Aubrey de Grey at BIL: Successful Heresy

Ethan Zuckerman was blogging biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey's presentation at the BIL conference. Scroll down in his post for that section:

Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey has spoken at TED previously, and presented this year at TED University, a preconference event that focuses on short, practical talks. He gives this talk, called “Not the TED Commandments, or How to Be a Successful Heretic” to the BIL stage. de Grey is a phenomenally successful heretic - he’s the [cofounder of the Methuselah Foundation], and he’s been systematically challenging thinking about life extension for the past dozen years.

The set of thoughts on successful organized heresy - otherwise known as bringing about radical, lasting change in a community - is a good insight into the DNA of the Methuselah Foundation. The Foundation might be viewed as an organized heresy in the making that aims to reform gerontology into a goal-oriented community working to repair aging. It's also good advice for anyone seeking to build an organization around a vision that manages to Get Stuff Done.

1. Be right (diligence before oratory). He quotes Sean Carroll: "Being a heretic is hard work". It’s not enough to disagree with mainstream thinking - you actually have to be correct. "Galileo was a heretic, but understood the reigning orthodoxy at the time better than anyone else." Very few people work that hard: "Many casual heretics can’t be bothered."


3. Be a doer (as well as a talker). One reason to take de Grey seriously is the number of people who’ve taken him seriously, pledging huge sums to support his research. (I plan to steal his methodology for Global Voices.) You have to work very hard to raise these sorts of sums… and fundraising is a form of doing, even if it doesn’t feel like it.


8. Be inspirational (and have a team that’s organizational). (Oh man, is this one true.)

9. Be selfless (remember that control is only a means to an end) - Don’t control all your work too carefully - you make progress by reliquishing control to other people to take your idea forward.

Those last two above are particularly important in the history of the Methuselah Foundation and the development of now ongoing Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence research. They quite accurately encapsulate how to be successful as the point of the spear, the tip of a change process that, in the end, will lead to a growing, self-sustaining community with its own vision and ownership of the progress made.


I have been following Aubrey de Grey for many years and support him and others in their views on anti-aging. But Aubrey seems much like the recent 21st Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure (Breast Cancer Research Fund Raiser). The 21st year to race for a cure? I think maybe a Sleep for a Cure may be a more appropriate name for this race. 21 years and all that money and still no cure.
Aubrey very early on said that in anti-aging research , of the 7 areas of research, you go for the low hanging fruit first for the beginning of finding solutions to cure aging.
Wendy's Dave Thomas said it best "Where's the beef?"
To my knowledge Aubrey has still not produced square one.
Very disappointing to me.

Posted by: dlbnext at September 26th, 2014 8:33 AM

Hi dlbnext,

So, a couple of things. First, I think you have missed something about Dr. de Grey's extensive on-the-record statements about the timescales we're looking at. From the very beginning of his work on SENS, Dr. de Grey held out a 50/50 chance that, with adequate funding, we could achieve robust human rejuvenation within 25 years. This is an inspiring vision of what we could achieve if we collectively rolled up our sleeves and really funded the science and made the regulatory reforms required to deliver a radically ambitious progress in merely a generation or so, and one of the chief complaints of the remaining critics that it is unrealistically optimistic. So objecting that we've not yet been able to achieve an ambitious, long-term goal in five to eight years (which is as long as we've been at this as an active research organization) is on its face not reasonable. To quote Churchill in a similar situation:

we are in action at many points — in Norway and in Holland — and we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean. That the air battle is continuous, and that many preparations have to be made here at home.

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months [sic; substitute, "decades"] of struggle and of suffering.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.

Second: I must say that despite minimal funding (far less than will be required to succeed in three decades), we have really made quite remarkable progress in those few short years. No cures for age-related diseases or debilities, of course, but no one in pharma would expect to start from zero and have something in medical use in five years, even if one had GSK's resources behind one. You can read an earlier report on some select progress here, and for an update the most recent SENS Research Foundation Research Report here. Our Annual Report for this last year is available in print but not yet for download, and we've not yet completed a more recent Research Report, but I can assure you that we have made substantial progress (such as this recent SENS Research Foundation-funded research on catalytic antibodies that cleave transthyretin amyloid).

I certainly share your frustration with the slow pace of progress. If you want to help the work go faster, there's plenty you can do to help advance rejuvenation research. But do understand that the question is not whether we'll have new therapies in the next five years, but whether we will have them in the next twenty-five, or the next fifty, or the next hundred — or at all. Whether they will come for us, or our children, or our great-grandchildren, or whether humanity will continue to suffer the slow and terrible decline into disease, dementia, debility, and death, generation upon generation, world without end. That's going to be determined in part by the science itself, and to a much greater degree by what each of us does to make it go faster.

Posted by: Michael at September 27th, 2014 1:33 PM
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