Friday, March 09, 2007

Transcendance and Living Forever

Too many blog posts, and too little time. That's my only excuse for my poor posting regularity.

A 2005 issue of MIT's Technology Review had an interesting op-ed piece by editor-in-chief Jason Pontin about the elevation of technology into a "pseudoreligion" in many science fiction narratives.
When the science fiction writer and journalist Bruce Sterling was asked why so many science fiction novels ended with their heroes transcending their circumstances, abilities, or bodies, he was dismissive. “It’s just a riff,” Sterling answered. “The element of transcendence is just a feature of the SF genre, like feedback in rock music. People who take that stuff seriously end up turning into trolls....H. P. Lovecraft was a big fan of that cosmic-type stuff. That may be okay for him, but from the outside what you see is this pasty-faced guy eating canned hash in the dim corner of a restaurant, hands trembly, and a gray film over his eyes.
The article points that there are people that do take the possibility of science allowing us to transcend our biological limitations very seriously. One example is the University of Cambridge's Aubrey de Grey, who is either a "troll" as Sterling describes, or a "technological messiah". To Pontin de Grey is a troll, both in personal attributes and in his scientific outlook.
His ideas are trollish, too. For even if it were possible to “perturb” human biology in the way de Grey wishes, we shouldn’t do it. Immortality might be okay for de Grey, but an entire world of the same superagenarians thinking the same kinds of thoughts forever would be terrible.
The fact is that de Grey'sideas about increasing human longevity are likely extraordinarily over optimistic (he has claimed that the first people to live 1000 years were born in 1945), and fall outside the current understanding of how the body ages.
Most responsible biogerontologists are more cautious about the applications of antiaging science. They hope that when we understand why and how human tissues age, we will be able to better treat some of the chronic diseases of old age, like dementia, senile diabetes, or heart disease. [. . .] This would, in the jargon of geriatricians, “compress the morbidity” of the elderly: the debili­ties of old age might be restricted to a rela­tively short period of time before we die. Because some of these chronic diseases are eventually fatal, or have fatal complications, some of us would live longer, too—at least a little bit. But very few who have studied biogerontology think we’ll ever transcend our mortality. As Nuland remarked to me, “Aging is not a disease. Aging is the condition on which we are given life.”
Because the article and op-ed sparked an interesting discussion, Technology Review ran a contest offering a $20,000 prize to any biology who could disprove de Grey's "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence" (SENS). In the end there was no outright winner, not because SENS necessarily has scientific merit, but because de Grey's hypotheses are largely untested.

Craig Venter most succinctly expressed the prevailing opinion. He wrote, "Estep et al. in my view have not demonstrated that SENS is unworthy of discussion, but the proponents of SENS have not made a compelling case for it."

In short, SENS is highly speculative. Many of its proposals have not been reproduced, nor could they be reproduced with today's scientific knowledge and technology. Echoing [contest judge] Myhrvold, we might charitably say that de Grey's proposals exist in a kind of antechamber of science, where they wait (possibly in vain) for independent verification. SENS does not compel the assent of many knowledgeable scientists; but neither is it demonstrably wrong.

Estep and colleagues, who wrote the most persuasive argument against SENS, respectfully disagreed, and wrote a rebuttal to the judges' decision. (Note that there is a lively discussion in the articles' comments, so if you are interested in the topic be head over there and read the whole thing, including de Grey's rebuttals).

That's not to say that de Grey and his supporters aren't trying to gather scientific support for SENS. The Methuselah Foundation (co-founded by de Grey) offers the Methuselah mouse "M prize" for research resulting the extension of the life span of the common lab mouse. The current record holder has mice lacking the growth hormone receptor gene that live for an average of about 5 years, outliving typical 3 year lifespan of inbred lab mice, and even the normal 4 year lifespan for wild mice. Their blog has more up to date information.

Based on my own reading, I believe that SENS still falls well within the realm of science fiction rather than science. Perhaps the human lifespan will eventually span centuries rather than decades, but I doubt that a real-life Lazarus Long has yet been born.

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1 comment:

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