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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25 Responses to Review: Long for This World

  1. Wouldn’t it be great if they could figure out how to make us live forever in Kaali’s little house of horrors?
    Nothing like an article promoting the bodily concept of life to start a great spiritual discussion.
    I hope they succeed and they can all live forever in Kaali’s realm of spiritual slaughter on this rebel planet where some of the worst dregs in the Universe are interned for severe discipline of material suffering.

    • I think a more helpful attitude about “Kali Yuga” is that it affords the opportunity to achieve the highest ideal of Vrindavana by the simplest means possible: harinama. That means that in this age there is a beautiful collapse between sadhya and sadhana in harinama. It is actually because there is some suffering in this world that one is propelled toward spiritual achievement. To live longer in this world, if it involves continuous participation in bhakti, could be extremely helpful.

      Otherwise, despite the obvious pains of this age (and most certainly of other ages as well), there are also some amazing things about this world and age as well. In fact, this age has proven quite productive in correcting some of the social ills of previous ages. Can anyone who is currently playing on the internet, on their own computer, in their own shelter, with the energy to type, and with people listening, really say that they are currently “interned for severe discipline”? Personally, I find life pretty fascinating. Additionally, whenever I am blessed with a even brief moment of nama-abhasa, I feel an enjoyment that makes me feel very fortunate to be alive in Kali Yuga (and I am a total negative-nelly!). I guess your attitude has even tapped out my capacity for despairing.

      Wow KB, you have a great way of rustling feathers and starting conversation! I am actually really grateful for this. Is this intentional?

      • Gopakumar das says:
        July 19, 2010 at 12:18 pm

        I think a more helpful attitude about “Kali Yuga” is that it affords the opportunity to achieve the highest ideal of Vrindavana by the simplest means possible: harinama.

        That is quite true. However, I was referring to Kaali Devi and not Kali-yuga.

        The material world is ALL Durga’s world/Kaali’s world. No matter what age it is.
        Without Shiva-Shakti, this material world would not exist.
        All living entities entering the womb of Maya are impregnated by Shiva.

    • The universe or the multiple universes are too big for you to mention this particular planet as a special place for intern. Earth is not even a tiny dot in the multiple universes Mahavisnu exhales, so let us keep things in proper perspective and keep the importance of the earth to what is deserves.

      • I was referring to this particular universe.
        Anyone that knows local universe cosmology and has contact with any of the celestial authorities assigned here knows that such nightmarish hells as unfolded on Haiti and other places and still unfolding are all the evidence we need that indeed many lost souls are suffering Hellish karmas on this planet right now.
        As politically uncool and incorrect as it might be, if we see through the eyes of shastra we cannot but see that in fact many sinful creatures have incarnated there to endure the suffering and misery that so terribly inflicts that Island nation which is the only country in the world established on a slave rebellion.
        This is just one of many examples I could give to demonstrate that Earth has been relegated to an local universe internment planet. If you knew how marvelous and wonderful are 9 out of 10 Earth planets really are, you could understand how subnormal and retarded are our Earth civilizations.
        A certain celestial authority has revealed these things to a number of receptive individuals on the planet right now.

        Look around. The planet is teeming with evidence of many, many sinful living entities running wild on the fast track to Hell.

        • Alright, I am also going go to hell along with them then.

          • Hell can occasion any and all of us at any given time.
            I know there are a lot of precious souls suffering on this planet right now. It’s horrible. It is the face of Kaali’s merciless march through the universe.
            In America we are conditioned to a much less Hellish life, but in many places on this planet there is severe hardship, suffering, misery, starvation, disease and pestilence. Earth can be heaven or Earth can be Hell. It it is all just a matter of karma or mercy. Haiti as an Island is one of the most lovely places on Earth, but just look at the Hell that has been cultivated on Haiti by the Haitians. No proper building codes, no proper government and the slave rebellion is finally crushed by the hand of God.

            If one takes too much in this life then in the next life he will have to endure shortage. That is the law of Karma as explained by the Acharyas.

  2. Taking out the garbage, Aubrey de Grey’s idea

    Hah!

    I suggest Grey that His Book is the garbage that needs to be taken out first…Useless literature.

    • Hah! I suggest Grey that His Book is the garbage that needs to be taken out first…Useless literature

      .

      Is it useless for someone to present a view of immortality that contradicts yours? You have to do better than that and explain why it is useless and do so by dealing with his arguments point for point rather than merely saying it is useless because your beliefs and books say otherwise. If you want to convince educated, contemporary society that only the atma is immortal, you have to be familiar with their arguments to the contrary and be capable of refuting them in detail with objectivity to appear credible. Indeed, you have not even read the review well: It’s not Grey’s book.

      But if that is not your interest and it is merely bhajana, you may say from a Gaudiya perspective that it is useless literature without the need of any further explanation.

      • I think that if some people GV want to focus on bhajana only, it will be helpful that do so and stop giving shallow responses to issues in contemporary society they have no idea about. Their bhajana and their example will do more for GV than their half baked responses on worldly issues.

