Monday, December 6, 2010

Joan Bakewell's false choice on life extension

You might remember the post I wrote back in September after sending an email to Dr Aubrey de Grey, the controversial theoretician who claims there is a 50/50 chance that we will, within 25 years, achieve "longevity escape velocity", meaning that people who are alive and in a reasonably robust state at that point would be able to live on for centuries. I had queried the credibility of this 25-year timescale on the basis that it seemingly hadn't moved forward an inch in the seven years since it was first mentioned, and de Grey's research assistant Michael Rae wrote back to confirm that it was predicated on the assumption that there would be sufficient funding for research. This seemed to me a hopeless dream given the huge sums apparently needed, and it reinforced my suspicion that the chances of meeting the target date in the real world were more like zero than 50/50. Dr de Grey later left a comment here explaining that the position was essentially somewhere in between the two extremes, and that in his view significant progress had indeed been made in the last seven years - but roughly equivalent to the progress that would have been achieved over two years had full funding been available.

This whole field of research burst back into public view a few days ago with dramatic reports of the aging process being "reversed" in mice - claims that, ironically, de Grey and many others regard as being wildly overblown. But one upshot is that it's sparked off a flurry of debate about the potential consequences of the research, and one of the ten most-read articles on the BBC news website at the moment is a piece by Joan Bakewell suggesting that greater longevity may not be desirable. It's a superficially thoughtful commentary, but in truth it just runs through a series of standard knee-jerk reactions, most of which don't stand up to much scrutiny.

Firstly, there is the implicit assumption that any extra years of life are bound to be of extremely low quality, due to physical and mental frailty. But one thing that actually unites almost all scientists in this area - from the mainstream ones like S Jay Olshansky who seek to slow the aging process by a few years, to the "heretics" like de Grey who seek to conquer it entirely - is that they don't think an increased lifespan would be beneficial unless "healthspan" is boosted to an equivalent (or more likely greater) degree. There's always the danger of unintended consequences, of course, but there's no reason to fear the stated goal of the research.

Bakewell also raises the problem of overpopulation. This is, in principle, a fair objection, but when you stop to think about it, it also applies to just about every other medical advance in history. The eradication of smallpox boosted average human lifespan, and thus left us with a greater global population than we would otherwise have had - does that mean it was intrinsically undesirable? The principal objective of aging research is to head off the horrific diseases of old age, and therefore precisely the same cost/benefit analysis should be applied to it as to any other medical research - meaning, surely, that the potential benefits must be given precedence in the first instance.

Finally, there's the general sense in Bakewell's article that "a fuller life is better than a longer one". This is a superficially attractive philosophy, but once again, it looks somewhat different if you just tweak the implicit parameters a little. What if the "fuller life" lasted a mere twenty years, and the "longer life" lasted eighty? Would anyone seriously suggest that the fullness of the twenty years entirely makes up for the tragedy of the lost sixty years? Some might, but it would be a far tougher case to make, simply because of our perceptions of what a 'natural' lifespan is. And yet the span we fetishise as being optimal is just a random quirk of the stage of evolution we happen to be at - some species live much shorter lives than we do, other species much longer. If we do absolutely nothing, maximum human lifespan is likely to carry on gradually increasing of its own accord (global catastrophes permitting) - are we supposed to believe that process will be an 'unnatural' one, leading to a 'sub-optimal' outcome?

Mind you, if you're looking for a really over-the-top example of knee-jerk reactions, Bakewell is no match for this hysterical profile of the mild-mannered Dr Cynthia Kenyon at -

"We sincerely hope that anything close to what Kenyon is looking for is ever
(sic) found. Distinguished professor or not, this is an extremely myopic view of life on earth — to forget about those who already live an eternal life, albeit in damnation, to extend the lives of the rich who are able to afford such pseudo-science.

We hope that one day Kenyon and others with similar quests will see the futility in their actions. If they truly want to make a contribution to life on earth, then they should find a way to increase equality rather than searching for things that will undoubtedly increase inequality.

We will all be in a very troublesome situation if life is extended beyond what it already is."

Which begs the obvious question - if this really is 'futile pseudoscience' with no chance of succeeding, why the need to fret about such purely hypothetical horrors? It seems they doth protest a little too much. In any case, it's a transparently bogus argument to suggest that aging research is "at the expense" of improving the health of the world's most disadvantaged - they might as well say that funding for the arts or for astronomy is self-indulgent nonsense that is costing lives in Africa. It is actually possible - or at least it ought to be - to do more than one good thing at a time. Moreover, without a crystal ball, who can actually tell whether any anti-aging therapies that come along will be so prohibitively expensive that they will only be available to a wealthy elite? And even if that's the case for a transitional period, doesn't the same problem apply to many life-saving drugs at present? The idea that those drugs should never have been invented in the first place in case they temporarily increased inequality seems utterly risible.

