Live Forever, Or Die Trying

Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Weiner surveys the state of immortality research.

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.

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  • Tim||

    What if Stalin was still alive and looking forward to another 500 years of good health?

  • ||

    Then we'd have to kill him. Next silly question?

  • ||

    And use it to promise immortality to his loyalists.

  • DADIODADDY||

    kill them too.

  • ¢||

    Maybe someday some sort of reading technology will arise with "pages" of indeterminate length, so the time people currently waste slideshowing through paragraphs for no good reason is effectively added to their lives.

    Weiner:

  • Immortal Kid||

    I'm booooooored!

  • Practical man||

    Often it's said that science doesn't move ahead but rather old scientists die. I think this effect is very similar to how social mores change; e.g. the general populace didn't realize that gay people are A-OK, but the old people who really believed that gays were evil just kept dying off.

    If everyone were immortal, societies would be much, much, much more conservative and (even) slower to change.

  • Practical man||

    It'd also have a pretty significant effect the Supreme Court.

  • A is Awesome||

    The government would obviously set term limits if immortality came to be.

  • ||

    Wrong! The government would set term limits on us if immortaility came to be.

  • ||

    Immortaility? That sounds like a frat slogan or something.

  • ||

    Jesus Christ. I left my desk 10 minutes ago, this article was not here. I came back and there are already five comments? I hope ya'll got a good excuse for hanging out online like this all night.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Everyone's always in favor of saving Hitler's brain. But when you put it in the body of a great white shark, ooh, suddenly you've gone too far!

  • ||

    +1 for Futurama reference

  • ||

    The inability of others to remain occupied wouldn't be an issue for me. I'd gladly head out on a spaceship to another planet or system; or even study insights into some science of philosophy for a thousand years without even imagining being bored.

  • DADIODADDY||

    that just shows a lack of imagination...I'll give you odds you'll be bored out of your skull in about 10 years

  • ||

    Why do I suspect that the vast majority of arguments against immortality in the "what if Stalin or the Supreme Court were immortal" vein are all thinly veiled religious arguments? Because frankly, you can change Supreme Court justice terms, or assassinate Stalin. So what's your real problem with immortality? Oh, it's that if God wanted us to live forever, he would have made us that way?

    Fuck that. Bring on my transhumanist genes/body/whatever.

  • ||

    The real problem with immortality is getting stuck as a slave who is worked hard every day, tortured every night, then locked in a box for the brief sleep cycle. And there's no escape.

    The good news is that after a few thousand years of this, you'll get liberated. Then eaten.

  • ||

    After a normal human lifetime of treatment like that, you'd be insane anyway. And there's suicide. And the possibility of other immortals who hate slavery trying to liberate you. Or you liberating yourself.

    Yeah, it would be pretty horrible. But so would a mere five years of Glee reruns, and you know they're going to do that.

  • ||

    Why is there suicide? I mean, sure, there could be just barely immortality, where we could die by accident or intent, but what good is that?

    I did posit a temporary, if hellish, slavery. I figure too many years of existence and the original you is gone, anyway. So, sure, you're going to be insane at some point (slavery or otherwise), but one of your successor yous will get over it.

  • ||

    And if you're a gamma minus, would suicide even cross your mind?

    Also, who would want to fuck a 450 year old woman? Talk about dry.

  • ||

    For the record, if I'm around when they start developing immortality, I want to make sure certain parameters are established.

  • ||

    There is no "complete immortality", dude, not until we become pure energy or something. Your body can always be destroyed, and even if you have digitized consciousness backup storage, that can also be destroyed.

    So I wouldn't worry too much about certain of your concerns.

  • ||

    That's your problem, always thinking small. Thanks to your lack of vision, I eradicate any memory of two-dimensional pizza from this universe in less than six hundred years. The fight will be bitter and horrific, but, due to your untimely demise in 2163, my victory will be complete and everlasting.

  • ||

    I already killed you and imprisoned your digitized consciousness in a VR simulation where you're a Florida lawyer. You're about as much threat to me as Warty, who I imprisoned in the same simulation, but in Cleveland.

    Remember The Thirteenth Floor? No? Well, that's because I didn't want you thinking too hard about it, and not because it was very disappointing.

  • ||

    "There is no "complete immortality", dude, not until we become pure energy or something. Your body can always be destroyed, and even if you have digitized consciousness backup storage, that can also be destroyed.

    So I wouldn't worry too much about certain of your concerns."

    Sooooooo, the scientologists have it right?

  • ||

    What, that e-meters work?

  • ||

    No, that trademark and copyright law are bludgeons for beating down your enemies.

  • Duncan MacLeod||

    There can only be one.

  • ||

    The answer is already out there I'm gonna live forever hahaha "Cigarettes whiskey and wild wild women"

    Alex what is the key to long life?

    http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/cap.....oldest_man

  • JOhnny MAckson||

    My death bot friends and I will take care of any thoughts you fleshlings may have about immortality. Now, for my daily second of Pong . . . that's 10,000 years for you readers . . . I win! ROFL

    Jess
    www.anon-yes-please.com

  • passivatedObserver||

    So what's the deal with flossing? I've read where the goop between teeth has been implicated in some cardiovascular problems but is there more to it?

  • ||

    I remember reading an article a few years back that combined accident rates relative to someone who didn't age. Then end of the research basically indicated that you would die sometime before your 400th birthday due to a fatal accident.

  • DADIODADDY||

    If we beat death, can taxes be far behind?

  • ||

    This would have been a much funner article if it were about immorality research instead.

  • kovac||

    I'm shocked that the article or, apparently, the book don't mention what to me looks like the easiest and most secure route to immortality: Consciousness transfer! Why waste all that energy endlessly repairing your birth body when you can just replace it every so often? I'm not sure which will end up being the means by which we achieve immortality, transfer of consciousness, or the shoring up of organic tissue, but my optimistic side tells me that either way it will eventually happen.

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    For information on Libertarian action worldwide, including a summary of research and upcoming articles please see http://www.Libertarian-International.org

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