      • Dear Maharaj,

        Today I am humble and will say Yes I did make the mistake, it is not the character Aubrey de Grey but Jonathan Weiner, the writer. Coming to objectivity of the criticism of why it is useless and has to be “garbaged”: It carries the same idea as with Darwin’s theory of evolution except for Weiner’s inability to conceive that Eternal life was possible and still is as elaborated in the Sastras and it is not Science that will get to that in the chemical way.

        thinks that we can cure aging and essentially become immortal in less than one hundred years.

        I wonder if it not a phantasmagoria of a science fiction comic writer

        • Vikram Ramsoondur

          Ram, that post of yours has verily impelled me to reveal on this platform, although that wasn’t quite my intent, that people like you, more than anything else, are the reason why, some months ago, I abandoned the idea of devoting any more time, energy and resources to study Chaitanya Vaishnavism, or any other form of Vaishnavism or even Hinduism for that matter. I now openly proclaim myself a born-again empirical rationalist, which is how I began my metaphysical quest in the first place, to those who are familiar with my personal evolutionary path in regard to matters preternatural and mystical, and hey, I would ask you to kindly accept a zillion thanks from me for that.

          • I think what has happened to you is bound to happen to people who do not have literal faith in the scriptures. People who have literal absolute faith in scriptures are put up on the pedestal. In addition, they need to show how everybody else who does not accept GV is demonaic and writing nonsense and is non-responsive to preaching. They however, extend no courtesy to listen to the counterarguments and just say they speak from sastra so can dismiss everything else. Few people in the tradition can digest the fact that brahmanas and kshatriyas could eat some kinds of meat before, there are different versions of the S.B, Mahabharata and many Puranas pointing to interpolation in the very thing that are absolutely confident about, bhima is a devotee in spite of drinking human blood, scriptures available to us do not constitute all revelation (in fact scriptures themselves say that other planetary systems may have more expanded versions of scriptures), there were tyrants on the earth before in “better” ages (Parashurama cleansed them 7 times) and everything was not all peaceful and great compared to Kali Yuga, etc. And if you stay silent you are considered timid, and if you say something you are considered offensive and ostracized or sidelined from the community.

          • Gaura-vijaya,

            If you are going to keep criticizing the fundamentalists, you should really learn to have more balance in your posts and be less extreme. You think everyone who doesn’t have literal faith in the scriptures is bound to leave Gaudiya Vaisnavism? And that only fanatics are respected? I believe that even in Iskcon the most respected devotees are the balanced, liberal ones: Radhanatha Maharaja, for example.

            Yes, it’s too bad that there are a lot of fanatics in Gaudiya Vaisnavism. But that’s not the whole story.

        • Today I am humble and will say Yes I did make the mistake . . .

          Why only today? That is not the teaching. I think we have found the problem.

          • Vikram Ramsoondur

            Spot on, your brief forensic analysis of my recantation of the faith of the Bengali Vaishnavas was, Gaura-Vijaya. And I’ll also add that if one is naturally liberal and latitudinarian in orientation and have little tolerance for petty closed-mindedness and religious bigotry, the feeling to want to get out at the earliest chance is certainly magnified in no small measure.

          • Audarya-lila dasa

            Vikram,

            I can’t agree with your assessment, even though I honor your individuality and freedom of choice.

            I was repulsed for many years from GV based on my perceptions of many of it’s adherents. However I could never move my own heart away from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu or Sri Nama Prabhu.

            After reading Sri Guru and His Grace my perception changed and I was able to deeply honor the faith of others even though there is much I disagree with about their expression of such. I realized what a rare gift faith is and also my connection with those who have it even in small dose.

            Chaitanya vaishnavism affords one the highest prospect available to the soul and the fact that many are attracted to that but not exemplary in terms of liberal thinking, political correctness or whatever yardstick we measure them by has no bearing on that fact.

            Gaudiya vaishnavism is all about developing your heart and realizing the true nature of being. That, to me at least, is the most worthy pursuit a human being can involve themselves in. The fact that many are far from that goal while still traversing the path isn’t cause for abandoning the pursuit. It may look like they aren’t even on the same path or headed in the same direction at times but if we understand the goal we will push on. As this is a movement of the heart, as the heart softens and sincerity of purpose is understood by Paramatma then you will be directed to those ahead on the path who can help you navigate correctly and move forward meaningfully.

  3. Yes the fact that GV adherents have an ego unmatched by anybody about their superiority over everybody else makes it a great prospect. The 8 verses of sikshastakam are only in the theory books for GV and many of the adherents are opposite of what is described in 12th, 13th chapter of the Gita. So if the high theory is so far away for 99.9% people, yet they feel that they are there, other people will find it hypocritical.
    Overall, I understand where you are coming from and I admire that you are able to honor fanatic people in GV. People should not blame muslims for honoring terrorists either as according to them they are at least on the right path of Islam even though they are in the lowest storey of their “building”.

