Changing the Mythology: Thoughts on Sonia Arrison's "100 Plus"

The latest book to emerge from the longevity advocacy community is entitled "100 Plus: How the Coming age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith", and is penned by Sonia Arrison, whom you might have heard of. The foreword is by Peter Thiel, whose name you should certainly know by now - you might recall his $3.5 million funding of the SENS Foundation's program of rejuvenation biotechnology, back when it was a branch of the Methuselah Foundation. Thiel makes a point in the opening pages, and it's one to keep in mind when reading the rest of the book:

Unlike the other animals, we have knowledge of death. The origins of language, of culture, and of religion can perhaps all be traced to that point in the distant past when our ancestors first acquird this terrible knowlege and needed to tell themselves stories to make sense of life and death. Every myth on this planet is an untrue story that tells people that the purpose of life is death. Nationalistic myths tell us that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country, ideological myths tell us that progress requires violence and that one must break some eggs to make an omelet, and religious myths tell us to worship the old, the ancient, and the spirits of the dead.

The crisis of the modern world is the crisis of mythology. We no longer believe in the old stories about life and death, but we also cannot go back to a time when we were not yet human and did not know about death. We cannot go back in time [to the innocent ignorance of youth] and we would prefer not to be turned [into animals]. As the same time we cannot simply deal with death as a "fact of life." What we desperately need is a new story - a true story - to help make sense of the world in which we find ourselves.

It is important to understand that we as a species tend towards building our mythology, recapitulating it in technology just as soon as we are able - though nowadays people are more likely to talk of "vision" and "cultural aspirations" than to tie present research and development to the legacy of stories and desires that emerged from the deep past. Unlike Thiel, I don't think that all of the old tales are bad for being lies. In some, humanity lives in a world in which objects think and speak, aging can be banished, wounds healed with a touch, and spirits and gods watch over all - and with progress in artificial intelligence and biotechnology most of that will come to pass. There are good reasons why certain forms of story survive the millennia: a portion of human nature is hard-wired into our biology, and thus there is a consistency in myths. They attract us and steer us just as much as we steer them, and thus for so long as there are at least a few people who prefer to build a tower rather than talk of building a tower, we will wind up building our mythology. Thiel is, however, right about the prevalence of tales that celebrate death and aging when compared with those that celebrate life and longevity - and that is a scale crying out for a rebalancing.

As a sidebar to that line of thinking, I noticed a review of 100 Plus from researcher Jay Olshansky, who appears to more or less get the point I make above, at least in the modern terms of "vision," but at the same time rejects the presentation as too enthusiastic. To understand why this is so, one has to first grasp the nature of the rift in the research community: between those who see the only path ahead as slowing aging though changes to metabolism, versus those who would leave metabolism unaltered and focus instead on reversing the damage and change that differentiates the old person from the young person. It is hard to argue against the view that the research community should in principle be able to build a better, longer-lived human through metabolic changes, as handful of other species of mammal are far superior to humans in one way or another. Take the cancer resistance and longevity of whales, or the apparent cancer immunity enjoyed by the naked mole rat, for example. But it is a long way indeed from where we stand today to the advent of an engineered human who can live longer, or the means of applying the same changes to a version 1.0 human. That is the span of a lifetime or more - a project far beyond the scope of anything our species has yet attempted, of a complexity that is hard for most people to envisage. Today we can barely tweak a single gene safely, let along reengineer the entirety of the fantastic complexity of thousands of genes and feedback loops that run the day to day operation of our bodies.

Thus the metabolic engineers tell us that the research community is not going to make great progress within our lifetimes on their path, and I believe they are right. It's a long road.

Fortunately, we have an alternative. The path of reversing and repairing damage within the present human metabolism is far more promising than metabolic alteration: look at the work of the SENS Foundation, for example. The SENS planners can realistically suggest that a billion dollars and ten to twenty years would give the research community a good shot at robust rejuvenation in old mice. From there it would be a matter of the standard process of moving victory in the laboratory to the clinic: another decade or two, and a good deal more than a billion dollars. But by that point, there will be a lot of people willing to pay. The repair-based strategy for tackling aging is still is a minority voice in the aging research community, but it does offer the vision of significant progress within our lifetimes - and that makes the old guard of the research community unhappy. Up until this point the only people singing that tune were the frauds and the marketeers of the "anti-aging" marketplace - the potion sellers with deep pockets, loud voices, and little regard for science. A quiet little war has been fought between researchers and "anti-aging" marketing over the past few decades, waged over perceptions of legitimacy and the resulting effects on the bottom line at the cash register and the research funding institution. The old habits of the battle seem hard to let go for some folk: they cannot see vision and enthusiasm in the public eye without also seeing a threat, and that is a pity.