All the same,'s display of doublethink neatly brings me full circle - my own question mark is not about the desirability of the goal, but rather its feasibility in anything close to the foreseeable future. Only time will tell.


  1. Great article James. I couldn't agree more with everything you said. I really hope medical science figures this one out soon, if not in time for us then at least in time for our kids.

    What kind of sick death cult do these people at mindfully belong to? Dying from the diseases of aging is not fun. It is a slow and painful way to die. Would they want us to pass by someone bleeding to death in a car accident without calling for help since we wouldn't want that person to contribute to overpopulation? What if that person were dying of Alzheimer's? What if that person was a family member of one of the lovely people over at "mindfully"? If I had the cure, would they want me to refuse to give it to them? Or would they be the first ones knocking at researchers doors when their own lives are in danger

    Marco Da Silva

  2. Thanks for your comment, Marco. To answer your question directly, I don't think the likes of Joan Bakewell belong to a "death cult" - it's more a failure of imagination about what may be possible in future (although how far in the future that will be, none of us can tell). She clearly fears that increased longevity would inevitably lead to the period of frailty and isolation that many people suffer in their old age being worsened and massively extended. Nobody in their right mind would want that, least of all the scientists who are working in this field.

    I must admit, though, that on one narrow point I wholeheartedly agree with Bakewell - I think cryonics is a rather desperate dead end, or at the very least, a gamble with very unattractive odds.

  3. As someone who like you, as a supporter of the SNP, occasionally offers positive comments on the Political Betting website, I was pleased to hear that you also share my view about the desirability of anti-ageing efforts.

    I also share your scepticism about the rapidity with which anti-ageing may advance-although the sooner the better, of course.

    However, given the normal alternatives, burial or cremation, I find it difficult to agree with your view that cryonics is "... gamble with unattractive odds" as the odds seem to be better than the zero indubitably applicable to burial and cremation.

    I copy below an e mail I sent at the weekend to "extroBrittania" which shows that, even in the furtherance (albeit presumably failed) of returning to life, at least one Scot may have been in the forefront :-)

    "Isn't Joan Bakewell profoundly predictable in her utterances?-what a pity that she seems generally recognised as an advocate
    for the old-perhaps another sad case of with enemies like these.......

    It is often said that no-one on their deathbed ever wishes that they had spent more time at the office.
    I venture to suggest that few on their deathbed would reject a return to youth and a continuance of life.

    I wonder if there is indeed a death meme which has been transmitted genetically down the millennia because it historically
    helped people to be productive in life. A belief in religion and the inevitability of death followed by reward for the "just"
    may have made it possible for people to accept death.

    I am a blood relative of John Paul (Jones), famous as a US War of Independence hero, and often referred to as the "Father of the American Navy".
    I am also a member of the Cryonics Institute, and intend to have my body cryonically preserved on death. I had decided this before knowing these
    points about John Paul Jones:

    * He was buried in a lead coffin immersed in alcohol (1792 in Paris)

    * He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and they met regularly in Paris.

    * Franklin talked of immersion in alcohol etc as a possible way of preserving life, and it seems likely
    that this would have been discussed at evening dinners with Franklin that Jones attended.

    * John Paul Jones was unusual for his time (or even now in the USA) in that, even though a prolific writer, he hardly
    ever referred to God (I know there is no necessary conflict between religion and cryonics but the religious are the least likely to be involved).

    * Although comment is made that Jones' body was preserved in case the USA wanted him back, the fact that the action was taken by
    a Frenchman and not the USA ambassador suggests to me an act of personal friendship rather than an act of state.

    When one considers how few people (as yet) give any consideration at all to cryonics, I do wonder if my own intent is at least partly
    driven by sharing genes with Jones whose own attempt (if it were such) has presumably failed, after he was disinterred in Paris more than
    100 years after his burial (his body substantially preserved), and shipped off from Paris to the USA where his remains now rest at the US Naval Academy
    at Annapolis in a tomb modelled on that of Napoleon.

    Given JPJ's visionary view on naval matters and on the future of the USA, I hope that he may have been on the right lines concerning
    the preservation of his body, even if sadly, I must conclude that he will not return to life because of the Paris disinterment.


    Additionally, perhaps I can persuade you to row back from your position of "wholeheartedly" agreeing with Bakewell about cryonics by pointing out that a group of scientists hold the following view about cryonics:

    Scientists' Open Letter on Cryonics:



    Scientists Open Letter on Cryonics

    To whom it may concern,

    Cryonics is a legitimate science-based endeavor that seeks to preserve human beings, especially the human brain, by the best technology available. Future technologies for resuscitation can be envisioned that involve molecular repair by nanomedicine, highly advanced computation, detailed control of cell growth, and tissue regeneration.

