The Eternal Optimist
Who wants to live forever? Aubrey de Grey, foremost authority in the world’s quest for indefinite life extension, certainly does. It won’t happen immediately, he warns. But given a little more research and a lot more cash, we might soon be extending our lives by two or three hundred years. It’s quite feasible that the first person to live to 1000 is 60 already. Beyond that, he claims, we could be looking at eternity.
If Dr Aubrey de Grey’s claims sound extraordinary, they’re no less wild than his appearance – on the day of our interview the Cambridge University Biological Gerontologist pops up sporting an elongated ginger beard, leather elbow patches on his jumper and trainers straight off the Ark. But de Grey is also a charismatic, compelling speaker, capable of making stem-cell technology sound as simple as fixing your fan belt. The question is: how far will you trust a man who runs a competition to find the world’s oldest mouse? “Cup of tea?” he grimaces, striding into his fusty Cambridge local at 11am. “Don’t be ridiculous! I’ll have a pint of Abbot’s Ale.”
What is indefinite life extension and how does it work?
Well, it’s a bit like indefinite life extension of a machine. Take vintage cars – they weren’t built to last a hundred years, but we’re good enough at maintaining them to keep them going indefinitely. It’s the same with the human body. It accumulates molecular and cellular damage throughout life as a side effect of being alive in the first place; if we can keep the damage down to a manageable level, the machine carries on working well. Once we can do that, we’ll be able to carry on doing it indefinitely.
But if the means exist, why don’t we know about it?
Because the means only nearly exist. We’re close enough to describe in detail how we would do it. Think of the situation we were in with going to the moon in 1940. We had a pretty good idea how to build rockets, but there were a bunch of details that we hadn’t yet worked through. It wasn’t until 1960 that Kennedy announced they wanted to get to the moon by 1969. But that was really close, admittedly closer than we are now with ageing.
Why is ageing such a bad thing?
It causes a lot of suffering and it kills people. I think it’s pretty remarkable that anyone questions that ageing is bad. And I think the only reason we do is as a coping strategy, to put it out of our minds, so that we can get on with our miserably short lives, and not be preoccupied by it.
Doesn’t death serve a very important purpose in life?
Not in the life of the person who’s died it doesn’t. Does death create an urgency in life? Well, we’re all going to get hit by a truck and so on, eventually at least, so that reasoning remains. But if we know that we’ve got a respectable time to live in, then we can embark on bigger projects. If you decided that you have no interest in any woman in the world except for Nicole Kidman, all you have to do is wait long enough and your turn will come in a few thousand years. And this applies to hard problems of all sorts. Some people want to live a long time because they want to visit other planets, and you can’t do that if you’re only living a miserable hundred years.
Would a cure for ageing mean no more kids in the world?
I have no idea. We can’t predict whether the majority of society would decide not to use these technologies because it’s deemed important to have lots of kids running around. Or whether the opposite would occur, that we decide that staying youthful and avoiding the decrepitude and debilitation of ageing is more important than that. Or whether we would decide on a different approach, perhaps maintaining a high death rate as well as a high birth rate as well. To me, it all comes down to the fact that we have no right to impose our imagination of what the future will think on the future itself.
Wouldn’t you miss having young people around?
Yeah, people do worry about what we might call ‘cognitive ossification’. If we virtually stop having kids – because there’s no room for them in this post-ageing world – almost everybody would be chronologically old, even though they would all be biologically young. One could imagine that there’s something intrinsic about having done a lot of things already that makes one less able to be creative, impulsive, whatever. But we just don’t know. We might decide that ageing was a good thing after all, though I hope not.
Are you alarmed by the idea of a 21-year-old girl being chatted up by a 900-year-old man who looks 21?
Well, my wife is 19 years older than me – we met when she was 45 and I was 26 – so it doesn’t worry me very much at all! If we look at parallel situations now, there are plenty of gorgeous women who have taken a load of trouble to look considerably younger than they actually are, and there are plenty of men who wouldn’t say no to shagging Sophia Loren, so I don’t think there’s really a problem there. Besides, eventually everyone will look roughly the same age, and be rather attractive to boot. I’m sure that if we can fix ageing, we’ll have got ugliness wrapped. No question!
Instead of looking at the length of our lives, shouldn’t we be focusing on the quality?