But I digress. The point of books, this blog, and sundry other efforts focused on advocacy and education for engineering greater human longevity is "vision," "cultural aspiration," or whatever you want to call it. It is to raise up from the past the better myths, the celebrations of life and the defeat of death, or to inculcate new myths where the old are unsuitable or gone without trace. If a myth (a "vision") catches and spreads, then it will in due course be built. There are myths to celebrate agelessness, but there are many more that celebrate death - and anyone who has spent time trying to talk to be people about extending healthy life will have seen that we are nothing if not a society that celebrates death:

This is an age of progress and biotechnology. Yet we folk who might be the first ageless humans stand atop a bone mountain. Its slopes are the stories of the dead, created, told, and appreciated by people who knew their own mortality. It is an enormous, pervasive heritage, forged by an army of billions, and no part of our culture or our endeavors is left untouched by it. This is one part of the hurdle we must overcome as we strive to convince people that a near future of rejuvenation biotechnology is plausible, possible, and desirable.

Burying the bone mountain is a big job, but that's why we write.

This post is, allegedly, a book review - or at least what passes for such here at Fight Aging! - so I should probably say something more on the topic of what you'll find inside 100 Plus. To my eyes, the book is essentially a fast overview of the last ten years of science, debate, important subjects, and noteworthy people in the aging research and longevity advocacy communities. A survey of the historical and mythological roots of present day attitudes serves as a springboard into a fast look at some of the important lines of medical research and development - SENS, tissue engineering, longevity genes, and so forth. Then it's off to observe the squawking of Malthusians and their resource-based objections to engineering greater human longevity, followed by a side-trip into philosophical discussions of longevity, and then a soujourn in the realm of economics to talk seriously about how the length of life shapes society. The book is rounded out by a glance at some of the present cast of vocal movers and shakers in the longevity advocacy and research communities: Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation, David Gobel of the Methuselah Foundation, Peter Thiel, Ray Kurzweil, and a range of others in that same broad network - people willing to stand up, set forth, and make efforts to do something about aging.

100 Plus is, I think, a good book to give to the average fellow in the street who would be flattened and slain by the attempt to read Aubrey de Grey and Michael Rae's Ending Aging. That book is where the meat is - but 100 Plus is a Cliff's Notes for the current state and direction of longevity science and the advocacy community supporting it. That is a useful thing: a person reading 100 Plus will wind up in roughly the same place as a casual reader of the high points of Fight Aging!.

As I've pointed out in the past, the ideas that support engineered longevity as a concept - its desirability and plausiblity - are many, complicated, and not widely appreciated. Yet the same was once true of the world wide web and the internet itself, and everyone gets the picture now. Books like 100 Plus are necessary and needed, as they are a part of the process by which society moves from finding engineered longevity a hard sell to it being obvious, accepted, and well supported. Not everyone can sit through Ending Aging, or wade through a decade of Fight Aging! posts to assemble the whole picture. There must be summaries and explanations and high level views, gentle introductions to the current state of play. That is how the community grows and spreads its ideas: books like 100 Plus are seeds, from which great things may later flower.

When you read 100 Plus, bear in mind what I said at the top of this post about myths, and how that relates to both the role of this book and the far broader role of the longevity advocacy community as a whole. We make the stories and we build the future: neither tales nor progress just happen in and of themselves. But one person cannot do much on their own - many hands make light work, and a great part of this grand process of construction lies in persuading other people to join in and see things your way.


Books like this one are greatly needed nowadays. People are simply not aware how advanced we are today, because you don't hear about the work that is being done in the lab in your daily news. When it comes to aging, science & technology is, or will be there, but what's lacking is adequate interest and funding.
People must know that understanding metabolism is not needed to take care of aging.
Although I'm happy that each day we get to know more about our metabolism I'm, unfortunately, quite confident that we won't understand it well enough to be able to provide effective therapies for aging in our lifetime. But life extension can be engineered and there's more than one way to achieve it.
Keep up the good work, Reason !

Posted by: Nick at August 31st, 2011 10:56 AM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.