In a New Republic review of the book Long For This World, Jessica Loudis examines author Jonathan Weiner's investigation of death as "a failure of science rather than a foregone conclusion." While medical quacks have been quixotically trying to solve the "disease" of death for centuries (notably when Serge Voronoff grafted the testicular glands of chimpanzees on to men in the hope that they would "restore vitality"), the promise of genetic tinkering has recently attracted a few academics. One such "off-kilter" professor is Aubrey de Grey, a self-taught Cambridge scholar longing to discover just how humans can become immortal.
Loudis lays out Grey's hypothesis:
According to some bio-gerontologists (the graceless term for de Grey’s field of research) death is the result of bad somatic housekeeping. As our bodies deteriorate, we lose the ability to manage cellular collapse, and eventually, cumulative damage takes its toll. To put it bluntly, death is “simply a problem of garbage disposal.” ...Eternal life, he says, is embedded in our genes, and in order to realize it, we must cross the threshold from preventing disease to eliminating it entirely.
And wrestles with how seriously his notions should be taken:
His theories are extreme, but they do have resonance in mainstream inquiry. Last month, scientists at Boston University identified 150 genetic variations common among centenarians, claiming that they could predict who might make it to one hundred with about 77 percent accuracy. Most incredibly, 90 percent of people with the variations were “disability free at an average age of 93.” Developments such as this make it difficult to disprove de Grey outright, and a few years ago MIT actually put up $20,000 for anybody who could prove that his theory is “so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate." The offer attracted inspired replies, but five years later the money is still on the table.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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