    • Yes the fact that GV adherents have an ego unmatched by anybody about their superiority over everybody else makes it a great prospect.

      This is a silly exaggeration, and as always, no one disagrees about fanatical devotees being plentiful. If you are concerned that people are missing that point, don’t be. But that is just part of a more nuanced reality that is hard to discern with blanket statements and extreme exaggerations.

      • Yes I agree, it was an exaggeration. It was an emotional response. Thanks to both you and Vrindaranya for correcting me. I agree that my comments have been over the top. Those can be deleted.

  4. Gopa Kumara Das

    I find that leaving our most embarrassing responses public (I have a few myself… Ok, a lot) help us cultivate humility (and impulse control). Now I think more before I write and look back on my embarrassments to say, “what the hell is wrong with me? Of that’s right… I’m kanistha! Get to it Gopa! Harinama help!!! (vocative)!”

  5. Interesting topic.
    The idea of transcending death is quite popular. Some try to do it on a bodily platform because that is all they know. We may find it naive, but others find our Vaishnava quest for immortality even more naive or flat out delusional. Still, what unites us is a desire for permanent existence, a very constructive and uniquely human quest. If we say that in Satya-yuga people lived for thousands of years and it was great, why scoff at people who want to live forever now?

  6. There are several separate questions that should be addressed regarding Weiner’s work. It is possible that these are addressed in the book.

    What does Weiner consider to be immortal? We would consider someone, these days, to be practically immortal if they lived for 200 years. Doubling our current life span would produce changes in the world, but is not so extreme as to cause us to rethink our philosophy.

    Where will the resources for immortality treatments come from, and who will have access to them? If we observe the current distribution of wealth, it would seem that the rich and the politically powerful will be made immortal, while the poor will continue to live their short lives.
    The review speaks of bone marrow transplants – I am hopeful that Weiner is envisioning some type of cell culture capable of generating MHC compatible bone marrow. Current technology requires a matched person, and the ethical implications of this should be obvious. I also hope that his stem cells will be derived from banked and cultured stem cells from a benign source such as adult adipose tissue, and not from fetal sources.
    I wonder if Weiner has considered the possiblity that there will be unforseen side effects of these treatments. I would think cancer would be a worry – cancer results from uncontrolled cell division, and the division of stem cells is less well regulated than that of differentiated cells. Cancer has already been a problem with current attempts at stem cell therapy.

    How will Weiner address the problem of dementia? The brain has far less regenerative capacity that other body organs. It may be easy enough to regenerate bone or muscle tissue, but regenerating or replacing damaged brain tissue, if even possible, will inevitably result in a loss of stored learning. Will the person with the new brain be the same one as before? Sastra would indicate yes, but the break in continuity during a single life span would be difficult to manage.

    How will we have the resources to support the increase in population? People will not stop reproducing, and if a segment of the population becomes immortal, then the population will grow faster than it is now. The immortals, with their long life experiences, I’m sure will be quite clever at manipulating policies to make sure that they are well provided for. Again, the poor with short lives are likely to be negatively impacted if resources become scarce.

    The most interesting question to contemplate is whether an extended life span, if all of the above concerns could be ameliorated, would be good or bad for spiritual life. A distinct advantage would be that it would provide more time for spiritual development. If you could live for a thousand years, you would have time to learn Sanskrit, study all the commentaries, and memorize the SB. You could spend 10 years performing austerities, and it would be only a blip in your lifespan. Perhaps there would be less of a feeling of rushing through life, attempting to complete all sorts of tasks before time runs out. If people lived for hundreds of years, perhaps more people will have tasted all that material life has to offer and realize that there must be more. People might spend the first hundred years being obnoxious and materially directed teenagers, then grow bored with it and pursue a higher ideal.

    Unfortunately, I think there is an equal (or greater) possibility that human nature will not change, and that longer lives means simply that – a longer time spent immersed in material existence. More bills to pay for longer, more family member with which to become entangled, more petty political and social causes to be caught up with. If that’s the case, then immortality treatments become a bit of a non-question. Yes, you may live for longer, but does that really help you? Let Weiner try his treatments (if they can be done ethically), let some people have longer lives. What have they gained? I’m pretty sure the immortality will not be true immortality – perhaps they will live for 300 years, or 500 years, or 1000 years, but death will come for them in the end.

  7. I just re-opened Swami’s BG for the first time in months, and the next verse I read (where the ribbon was) contained this comment on 8.17:
    “According to this verse, the duration of Brahma’s days and nights are incredibly long from the human standpoint. Yet all of them put together are not enough to save him from death. Those who know the truth about the days and nights of Brahma truly know the nature of day and night. They know them to be, however long, unable to deliver enduring experience. Regardless of just how long Brahma lives, Krsna’s main point here is that however long a person lives on any material plane, his life is temporary. Thus Krsna reminds us of the all-pervading influence of time.”

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