Review: Long for This World

By Elyssa East

It should come as no surprise that Aubrey de Grey, the central character in “Long for This World,” Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Jonathan Weiner’s latest book about the science and philosophy of aging and immortality, looks like “Father Time before his hair turned grey.” De Grey is a computer scientist turned gerontologist who thinks that we can cure aging and essentially become immortal in less than one hundred years.

With his long beard and sunken cheeks, de Grey seems to be deliberately trying to look the part of time-traveling sage. He may look like he’s from the Middle Ages, but his radical theory of how to eliminate human decline that Weiner lays plain is cutting-edge and highly controversial.

In Weiner’s hands, it also has inspired an astute and elegantly presented discussion about why all living things age and die and how life would change were it never to end.

For centuries, science has focused on figuring out how life begins and develops, not when or how it begins to decline. And life’s end, as gauged via average life expectancy, has changed significantly throughout Western history.

During the Roman Empire, it averaged 25 years. A millennium later, during the Middle Ages, it increased to 33 years. During the second half of the 20th century, “we gained almost thirty years, or about as much time as our species had gained before in the whole struggle of existence.” This long view of history indicates that the end of life can be extremely malleable.

Along with longer life spans, our beliefs about how and why life ends have evolved significantly. Weiner charts these ways of thinking from the Bible to the age of Darwin to contemporary laboratories, where single-celled organisms have revealed some of the most significant information about life’s decline.

All living cells produce waste and suffer damage that eventually starts to accumulate and gum up the works inside our molecular machinery.

“Whatever your age, and wherever on Earth you live,” Weiner writes, “your mortality rate doubles every eight years or so, from birth to death. And it doubles because of the buildup of damage and garbage.”

To slow down or stop aging , today’s longevity scientists have been trying to figure out how to manage this deadly cellular gunk by re-engineering either its production, a cell’s repair system or the garbage itself.

Taking out the garbage, Aubrey de Grey’s idea, is theoretically the simplest approach, but its execution is not. Whole-Body Interdiction of Lengthening Telomeres or WILT, de Grey’s theory, involves highly invasive procedures including regular chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants and stem cell replacements. The result, de Grey thinks, would produce nearly immortal humans who are masters of their cells’ rejuvenation.

WILT intrigues some and horrifies others. Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Jan Vijg thinks it is “sheer nonsense.” Cambridge University geneticist John Archer thinks de Grey’s theory is worth testing. “In reality we need more Aubreys….” Archer says. “Chaps like him who can see over the hedges.”

What Weiner sees over the hedges are the complex moral and philosophical questions that immortality would bring to human life. Philosopher Bernard Williams once wrote, “Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless … because death gives meaning to life.” To Weiner’s mind, life may not lose its meaning, but its significance would undoubtedly change.

“Francis Crick once said that a good scientist should be able to explain any laboratory result to a barmaid,” Weiner writes. With “Long for This World,” Weiner has done this Crickism one better. He has written a fascinating, deeply thought-provoking book full of intricate science and complicated moral questions made easily accessible for barmaids and the rest of us ordinary mortals. We will be certain to ponder Weiner’s rich topic for eternity.

This review originally appeared in the Kansas City Star.

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