    With a view toward these developments, there is a credible possibility that cryonics performed under the best conditions achievable today can preserve sufficient neurological information to permit eventual restoration of a person to full health.

    The rights of people who choose cryonics are important, and should be respected.

    Sincerely (61 Signatories)

    Signatories encompass all disciplines relevant to cryonics, including Biology, Cryobiology, Neuroscience, Physical Science, Nanotechnology and Computing, Ethics and Theology. [Signature date in brackets]

    Gregory Benford, Ph.D.
    (Physics, UC San Diego) Professor of Physics; University of California; Irvine, CA [3/24/04]
    Alaxander Bolonkin, Ph.D.
    (Leningrad Politechnic University) Professor, Moscow Aviation Institute; Senior Research Associate NASA Dryden Flight Research Center; Lecturer, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, NJ [3/24/04]
    Nick Bostrom, Ph.D.
    Research Fellow; University of Oxford; Oxford, United Kingdom [3/25/04]
    Kevin Q. Brown, Ph.D.
    (Computer Science, Carnegie-Mellon) Member of Technical Staff; Lucent Bell Laboratories (retired); Stanhope, NJ [3/23/04]
    Professor Manfred Clynes, Ph.D.
    Lombardi Cancer Center; Department of Oncology and Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Georgetown University; Washington, DC [3/28/04]
    L. Stephen Coles, M.D., PhD
    (RPI, Columbia, Carnegie Mellon University) Director, Supercentenarian Research Foundation Inglewood, California [10/7/06]
    Daniel Crevier, Ph.D.
    (MIT) President, Ophthalmos Systems Inc., Longueuil, Qc, Canada; Professor of Electrical Engineering (ret.), McGill University & École de Technologie Supérieure, Montreal, Canada. [4/7/05]
    Antonei B. Csoka, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Pittsburgh Development Center, Magee-Womens Research Institute [9/14/05]
    Aubrey D.N.J. de Grey, Ph.D.
    Research Associate; University of Cambridge;Cambridge, United Kingdom [3/19/04]
    Wesley M. Du Charme, Ph.D.
    (Experimental Psychology, University of Michigan) author of Becoming Immortal, Rathdrum, Idaho [11/23/05]
    João Pedro de Magalhães, Ph.D.
    University of Namur; Namur, Belgium [3/22/04]
    Thomas Donaldson, Ph.D.
    Editor, Periastron; Founder, Institute for Neural Cryobiology; Canberra, Australia [3/22/04]
    Christopher J. Dougherty, Ph.D.
    Chief Scientist; Suspended Animation Inc; Boca Raton, FL [3/19/04]
    K. Eric Drexler, Ph.D.
    Chairman of Foresight Institute; Palo Alto, CA [3/19/04]
    Robert A. Freitas Jr., J.D.
    Author, Nanomedicine Vols. I & II; Research Fellow, Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, Palo Alto, CA [3/27/04]
    Mark Galecki, Ph.D.
    (Mathematics, Univ of Tennessee), M.S. (Computer Science, Rutgers Univ), Senior System Software Engineer, SBS Technologies [11/23/05]
    D. B. Ghare, Ph.D.
    Principal Research Scientist, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India [5/24/04]
    Ben Goertzel, Ph.D.
    (Mathematics, Temple) Chief Scientific Officer, Biomind LLC; Columbia, MD [3/19/04]
    Peter Gouras, M.D.
    Professor of Ophthalmology, Columbia University; New York City, NY [3/19/04]
    Amara L. Graps, Ph.D.
    Researcher, Astrophysics; Adjunct Professor of Astronomy; Institute of Physics of the Interplanetary Space; American University of Rome (Italy) [3/22/04]

  5. Hi Tom, thanks for your comments, and I take on board what you say. I think what I meant by "gamble" was a couple of things - firstly that it's a hell of a financial investment for something that may well not work, and secondly there's no way of knowing what kind of existence you'll be waking up to. It may be a deeply unpleasant one, and I think that does constitute a severe element of risk.

  6. Thanks for your response, James.

    As you may well know most people fund their arrangements by life insurance which is relatively cheap for those younger and in good health.

    The Cryonics Institute basic cost can be as low as US$28,000 (not exactly a king's ransom), although there are also significant transport etc. costs for UK citizens to the USA.

    As for the world one wakes up to, I guess I am an example of an extreme optimist-perhaps that is why I support the SNP :-)