I note there is quite some debate on the MIT Technology Review website on de Grey’s theses. For my own sake, I will happily put to one side the credibility of the science he mentioned in PoI. That is, I am happy to assume it’s all real science until shown otherwise. The problem is that the science he’s talking about is all bleeding-edge stuff. To take one example, I am somewhat familiar with various technologies that have been proposed over the past decades to combat forms of cancer. On this podcast, de Grey not only claimed to have a solution that would treat all cancers, but also atherosclerosis, macular degeneration, alzheimer’s disease, nearsightedness, and various and sundry other age-related maladies.
OK, on the one hand, taking the broader picture, science is a cumulative enterprise. Each year we get closer to cures for every human disease. In the longer term, if we don’t destroy our society or ourselves first, we will indeed find cures for each of them. (Although mechanisms of Darwinian evolution have nasty ways of developing new vectors of attack!)
But on the other hand, his proposed solutions, taken in the context of the broader scientific enterprise amount to overwrought hand-waving. So, he claims to have a cure for cancer. There are literally thousands of scientists and billions of dollars going after this problem. Are we to believe that Aubrey de Grey is the genius who’s figured out a way to solve it all? “There is a company in California that has drugs in clinical trials ...” And so? Most drugs in clinical trials fail. Most drugs that get through clinical trials do not cure disease but only ameliorate it slightly. The fact that nobody has been trumpeting great scientific breakthroughs in aging is because there haven’t been any. Once we solved the problem of public hygene and antibiotics, all the rest has been slow and incremental.
DJ brought up the issue of human lifespans. Indeed, they have tripled in the last several centuries. But that isn’t because the oldest people are living longer. It’s because people who would have died at 15 are instead dying at 80. Pre-modern societies did have members who lived on past 100; it didn’t happen often, but it did happen. So although average lifespan has tripled, maximum lifespan has not. Indeed, arguably it is exactly the same in 2008 that it was in 2008 BCE. And this is a big issue.
If what I say is correct about maximum human lifespan, then the problem of how to extend useful lives regularly past 120 years is an enormous problem. It will likely involve a reorganization of nearly every tissue in the body. To claim that this is somehow similar in difficulty to curing macular degeneration (plus a few odds-and-ends) is not credible. It is likely to be orders of magnitude more complex than curing cancer, and a cure for every form of cancer is certainly decades away.
Again, one may well say that time is long and that these things will be solved in a century, or perhaps in a millennium. OK, so what? What exactly is de Grey proposing? He’s certainly not in a position to do any useful science in all of these fields at once. That’s really the task of the entire worldwide health-science establishment. I’m not sure what purpose his foundation serves in all that, except perhaps to indulge in some hyperbole about the near future. And like it or not, his rhetoric does play into a segment of the fringe-science, and even the quack community.