In Search of the Fountain of Youth


Life Extension: A Practical, Scientific Approach, by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, New York: Warner Books, 1982, 858 pp., $19.95.

The ancient Egyptians sought eternal life through chemicals—the embalming chemicals that they believed would preserve their bodies forever. In the early 1500s, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon trekked the New World seeking chemical rejuvenation with waters from the fabled Fountain of Youth. And now, likewise eager to use elixirs and alchemy to defeat our oldest foe, the Grim Reaper, come Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw.

Durk and Sandy write the Health & Welfare column in REASON. If you like the column you will love the book, which with more than 350,000 hardcover copies already in print is among the most successful books in publishing history.

Most of us prefer health to sickness, youthfulness to decrepitude, life to death; and thus it is unsurprising that Life Extension shares the bestseller list with Jane Fonda's Workout Book, Richard Simmons' Never-Say-Diet Cookbook, and such callipygian titles as 30 Days to a Beautiful Bottom and Thin Thighs in 30 Days. People want health and buy such books as they buy pills, both for their contents and as talismans that, by the mere magic of possession, will bring wonders.

And Life Extension does seem to promise miracles. In it, Durk and Sandy portray themselves as middle-aged scientists who spend their extended thirtyish lives sitting at desks with computers, pushing buttons, doing only moments of physical exercise daily, and even tanning by swallowing an appropriate chemical lest the sun's mutagenic rays do them harm out of doors. Yet by taking the right potions, they claim to build muscles, eliminate dandruff, enhance their sex lives, increase their intelligence, and expect to outlive those foolish enough to ignore such chemical interventions in the aging process. They are, in other words, a perfect model for future humankind—sitting in the insular environment of a spaceship exploring beyond Arcturus.

The lifespan of this review is too short to permit discussion of the complex and varied chemicals they recommend. Instead, it addresses a few criticisms to help you approach this exciting book.

Are Durk and Sandy "playing God" by using chemicals to "cheat death"? Scientists have long been depicted as Dr. Frankensteins who create monsters whenever they interfere with natural processes, yet how many such critics have refused to employ drugs that could save their sick children's lives from such natural processes as disease? A New Yorker cartoon once showed a stewardess aboard an airliner offering a cocktail to a dowager, the passenger refusing with the words: "No thank you. I don't believe God intended us to drink while flying." Each of us intervenes a thousand times daily to thwart the "natural" forces that would harm us. Durk and Sandy believe they have found new, improved ways to help combat factors that age and sicken us.

But are these ways better? The conservative assumes that millions of years of adaptation have fine-tuned us for survival. The conservative also recognizes that Durk and Sandy are proposing to do to the body personal what leftist social planners do in the body politic—intervene to make things "work better." Does any scientist know all the long-term effects and side effects of the chemicals Durk and Sandy advocate taking? The answer, simply, is no. Durk and Sandy base their judgments on animal experiments, which are suitable, they assure us, because "the chemistry of aging is very similar in all species." Five years ago, I remember, Durk was touting the chemical food preservative BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) as a life extender—for in massive doses it had increased the lifespan of one mouse hybrid by 45 percent. But now Durk admits that the differences between this species and our own are so great as to make "prediction of life extension potential of BHT for people very difficult."

They do recommend that no child or pregnant woman take these chemicals. All such exploration involves risks and gambles, and thus it is probably a good thing that not all members of our species will be taking these substances.

But chemical intervention in aging may prove to be one of those cosmic watersheds. Long ago some apes chose to descend from the trees, becoming the ancestors of man, while others kept swinging from the limbs as before. During the 1960s some chose to alter their minds with LSD while others chose not to take that risk or make that voyage. And interestingly, the chief chemical herein advocated by Durk and Sandy is Hydergine®—like LSD, an ergot derivative manufactured by Sandoz Company laboratories.

