SCIENCE AUGUST 24, 2010
by Jonathan Weiner
Ecco, 320 pp., $27.99
In the first decades of the twentieth century, Serge Voronoff, a French surgeon of Russian extraction, fell into the spotlight of Europe’s fringe scientific community by developing a procedure that promised to restore aging men to the vitality of their youth. The Voronoff Method, as it was called, entailed grafting the testicular glands of chimpanzees onto elderly men. Not surprisingly, it was met with some hesitation. But Voronoff persisted, and by 1923, as Time magazine reported, “700 of the world's leading surgeons applauded the success of his work” at a conference in London. By 1934, Yeats, Hamsun and Freud had all undergone a variation of the procedure (they were “Steinached”—an early form of the vasectomy) and Voronoff secured his place in medical quackery.
The pursuit of immortality is an ancient longing, of course. It traces its origins back to the earliest days of scientific inquiry, and despite an unbroken history of failure, it has managed to survive into the twenty-first century. While its proponents are now few and far between, immortalists still maintain a toehold in popular culture, appealing to romanticized visions of science with schemes that range from mildly bizarre to outright insane. Occasionally, as with Voronoff, they even stumble into a degree of celebrity. In his lively and immensely interesting book, Jonathan Weiner looks into this strange field and asks what leads someone to defy collective wisdom—worse, collective knowledge—and devote their life to fighting life’s end.
For Weiner, the motivating questions are deceptively basic: Why aren’t we immortal? What if death is actually a failure of science rather than a foregone conclusion? Suspending disbelief, as his subject certainly requires him to do, he poses these questions to Aubrey de Grey, an off-kilter Cambridge academic and self-taught leader in the field. For de Grey, the answers are obvious: death is not fundamentally different from cancer or AIDS. It is a manageable disease that has yet to be cured.
According to some bio-gerontologists (the graceless term for de Grey’s field of research) death is the result of bad somatic housekeeping. As our bodies deteriorate, we lose the ability to manage cellular collapse, and eventually, cumulative damage takes its toll. To put it bluntly, death is “simply a problem of garbage disposal.” If you ask de Grey, he has a slightly more radical take. Eternal life, he says, is embedded in our genes, and in order to realize it, we must cross the threshold from preventing disease to eliminating it entirely. Laying out his theory over binge sessions in Cambridge bars, de Grey maintains that immortality could be achieved by genetic tweaking, complemented by the occasional invasive surgery. For mad scientists in 2010, chasing immortality is no longer about finding the fountain of youth; it is about incremental—and decidedly less sexy—technical gains.
How seriously should de Grey should be taken? His theories are extreme, but they do have resonance in mainstream inquiry. Last month, scientists at Boston University identified 150 genetic variations common among centenarians, claiming that they could predict who might make it to one hundred with about 77 percent accuracy. Most incredibly, 90 percent of people with the variations were “disability free at an average age of 93.” Developments such as this make it difficult to disprove de Grey outright, and a few years ago MIT actually put up $20,000 for anybody who could prove that his theory is “so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate." The offer attracted inspired replies, but five years later the money is still on the table.
But despite spending most of his book on the science of eternal life, Weiner is less concerned with whether immortality is possible—he doubts that it is—than with whether it is desirable. This, too, is an ancient question. It has been pondered in philosophy for centuries, and it is enjoying a certain vogue in American popular culture—consider the recent spate of vampire movies and shows. But as Weiner suggests, it has become particularly relevant as global demographics adjust to contemporary medicine. Over the past century, infant mortality has dropped significantly, and the human lifespan has increased, and in certain parts of the world, over-population is, for the first time, a very real threat. “During the twentieth century we gained almost thirty years,” Weiner notes, “or about as much time as our species had gained before in the whole struggle of existence.”
With this in mind, the first two thirds of Weiner’s book reads like a prolegomenon to the finale—a meditation on the grimmer consequences of eternal life. Weiner considers endless dictatorships, intractable poverty, and a world without youth, while setting de Grey up as a straw man for failing to grasp the implications of his own scientific designs. De Grey is openly unconcerned with the larger context of his work, and in his myopia he comes to reflect the best and worst of scientific practice: imagination detached from broader social and ethical considerations.
In 1959, in a famous essay, C.P. Snow lamented that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups,” the scientists and the humanists, which he feared were slowly losing interest in each others’ fields. This was particularly pronounced in the academic teaching of the humanities, Snow argued, where ignorance of basic scientific principles was often shrugged off. "If the scientists have the future in their bones," he acidly observed, "then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist."
While Weiner’s literary references are heavy-handed—he manages to cover the syllabi of a freshman humanities course every five pages—his fascinating book is a notable success for striking directly at Snow’s concern. The science of aging is at the center of several urgent if quiet medical debates, and Weiner skillfully fleshes out its more radical history with equal attention to science and culture, taking aim at readers from both camps. Scientists may have the future in their bones, but culture is also starting to pay attention.
Jessica Loudis is a writer living in Brooklyn. She works at Slate and is a staff writer at Idiom Magazine.