As Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Jonathan Weiner details in his new book Long For This World: The Strange Science of Immortality, dreams of eternal life on this side of the great divide have alternately buoyed and haunted the human spirit from Gilgamesh through Faust on to today’s wildest explorations on the cutting edges of gerontology.
Weiner’s book takes an alternately serious and zany survey of the science and ethics behind longevity/immortality research and thought (a topic Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey has long followed as well). Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Weiner about his findings by phone in August.
Reason: Why did you choose longevity research as a book topic?
Jonathan Weiner: When I was a young writer starting out I interviewed an elderly biologist named Maria Rudzinska on this quest [for extreme longevity]. At that time, back in the early 1980s, it was a forlorn and lonesome quest, and clearly aging was moving faster then our understanding of it. The field was not moving very quickly. But I followed it for years and decided that now was a good time to revisit the subject, particularly since aging has a little bit of a different meaning for me 30 years later—I am now 56.
Reason: You chose the very controversial and eccentric Aubrey de Grey as a narrative spine for your story. As you write in your book, many in the field of gerontology research consider his belief that effective immortality is within our grasp to be beyond the pale. Why did you pick him as your lead character?
Weiner: I’d been looking for a good main character so to speak for 10 years or more and Aubrey strikes me as a very interesting hybrid of the old and the new. He is in some ways an immortal character himself, the kind of immortality guru who has arisen in every generation. Yet in other ways he is quite contemporary. He is very much in the science, very active in the field, knows everyone and everyone knows him. He’s published with many leading gerontologists. You can’t dismiss him as just a crank. You have to take at least some of what he says seriously.
Reason: One of the interesting things about de Grey is his eccentric appearance and demeanor—the huge hanging beard, the messianic promises of a million year lifespan. Do you think the studied eccentricity is intentional?
Weiner: He is very canny about his appearance. He said to me once that “it suits my purposes to look unusual.” I think it does. He is able to command a certain following among a surprising array of subcultures, none of which I know very well. I’ve gone to public lectures in which he had a cheering section of young Goths. He is also very popular among transhumanists. Once he stopped by our house in London when my family was staying there for the summer. He told us he had just received the first H.G. Wells award, from the World Transhumanist Association.
He has great appeal among the calorie restriction crowd, the cryonics crowd. Even among more orthodox scientists, eccentricities like Aubrey’s raise only one eyebrow. They are not disqualifying markers. Eccentricities are tolerated among very smart people, and everyone agrees Aubrey is very smart.
Reason: How many professionals in the gerontology field follow special diets or regimens for increased lifespan?
Weiner: It’s a real range among scientists. I ran into people in labs who are secretly following ancient Chinese calorie restriction regimens and have gurus and don’t want their names to be mentioned. They tell me this on deep background. At the same time, some of the leading people involved in the resveratrol studies, which are about as close as we are right now to anti-aging drugs, don’t take resveratrol and swear by the old standbys of moderation, exercise, even flossing.
Reason: Is calorie restriction to slow aging totally confirmed?
Weiner: No question about it in other animals, but it’s still extrapolating with calorie restriction on humans. Even if it does work for us, it may give us only very small benefits. Nobody knows yet. It is almost certainly an important clue for us, but whether it works as well for us in and of itself as it works for worms or flies we just don’t know for sure.
Reason: What are the major theories for how and why we age ourselves to death?
Weiner: One leading theory is that mutations build up in our cell nuclei and gradually our cells function less and less well and that’s what brings us down. That theory has been around a while but it’s hard to prove. Gerontologist and cancer specialist at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, Jan Vijg, he is probably the most ardent proponent of that theory today and has been trying to establish it for decades now, and people have a great deal of respect for him and his work but think it will be very tough to prove. You can call that the “error catastrophe” theory of aging.
Another leading theory is the “garbage catastrophe” theory. Byproducts of metabolism build up in and around the cells, and as they grow older cells get worse and worse at housekeeping, cleaning up after themselves, and finally it’s the gunk in the works that brings us down. Aubrey is a proponent of the garbage catastrophe and most of his proposals and strategies for promoting negligible senescence have to do with innovative approaches to clearing away the gunk.
Reason: The most fascinating Aubrey de Grey moment is when you discuss his theory about how to completely eliminate telomerase from our bodies to kill cancer and thus lengthen our potential lives.
Weiner: That’s his cancer cure, and even Aubrey chuckles a little self-deprecatingly when he says he came up with a way of curing cancer. His notion is that since telomerase is the enzyme that keep tips of chromosomes from unraveling and shortening as our cells divide—if you eliminate all the bodies recipes for telomerase by eliminating one gene that codes for its construction, then no cells in the body would be able to run amok and build tumors, and you would keep all our cells on a very tight leash and prevent cancer.
