Thoughts on the Aubrey de Grey/Colin Blakemore Debate

May 15, 2012

By Robert Kane Pappas

Robert Kane Pappas and Dr. Aubrey de Grey

On April 25th, Aubrey de Grey participated in a debate with Professor Colin Blakemore – neuroscientist and ex-head of the Medical Research Council, UK’s largest funding body for bio medical research – at Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre. The debate’s title was: “Resolved this house wants to defeat aging entirely” and was to cover the feasibility and desirability of bringing aging under medical control.

After watching the video of the debate; among other things, it strikes me that the title itself helps obscure the nature and process of the scientific research currently underway to extend healthspan, and by implication, lifespan.

The problem waxes ironic.  To a large degree, Aubrey became “famous” by uttering the following on camera:

“I’m claiming that the first person to live to a 1,000, subject of course to global catastrophes, is actually, probably only about 10 years younger than the 1st 150 year old, and that’s quite a thought.”

On the one hand, Aubrey’s thesis is provocative and possibly true – but there is a downside to such a framing of the discussion. The viewer or reader reacts –

“What, 10 years after 150, what? A 1,000 years, people from the middle ages would be alive, what? Population, resources? Bombs? – Who wants to live that long, the world sucks now, ahhhhhhh….!” 

I personally observed similar reactions in a portion of the audience who watched my film “To Age or Not To Age.”

Professor Blakemore’s debate responses fell along the above lines, like an opposing pundit with several conventional wisdom talking points. 

But Aubrey’s prediction hampers what could be an intriguing discussion about trajectory of the scientific understanding and the advances.

When I first interviewed Aubrey De Grey several years ago, he used the phrase “aging trance” to describe people’s mental paradigm with regard to the phenomenon of aging. Although I didn’t feel the phrase was perfect, he made a valid point.

When you delve into the subject of extending human lifespan via the frame of people living a thousand years, all kinds of prejudices color what the questions are and how they are asked.  Blakemore raised concerns about neurological memory, how people would spend their time, human motivation, population.  He made the further point about the complexity involved, how a war on this or that disease waged 30 years ago still hasn’t produced a solution, stuff like that.  All somewhat true, but also misleading.

One simply cannot adequately probe the subject of future advances when that discussion begins from the point of view of a thousand years.  Firstly, the process itself is, by definition, incremental. Supposing what your memory would be like at 1,000, indeed one’s mental framework, is ludicrous.

Further, judging the speed of scientific advancement in the future by pointing to the slow pace of the past is a superficial analysis.  Scientists are asking questions that they couldn’t imagine 5 years ago.  Techniques for finding multiple needles in haystacks simply didn’t exist in the near past. What is more – and I think this is crucial – in the midst of huge complexity, scientists are finding nexus genes and nexus points which cause a cascade of downstream events.  In other words, if you intervene at the right spot in the right way, the vast complexities resolve themselves.

Then there is the idea unintended consequences. There are always unintended consequences. Are they always bad?  Is every mutation bad?

For his part in the debate, Aubrey didn’t give clear examples of feasibility or cite several recent advances.  There is much that is unknown; but, the questions being asked, and the thread of recent results derived from those questions is striking.  Moreover, simple observations about how quickly communication has changed (smart phones and the like) compel one to surmise that the integration and speed of scientific research will increase.

So, the discussion of this topic must be from the point of view of the moment at hand, not about the dim distance. Right now, scientists can extend the healthspan and lifespan of animals and humans through a combination of lifestyle changes, and by tweaking a couple of fairly well understood molecular pathways having to do with nutrient signally and cellular upkeep, particularly, the mtor and Sirtuin genes.  It is happening now. In the wings, new understandings about adult stem cells, cell signaling, senescent cells, DNA repair, mitochondrial function and the epigenome point to a vast horizon.

When we speak from the point of view of 1,000 years, it seems impossible that humanity won’t destroy itself by then. But then again, change is incremental but does happen. So maybe we won’t. 

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

RHW May 29, 2012 at 5:48 am

First, I couldn’t help but feel that the audience was stacked against Aubrey from the start. Were these Blakemore’s students? Were they some campus group that was organized to oppose Aubrey?

Second, if Blakemore had seen the movie “Lorenzo’s Oil” (a true story), he would know that a father that was told by Blakemore-esq people that there was no hope to save his son, chose to find a way to save his son against the “establishment” view — and did eventually save his son’s life. Aubrey, in my opinion, is the father in this movie; and the problem is aging; Blakemore represents the know-it-all naysayers that told the father/Aubrey that there’s no hope.

Third, Blakemore’s pessimism represents the past — and the past always tries to control the future.

Casper G. June 10, 2012 at 8:17 pm

I felt like Colin wasn’t so much arguing that defeating aging was impossible so much as he was arguing that it wasn’t possible in the near future. He said that to defeat aging we have to do this, that, and the other thing and he said that this would all be very hard but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

I think Aubrey is too optimistic about the time frame. I think he believes that within 20 years we’ll reach “escape velocity” or whatever he calls it. That’s a pretty tall order.

I think both Colin are Aubrey are wrong, both being on the extreme ends of the spectrum, with Aubrey saying that the first person to reach 1000 y.o. is already alive today and Colin saying immortality is impossible.

scott e December 16, 2015 at 11:47 am

@casper g
what do you mean wrong? do you mean wrong for predicting the first person to live to 1000 y o is alive today? or do you just think its impossible full stop?

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