Long for This World, the new book by Jonathon Weiner, which I introduced a couple of posts ago, has been getting more reviews in the mainstream press. The New York Times one by Abraham Verghese has come to my attention. It contains just enough opinion to provoke me to respond. It’s hard to distinguish between the reviewer’s description of the book content, and the reviewer's opinion, so I’m going to treat them as one, as they seem to be of one mind. Having said that, the reviewer seems to be more guilty of platitude than the author.
Verghese and Weiner seem to understand SENS as a practical approach very well.
As Weiner describes it, the inspiration for de Grey’s scientific quest for immortality came in a flash one sleepless night: “The evolutionary theory of aging predicts chaos. And chaos is just what you see at the cellular and molecular level, and what you will always see. But what these troubles all have in common is that they fill the aging body with junk. Maybe we can just clean up all the scree and rubble that gathers in our aging bodies.” The beauty of this view is that “curing” aging requires no special knowledge of design, or any understanding of just how the cellular junk got there in the first place. It only requires that we get rid of it.
The author and reviewer have nailed the SENS approach perfectly. But having done that, they make a dog's breakfast of trying to work out the immediate consequences of success.
‘ Traditionally, we have viewed our lives as unfolding in stages: Shakespeare’s seven ages of man capture our progression from infant to schoolboy to lover to soldier to justice to clown, ending finally in “second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Immortality could wind up being a terrible stasis. ‘
So let’s get this straight. Weiner, or Verghese (it’s hard to tell if Weiner’s being quote-mined here) cites Shakespeare’s scariest ever description of human aging, as a reason not to combat human aging? The main intention of those who research rejuvenation is to prevent the toothless phase from ever happening. Does the 'terrible stasis' mean eternal old age? It simply won’t happen. Eternal old age would actually be harder to achieve than eternal youth, because frailty means a high risk of death within any given period.
Why is it that every journalist feels the need to appease their inner Michael Crichton -- the little guy inside every journalist who whispers that if something cool is achieved, it has to go horribly awry? Why can't we just have a park full of dinosaurs who don't escape, and nobody gets hurt?
‘ “A huge part of the action and the drama in the seven ages comes from the sense of an ending, the knowledge that all these ages must have an end,” Weiner writes. ’
Quite the contrary. Nothing messes up a man's twenties more than the knowlege that they are drawing to a close. It doesn't add drama. It doesn't add anything pleasant.
It’s interesting he mentions drama, because the mention of drama makes it plain to me now just how loathsome human aging really is. Granted, many modes of human suffering make good drama.
War, though dreadful, is purposeful and engaging.
Murder is frightening.
Rape is horrific.
Even cancer has a sort of ticking-clock low-energy narrative to it.
Aging, on the other hand, is totally un-dramatic, through and through. It is a true fiasco. Aging is the ditch, the quicksand of the soul, which we pretend to like, because we know that if there is one thing worse than sinking in quicksand, it is sinking while trying to get out. Cries for help would turn a tragedy death scene into a horror death scene. We therefore think it is better to sink without complaining, so that all the other sinkers can concentrate on bracing themselves against the same fate. Aging sucks the hope out of life, brings out the worst in us, and exterminates the entire human population arbitrarily (a fact not excused by the fact that they get replaced in numbers only), by means of the most boring and irritating slow death known to man.
I don’t deny the very fact that aging has been used in drama, but it does not add a dramatic element to life.
And the final tangle...
As a young physician caught up in the early years of the H.I.V. epidemic, I was struck by my patients’ will to live, even as their quality of life became miserable and when loved ones and caregivers would urge the patient to let go. I thought it remarkable that patients never asked me to help end their lives (and found it strange that Dr. Kevorkian managed to encounter so many who did). My patients were dying young and felt cheated out of their best years. They did not want immortality, just the chance to live the life span that their peers could expect. What de Grey and other immortalists seem to have lost sight of is that simply living a full life span is a laudable goal.
Saving lives is a laudable goal. The reviewer has lost sight of that. His patients didn't 'want immortality' because a) it was never a serious option and b) 'immortality' is Weiner and Verghese's own frivolous word for 'rejuvenation', which back then was not a serious option either. The dying HIV patients felt robbed of the time needed in order to execute the plans that they had made to fit the lifespan that they had been told(as infants) they were going to have. That is an ethically irrelevant point.
The very concept of a 'full lifespan' is just a knot in the mind. Straighten it out, and it vanishes.
Think about it. There is life. There is death. There is a variable time of death. There are various causes of death(of which aging is one). Where does fullness even come into it? What is this timespan that lifespan ought to equal? What is the container which the lifespan might fill? Why create a duality between lifespan and lifespan.?