Unfortunately our cells do need to be able to divide. Our bodies are not as static as they look, they are constantly tearing down and building up and so all that work of regeneration and rejuvenation which we do naturally and unconsciously we’d have to do deliberately in doctors offices and in operating rooms [without telomerase] and so the proposal horrifies most gerontologists who hear it. I've sketched it for cell biologists and had them fly into rages.
Reason: You discuss some interesting reasons why aging isn’t necessarily evolutionary necessary.
Weiner: Most assume we have to age to make room for the next generation and it would be going against nature for that reason to try to extend human lifespan. In fact, most evolutionary biologists today think that evolution by natural selection has focused on making bodies that will grow vigorously to the age of reproduction and maybe a little past. And then the process of evolution by natural selection pays almost no attention to what happens to those bodies after they’ve had a chance to pass on their genes.
If that’s true, we can draw opposite conclusion in regards to our mortal bodies. Either conclude so many things go wrong that decline is pretty much random and we’ll never be able to maintain our bodies. If our aging is not designed, then the job of fighting the chaos we call aging is impossible. Or we could conclude that we really might be able to do something because we might be able to come up with solutions that evolution failed to find because evolution doesn’t [dictate what happens to us after reproductive age].
Reason: Is the field of longevity research funded as much as you think it ought to be?
Weiner: The field is really badly underfunded. Even the National Institute of Aging spends a fraction of its budget on experimental gerontology. Most of the budget of the National Institutes of Health goes for fighting recognized diseases and it’s much more acceptable politically to declare war on cancer than to declare war on aging.
So if you want to study aging and dream of slowing it down, you’ve got a tough time getting funding. That worries me more now having finished the book and having spent so much time talking with the gerontology mainstream as well as Aubrey. We may be missing really wonderful opportunities by neglecting the sciences of aging, for instance all of those late onset diseases, not just cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, atherosclerosis, all of those late onset diseases become more likely [as we age].
If we want to fight cancer, the most plausible research direction may be to understand those small invisible steps leading us there. Likewise with Alzheimer’s, diabetes, it may not be there is a different story with each. It may be there are common problems which we might be able to address and if we could, suddenly what sounds so futuristic and strange now might become as pedestrian and common sensical as preventive medicine. If we would just be doing the equivalent of taking out garbage, flossing the teeth, doing standard maintenance work for the body in our prime, that could postpone or even prevent disease entirely.
I talked with researchers at Ivy League universities recently [in the aging field] who were telling me that they’re going to have to repurpose their laboratories. One of them has gotten out of cancer research into aging research and is going back to cancer—the funding’s not there in aging. Another was studying aging for their whole career and thinking of relabeling their research as a study of inflammation [which some gerontologists think is key in aging] because they can’t get funding for his work. [Those researchers I talked to] argue many people have been drawn to the field in the last five years or so and are now beginning to leave in frustration because scientific opportunities are there and funding isn’t.
Reason Any big changes in your thoughts on the topic from start of book to finish?
Weiner: On a personal level I’m more resigned to my own mortality now then I was when I first met Aubrey de Grey. I think our conversation had just the opposite effect of what he wanted. The more I talked to Aubrey, the more I have to accept that I’m mortal and to find all the best in our mortal nature.
Reason: You don’t talk about one of the more colorful parts of the larger immortality movement—cryonics, or freezing dead bodies in hope they can be revived by future medical science. Why not?
Weiner: Cryonics was of no appeal to me personally and it doesn’t appeal to most people I talk with and most people I know. I chose not to go into it because I don’t see it being all that important for our society, and it’s not Aubrey’s main focus, it’s not gerontology’s main focus.
Most professional gerontologists don’t even want to talk about immortality. Even Aubrey tries to back away from the word although it’s part of his media appeal just as much as his beard. The gerontologist’s focus is on extending healthy life and they leave it there. But I think if you’re going to talk about extending healthy life for a thousand years or far more as Aubrey does it’s fair enough to use the word.
Reason: You talk a lot about ethical and political objections to the notion of endless human life. Do you think those pressures could really stop it?
Weiner: If we had an immortality pill, the demand for it would be instant and overwhelming and I’ve noticed that in myself, with all my ambivalence, when I read a newspaper story or exciting journal article in this field and suddenly that goal seems plausible, I can tell the world would look very different to me and to everyone if you could go to drug store and buy those pills tomorrow. I really don’t think we would hold back, or governments could hold us back.