What’s this “instead”? The whole point is to maintain both the quality and the quantity. People don’t want to live for a longer time in a debilitated state. What I’m interested in is keeping people youthful for longer.
If wisdom comes with age, will we be more intelligent as a collective?
Wisdom and intelligence are not quite the same thing. But there’s a fair chance there will be more wisdom in society as a whole, simply because there’s more experience.
What will happen to memory? Will we forget our past over long periods of time?
That’s a nice easy one. In psychology there’s something called the reminiscence bump. If you’re 50 years old, it turns out that you can remember a bit of what happened when you were a kid, a bit of what happened between age 30 and 40, but there’s a bump – which is adolescence – between 15 and 25 of which you can remember more. The way memory works is not a last-in, last-out sort of thing – when you recall something, it reinforces the memory. I know my mother’s name, but I don’t know the names of half the people I went to school with. So this is likely to be the same sort of deal however long we live.
What form would the therapies take? Would it be as simple as dropping a pill?
It’s a good question, and the answer is that it’s likely to change very rapidly. At first they’re going to be very elaborate and arduous, so you’ll have to be no older than middle age to benefit from them. If people are at death’s door then they’re not going to be able to withstand the therapies. It will involve going into a hospital for a month maybe, and you’ll have a load of different stem cell therapies, gene therapies, injections.
What are the downsides to these treatments?
They will be very expensive at first. It’s pretty certain that when these therapies come along initially, they’re going to be quite risky, just like any experimental technology. But I could easily imagine that twenty years down the road from the first therapies being developed, we will be at a point where people are only going into hospital for a day. Eventually it will be just self-administration.
Tell us about the Methuselah Mouse Competition.
It’s very simple. It’s a competition I co-founded to engineer the world’s longest living mouse, and there are two prizes. With the first you’re allowed to change the mouse’s genes before it’s conceived. But the second rejuvenation prize requires no intervention at all until the mouse is halfway through its natural lifespan, so it’s more relevant to real life. The pot prize currently stands at around $3m. Prizes are a great way of getting people to follow their hunches. Also, life extension has always had this ambiguous status – you know, it’s a bit disreputable, not very tweedy-academic. So this is a way of raising the profile of life extension research without trivialising it.
So how long will we have to wait?
Ageing will not disappear tomorrow. In fact, human ageing is unlikely to be appreciably combated by medical treatments for at least 25 years. But the shit is really going to hit the fan when the public begins to feel that it’s only a matter of time before those therapies arrive, even if they haven’t arrived yet, and that’s likely to happen in about ten years. All it will take is for sufficiently impressive results to be obtained in the laboratory with mice, then scientists in general will start saying acknowledging that it’s only a matter of time. Because, of course, science is the new religion.
You worked for Clive Sinclair: genius or fool?
Oh, Clive is a fantastic guy. I would say both, but you have to be both. Of course he has had some completely crazy ideas, like the C5 [the doomed battery-operated three-wheeler launched in the 1980s], but I think the world would move forward faster, technologically, if there were more people like Clive.
Is there a God?
I have no idea. And luckily, I don’t care. If we look at the various interpretations of what God wants, we actually have a duty to combat ageing, because ageing causes suffering. And if you think about it in terms of delaying our ascent to the kingdom of heaven, we’re not supposed to be hastening our own death, whether by action or by inaction, and if that inaction is not developing these therapies then that seems to be a sin, really. Get me another beer, somebody!
Describe your personal utopia
Well, no ageing obviously. I think the cliché that variety is the spice of life is a very true statement – there are so many things you could do with your life if it were indefinite. Of course, there are other things; absence of violence is a good one. At the moment, the most violent societies tend to be the most short-lived, whether it’s sub-Saharan Africa, or inner cities in the US. If you have a low life expectancy in the first place, then you have a low valuation of life, so you behave accordingly. If people had the opportunity to live longer, the view of the value of life would sharply increase. The death penalty, I’m sure, wouldn’t survive for a moment, even in the US.
What currently stands in your/our way?
Money. Or lack of it, as the case may be. I’ve spent the past ten years getting to know all of the top people in the relevant fields, and making sure that they and I are on the same page in terms of what could be done. And these people are all hot to trot. They just need the resources.
Isn’t the scope of all this terrifying?
You’ll get used to it. You couldn’t imagine the internet 20 years ago.