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.