De Grey’s beard is bigger up close than I imagined. He’s looking down at me, exasperated, his eyes rolling, his head shaking, his wiry auburn beard wiggling a split second slower than the rest of his head. As the chief science officer of the SENS Foundation which concentrates on rejuvenation research, he has caused a storm among the scientific community in the last few years with his controversial claims.
A maverick in the field of gerontology – the study of ageing – De Grey is a man on a mission and he has been increasingly spouting his research across news and media channels for the last 10 years. De Grey’s radical claim that ageing is not inevitable has come under fire from many others cientists in the gerontology establishment who think his headline grabbing research has undermined the less stimulating research into how we age. During his speech, de Grey uses increasingly provocative language and illustrations to hammer home how important he thinks his research is.
While other scientists have come and gone, their theories condemned as crock by the popular media, people have begun to sit up and listen to de Grey. Like the plotline from a dubious science fiction novel, he believes that within our lifetime it will be possible to live to 1000, in fact he believes that within the next ten years it will be common for people to live to 150 years old. He argues that by repairing and maintaining our bodies on a molecular and cellular level as damage appears, we’ll be able to stop the accumulation that leads to progressive diseases like Alzheimer’s and keep our bodies from succumbing to the frailties of old age. Or that’s the theory anyway.
Like everyone else sitting open-mouthed, or with furrowed brow, or frantically jotting down something de Grey was mumbling when he spoke at TEDxOxford (it took a few minutes to adjust to a voice slightly muffled by beard), I was intrigued. Less the living for 1000 years, but the idea of living with a healthy, functioning body, possibly indefinitely, is a tantalising prospect.
Of course eliminating death from old age leaves us with a drastically lower death rate, and as everyone who watched Torchwood recently knows, there’s a few problems with that plan. Without curtailing the birth rate there’ll be a population explosion, but he must get asked about overpopulation quite a lot, right? ‘Just occasionally!’ De Grey replies, frustrated. ‘If the choice is between having fewer children and not getting sick, then that’s a personal choice but we don’t have a right to choose for the future. We have a moral duty to develop these technologies as quickly as possible so that humans of the future can decide how and when to use them. If we don’t do that then we’re condemning the future to a life like ours.’
While De Grey thinks the advancement of regenerative therapies is essential, I don’t think I’m the only person who a little bit apprehensive about the idea of indefinite life. De Grey’s analogy, ‘We don’t have 200 year old cars, not because they can’t last that long, but because cars hadn’t been invented 200 years ago’, did little to comfort me, and more to confuse. Can human beings really cope with the idea?
‘Of course we can damn well cope with the idea! I think most people can cope with the idea of not getting sick or not getting Alzheimer’s disease. You don’t need to think about how long we’ll actually live. It’s about not getting sick. I don’t need to know how long I’ll live, or how long I want to live. It’s like asking, ‘What time do you want to go to the toilet next Sunday?’ It’s a stupid question, and it’s a stupid question because we’ll only have better information on the topic nearer the time. It’s exactly the same with do I want to live to 100, let alone 1000? I’ve got no idea. What I do know is that I want to be able to make that decision when I’m 99 rather than have it progressively taken away from me by my declining health.’
There’s an edge in his resolute determination to rid the world of debilitating diseases. De Grey claims that all humans avoid thinking about death, but his focus is on sickness – underneath the bluster and controversy of his claims, De Grey appears to betray a deepseated fear of illness. His campaign, however, centres on the economic and sociological advantages of these therapies.
‘The big difference between this medicine and the expensive medicine we have today is that the economic benefit of providing this will be enormous. It will pay for itself. It’s incredibly expensive for the NHS to support the old and sick. If we can, as a society, spend a bit of money to stop people from getting that way, they’ll continue being productive and the money spent on medicine will be recouped very quickly and many times over. Even in a tax-averse society like the US it’ll be economically suicidal not to make this available to everybody for free and as soon as possible. There’ll be a tiny, tiny interval between these becoming available to everybody and them becoming economically stable’.
De Grey notes there’s a ‘silly ambivalence’ towards his ideas at the moment, but he is certain that when they’ve proved it can be done, and tests done on mice at the moment are looking positive, there’ll be chaos as everyone clamours to get their hands on the chance to live forever. With the extremely lucrative market in antiageing cosmetics and procedures, de Grey has clearly hit upon a universal concern. No one wants to get old or ill, but what are the real implications of his work? How will we adapt and how will our behaviour change?
‘We’ve already given up on survival of the fittest. We’re living longer right now and we’re stronger than we ever used to be because of modern medicine. I have no clue what it’ll do to society, but the point is that so many other advancements, technological for example, are changing our lifestyle and buying habits. If we invent nuclear fusion so we don’t need fossil fuels anymore then that will increase the number of people we can have on the planet without changing quality of life and it’ll change our interest in conserving energy. There are sociological consequences to all manner of advances and they’re all happening simultaneously. Some of them are happening so much faster than this one is, and at the moment nobody can say the effect something like this will have on our lifestyles, because no one knows.’
Then how do we approach ethics? Can we even use terms like ‘life imprisonment’ anymore? ‘Who gives a damn! Of course things will be different; all ethics and laws are based on reality, on what people see as reasonable, and that’s a consequence of their surroundings. We’ll recalculate those things. Society will adapt. What matters is our duty to the future to develop these technologies’.