's a foolish fellow who thinks science is basically over and done with, or at least fairly close to that point, and has been parlaying this silliness into a career of sorts. He has an article in a recent Discover. It's entertainment, I suppose, only he'd rather like you to take his nonsense seriously:

Argument: We are on the verge of a breakthrough in applied biology that will allow people to live essentially forever. The potential applications of biology are certainly more exciting these days than those of physics. The completion of the Human Genome Project and recent advances in cloning, stem cells, and other fields have emboldened some scientists to predict that we will soon conquer not only disease but aging itself. "The first person to live to 1,000 may have been born by 1945," declares computer scientist-turned-gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, a leader in the immortality movement (who was born in 1963).

Many of de Grey's colleagues beg to differ, however. His view "commands no respect at all within the informed scientific community," 28 senescence researchers declared in a 2005 journal article. Indeed, evolutionary biologists warn that immortality may be impossible to achieve because natural selection designed us to live only long enough to reproduce and raise our children. As a result, senescence does not result from any single cause or even a suite of causes; it is woven inextricably into the fabric of our bodies. The track record of two fields of medical research - gene therapy and the war on cancer - should also give the immortalists pause.

This is pretty sloppy science journalism, and makes no sense at all from a scientific point of view. Is the end result of natural selection naturally immune to human intervention? I don't think you have to look too far at all to be able to pitch that idea out with the trash. Does making the treatment of aging sound hard have anything to do with how hard it actually is, or how much scientists know about how to go about it, or how much work has already been accomplished, or how widespread present work is? Of course not; it's just the foolishness of one journalist with - it seems - little knowledge of the field he is discussing.

As I understand the principle thrust of his argument, he is claiming that the slow rate of past progress towards specific goals of manipulating human biochemistry in manner X (rearranging the expression of your genes reliably and safely) make it unlikely we will ever be able to manipulate human biochemistry in manner Y (repairing the known cellular damage that lies at the root of aging). Amongst many problems with this argument is that manner Y - and manner X for that matter - are both perfectly compatible with the laws of physics as we know them. To deny the possibility of radical life extension by means of ongoing damage repair - via technologies presently under early investigation and development in laboratories around the world - is to deny physics. There is no middle ground: either you accept modern physics and all its consequences with regard to the plausibility of deliberately arranging atoms and molecules by design, or you don't.

The fellow's point of view with regard to ongoing work in biotechnology and aging research is slipshod and distant from the action. I have to assume that the rest of his work on other fields - which in many cases I am unqualified to judge - are just as shallow, slippery and ultimately vapid. I leave it as an exercise for the audience to pick at the errors; if entertainer this fellow is to be, you may as well get your money's worth.

The world is full of comedians, fools and dangerous people willing to stand up and tell us that black is white - looking for laughs, other fools, or a means to an end. Don't fall for it.

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I'm not sure the journalist was trying to deny the laws of physics, or that people like de Grey will ever develop life extension therapies. Perhaps, instead, he was saying that de Grey is too optimistic---as many intelligent people suspect. I think the evolutionary theory of aging provides a *good* argument for thinking that developing life extension therapies will be *very* hard and take a *long* time. Of course, "long" is relative. The evolutionary theory also suggests why CR, and CR mimetics, would have provided such an elegant solution to the problem: evolution would have already have done all of the work for us. Unfortunately, for other evolutionary reasons (which de Grey himself notes), one should maintain some skepticism about the future promise of CR and CR mimetics to extend lifespan beyond 2 or 3 years.

Posted by: Kip Werking at September 25th, 2006 11:02 PM

Perhaps the reporter should take a trip to South Korea, where the government has made anti-aging a major research priority?


Posted by: observer at September 26th, 2006 10:47 AM

John Horgan is wrong and illogical when he dismisses
the possibilities of life extension and
artificial intelligence. The body and brain are
machines and will be mastered.

But it is also wrong and illogical to dismiss
his idea that science will end in the forseeable
future. After all, no new types of matter or force of any practical value have been discovered in physics for over 50 years, and it seems very likely that atoms and electromagnetism are the only engineering toolkit we will ever have. This means no faster than light travel,
miraculous energy sources, etc.

To believe
that indefinite scientific progress is
inevitable, as Kurzweil does,
is a form of pre-Copernican thinking,
the belief that the universe exists to entertain
us. I have written a book on this and other topics, unpublished as of yet; if anyone
would like to read it please email me.

Posted by: Will Nelson at September 26th, 2006 11:38 AM

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