Two recent posts over at Longevity Science, Leonid Gavrilov's blog, are worthy of attention. Gavrilov is one of the scientists in the husband and wife team behind the very useful reliability theory of aging and longevity, you might recall, and maintains a website on his work in addition to the blog. In any case, a little background first: an at times acrimonious discussion on Aubrey de Grey's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) - and issues relating to radical life extension - has been taking place on the Gerontology Research Group mailing list over the past week or so, spurred by publicity for a recent book that included discussion of SENS. The practicing life scientists on the list span the gamut from support to guarded interest to outright rejection of SENS as a strategy to move forward towards healthy life extension, so it sometimes makes for fireworks.
Gavrilov posted his opinion - which many of you will know already from his previous public comments - at Longevity Science, but I think the post is made much more interesting for the comments from researchers Stephen Spindler and Ruth Itzhaki:
My personal attitude to the SENS scientific initiative could be best characterized with a quote by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950):
"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."
There is quite a lot of superheated rhetoric being posted about SENS. SENS is undeniably highly optimistic and may or may not be realistic. Many think it too optimistic, and worry that it will hurt the science of gerontology.
But, Aubrey has already raised more than one million dollars for gerontological research with his optimism. This money might never have been available if he had not started SENS. He has captured the imagination of some people. Pessimism and criticism (even if you think it is realism) rarely raises money, captures the imagination of successful people, or accomplishes much which is positive.
Heresies should be encouraged, even if they merely make those doing more conventional work – the vast majority in most fields - think more broadly. It’s astonishing how reluctant many researchers are even to contemplate innovative ideas, especially if the person is an outsider from a different field, unless the ideas directly bolster their own work. Have they forgotten how often such creative people are proved correct, years after their ideas have been derided or ignored, and have they forgotten Crick, and Perutz – two amongst the many outsiders - physicists - who trod indelicately, but oh so fruitfully, in the field that subsequently developed as molecular biology? Aubrey might not be proved right or wrong until well after we’re all dead, but it’s excellent that he has brought a breath of fresh air (as well as funding), into ageing research.
The second of Gavrilov's posts is an educational look at the mindset of public with regard to healthy life extension through the filter of the books they buy. If you want to see what someone really things - as opposed to what they say - watch where they direct their money. As he notes, this is a somewhat disturbing list of best-selling books on aging and longevity:
Looking on this list you may find some common features of these books:
1. Promise for human dreams to become "younger next year" or even "ageless."
2. These dreams are achievable for a low price, sometimes as low as just $2.94
3. From a scientific point of view the concepts of becoming "younger next year" or even "ageless" represent propagation of a sheer nonsense, unless you take them metaphorically.
4. Where are the great minds making the cutting-edge research on anti-aging & longevity studies? Why are they not in this list of authors?
This leads to a suggestion:
If we wish to prevent propagation of nonsense in public minds, we should encourage good scientists who are involved in legitimate anti-aging & longevity studies to write popular books for a general public.
People are interesting creatures. Most will loudly declaim against any desire to live indefinitely in good health, with any number of common "justifications," but if you ask them at any point whether they want to die now or live longer in good health, they'll always choose to live longer. Then we have this matter of the books, and the huge "anti-aging" industry - people voting their hopes for longer healthy lifes, more youth, with their wallets, no matter what they might say about accepting aging and death. But at the same time as blinding themselves to common sense and science, at the same time as chasing any old nonsense that falsely promises an immediate result, the majority of people reject out of hand serious scientific attempts to achieve far better results.
It's a real Gordian knot, the present bundle of attitudes to aging, youth, longevity and death that twists its way through our culture. No-one has brought a suitable sword to the party yet, but we can hope that the first radical life extension in animals like mice will cut through the nonsense and help people to see where their support should be placed.