If you plan yourself to become a pioneer on this scientific frontier, should you follow the course mapped out by Durk and Sandy or should you seek other, more conservative guides? My own instinct is to study their information, then decide for myself which ideas to pursue. And because they are unabashedly individualist, they have no desire to be leaders, dictators, or messiahs—and they exhort readers to consult their own doctor, research, and conscience. The trouble is, our culture teaches people to follow authority…and Durk and Sandy have, perhaps without intending to, set themselves up as authorities, as people whose pronouncements are to be followed.

Durk and Sandy describe themselves as scientists. When somebody not employed by a university or laboratory does this, the ears of us science writers prick up. The label scientist is not regulated by government certification, as the label Medical Doctor is, but it does in practice denote and connote certain things. Does a person follow "scientific method" in thought and investigation? When we sift this book and examine what Durk and Sandy themselves have done, we find only experiments based on taking chemicals themselves or knowing individuals who took chemicals. In a scientific world requiring double-blind experiments with significant numbers of subjects, the anecdotal data they offer is almost meaningless—having about the same weight as a tent evangelist's tales of miracle healings that happened without proper scientific controls.

The back of this book hangs heavy with a thick list of scientific references that impresses layfolk and TV talk show hosts such as Merv Griffin, who anointed Durk as a scientific authority—but when we comb those references to find what Durk and Sandy themselves have published, we find nothing of scientific importance. Durk lists a government contract study he did on a topic wholly unrelated to chemical intervention in the aging process. Durk is repeatedly cited as coauthor of a famous article on intelligence-enhancing chemicals that appeared in Omni, a popular magazine published by the founder of Penthouse that Durk himself describes as having "medical data sometimes good, sometimes poor." And Durk and Sandy are listed as authors of various commercial pamphlets published by Donsbach College, founded by a marketer of good health food products.

As a science writer, I find this absence of journal publications by Durk and Sandy troubling. The major scientific publications are all peer-review journals; that is, research submitted for publication must pass the scrutiny of eminent scientists who check its hypothesis, methodology, and analysis. Such procedures are by nature conservative and put powerful pressure on radical new ideas and findings, but it is precisely because of such scrutiny that the label scientist carries such respect and authority. Dozens of others in the aging field have passed such scrutiny—as Durk and Sandy's citations of studies by others in serious scientific literature attest. There is no conspiracy to stifle the publication of reputable studies in this field.

But if Durk and Sandy have never been published in such peer-review scientific journals and never been employed to research this field in any scientific or major academic institution, is it ethical for them to present themselves to the public wrapped in the white robes of the scientific priesthood? What serious research experiments have they ever done in this area that were accepted by the scientific community? Perhaps we could think of them as latter-day Ben Franklins, Enlightenment amateur scientists catching lightning with kite and key—but remember before you start taking their prescriptions that several others who tried to imitate Franklin's famed experiment died in the attempt.

Viewed as the work of passionate science writers, not "scientists," Life Extension is a splendid book. It is not really a 900-page book, but rather a 300-page book in which most facts and ideas are repeated three times; but it is intelligent and well-researched, a magnificent tool for anybody who wants to learn more about chemical intervention in the aging process.

Durk and Sandy are correct in recognizing that ours is the age of what writer Albert Rosenfeld called The Second Genesis, when science is giving us the power to take charge of our own evolution and shape our recreation as life forms. We are on the verge of proving those Egyptian priests right, in a sense, for we may soon be able to take the chemically preserved genetic blueprint from a pharaoh's mummy and from it spawn a living double of him. With today's chemical preservatives BHT and BHA and other tools, we might through the new alchemy preserve and extend our own lives. And even in going astray, we might find new horizons. Ponce de Leon never found the Fountain of Youth but he discovered Florida, where today retirees find old age in many cases more pleasant than youth in a snowy climate.

"Live Long and Prosper" is Durk and Sandy's benediction. Will they live long? They admit they do not know. "Ask us in 100 years!" they exclaim. But thanks to the pioneering curiosity of 350,000 American readers, they will prosper. Your ancestors were bold enough to carry their seed to a New World. You must decide what to do with the life that is yours.

Lowell Ponte is the staff science writer at Reader's Digest and a REASON contributing editor. He is not a scientist, merely the world's most widely read science writer.