“I understand it takes a certain amount of guts to aim high.” —Aubrey de Grey
We all grow old. We all die.
For Aubrey de Grey, a biogerontologist and chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation, accepting these truths is, well, not good enough. He decided in his late twenties (he’s currently 54) that he “wanted to make a difference to humanity” and that battling age was the best way to do it. His life’s work is now a struggle against physics and biology, the twin collaborators in bodily decay.
He calls it a “war on age.”
Grey considers aging an engineering problem. The human body is a machine, he told me in the following interview, and like any machine, it can be maintained for as long as we want.
This is not an isolated view. There is a broader anti-aging movement afoot, which seems to be growing every day. As Tad Friend describes colorfully in a recent New Yorker essay, millions of venture capital dollars are being dumped into longevity research, some of it promising and some of it not. Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, is among the lead financiers (he’s a patron of Grey’s organization as well).
Grey’s work is particularly interesting. For too long, he argues, scientists have been looking for solutions in all the wrong places. There is no monocausal explanation for aging. We age because the many physical systems that make up our body begin to fail at the same time and in mutually detrimental ways.
So he’s developed what he calls a “divide-and-conquer strategy,” isolating the seven known causes of aging and tackling them individually. Whether it’s cell loss or corrosive mitochondrial mutations, Grey believes each problem is essentially mechanical, and can therefore be solved.
But even if this Promethean quest to extend human life succeeds, several questions persist.
If we develop these anti-aging technologies, who will have access to them? Will inequality deepen even further in a post-aging world? And what about the additional resources required to support humans living 200 or 300 or 500 years? The planet is stretched as it is with 7 billion people living roughly 70 years on average (women tend to live three to five years longer than men) — and is already facing serious stresses around food, water, and global warming going forward.
Grey, to his credit, has thought through these problems. I’m not sure he’s alive to the political implications of this technology, specifically the levels of state coercion it might demand.
But when pressed, he defends his project forcefully.
How anti-aging therapies might work
Is there a simple way to describe theoretically what the anti-aging therapies you’re working on will look like — what they’ll do to or for the body?
Aubrey de Grey
Oh, much more than theoretically. The only reason why this whole approach has legs is because 15 or 17 or so years ago, I was actually able to go out and enumerate and classify the types of damage. We’ve been studying it for a long time, so when I started out in this field in the mid-’90s so I could learn about things, I was gratified to see that actually aging was pretty well understood.
Scientists love to say that aging is not well understood because the purpose of scientists is to find things, out so they have to constantly tell people that nothing is understood, but it’s actually bullshit. The fact is, aging is pretty well understood, and the best of it is that not only can we enumerate the various types of damage the body does to itself throughout our lives, we can also categorize them, classify them into a variable number of categories
So I just talked about seven categories of damage, and my claim that underpins everything that we do is that this classification is exhaustive. We know how people age; we understand the mechanics of it. There is no eighth category that we’re overlooking. More importantly, for each category there is a generic approach to fixing it, to actually performing the maintenance approach that I’m describing, repairing the damage.