Reviewed by: David Brandt-Erichsen
This book is probably the most significant, exciting, pathfinding book I have read so far this century (at the end of this review are brief notes about the two most significant books I have read in my lifetime and how they relate to this book). This is one of those books that creates a brilliant new synthesis of ideas that has the potential of significantly altering the future of the human species: it presents nothing less than a complete scientific roadmap to eliminate the effects of human aging.
Most of the literature with titles like this are long on wishful thinking and short on hard science, even when written by MDs, so I have an automatic tendency to avoid such literature entirely. But I had good reason to suspect that this book might be different, and indeed it was.
I had heard of Aubrey de Grey for some years, and have even met him briefly. He is already the world's most famous biogerontologist — at least I cannot name any others who have appeared on 60 Minutes (in fact, I cannot name any others at all). He was the subject of a fascinating television documentary called "Do You Want to Live Forever?" which was shown on British television in February 2007 but has not been shown in the U. S. (you can see the full 75-minute documentary online on YouTube and I made a DVD from that). The television documentary, however, did not explain the science behind Dr. de Grey's thinking, so I had no way to judge the validity of his ideas — but it certainly piqued my curiosity.
Before Ending Aging was published, delving into Dr. de Grey's contribution to the field was not very easy for most of us — the ideas he talks about were scattered around in various scientific journals. He does have a website that briefly and somewhat obtusely describes his plan, called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). Even that title is a little obtuse but it is precisely crafted and its detailed meaning becomes crystal clear upon reading the book. Even though I have a background as a research tech in molecular biology, I did not grasp the real significance of his ideas from looking at his website (although, admittedly, I did not work hard at it either).
So when a book came out in September 2007 with Aubrey de Grey listed as the author, I immediately grabbed a copy and moved it to the top of my reading list. As he himself states, his ideas really require book-length treatment to explain. I was about half way through the book before the true magnitude of his accomplishment really hit me.
The book is written so a person without any science background can understand it, yet is detailed enough to communicate the ideas to scientists as well. This can be a fine line to tread, and the book does a reasonably good job of it. If I were the book's editor, I would have included a bit more basic background for the non-science-educated reader, and portions of the book will certainly be a struggle for those with little interest in science. But the significance of the subject warrants attention for anyone with an interest in the world around them, and the general reader should find at least 90% of it comprehensible.
Despite some "slow" sections, this book at times becomes more exciting than the best detective novel, as the mysteries of aging are gradually unravelled, the results of the latest studies are revealed, and the bio-engineering strategies for actually reversing the effects of aging are systematically developed.
There is no point in trying to summarize the book’s ideas in a mere review. Suffice it to say that the book presents aging as a genetic disorder which can, should, and will be defeated, and describes, for the first time, a detailed path by which that might be accomplished. If you want a summary you could look at the SENS website, but to understand the ideas there is likely no substitute for reading the book.
That Ending Aging is a book full of brilliant ideas I have no doubt. But the real question is: Are they correct? To that question I do have a few doubts — but in a certain sense this does not matter because both science and engineering are self-correcting as more knowledge and better techniques are obtained. What de Grey describes in this book are engineering strategies based on bioscience and biotechnology that is currently understood. It is exceedingly rare for engineering development of complex technology to follow a smooth path that closely conforms to the first design. Rather, engineers have to build a little and test a little, over and over, until they get a final design that works in the real world. But that does not diminish the importance of the first design — we knew, for example, that a space shuttle could be built long before we went through various iterative designs to produce an actual working shuttle. De Grey's breakthrough contribution is to create a detailed "first design" for ending aging, far beyond what anybody has done before.
De Grey's ideas are controversial in the scientific community. This is as it should be: it is constant criticism and testing that weeds out the good scientific ideas from the bad ones. Ultimately, only time will tell how valid his ideas are. In 2005 and 2006, MIT's Technology Review offered a $20,000 prize for any scientist that could convince an independent panel of biotechnology experts that de Grey's ideas were shown to be invalid. The prize went uncollected, although this of course does not mean that the ideas have been shown to be valid either. The arguments and counter-arguments are available on the Technology Review website.
As I write these words, I am 60 years old. Do I believe that de Grey's plan to reverse the effects of aging will be a clinical reality in time to do me any good personally? My answer to that is a firm "No" (but see below for a possible way around that). In my own field of work, I am acutely aware of how difficult it is and how long it takes to turn biological theory into benchtop reality, let alone clinical application. While an undergraduate in biological science I became excited about the prospect of using viruses as vectors to introduce genes into humans to treat a wide range of conditions. Now, over 40 years later, the prospect of using gene therapy techniques in widespread clinical application still remains a dream for the future, and de Grey's plan is immensely more complicated than that.
There are those who argue that aging and death are natural parts of life and should be accepted as such. This philosophy might be appropriate when there is no other choice. But it is difficult to read this book without concluding that in the future there will indeed be another choice, and that the coming end of aging can be measured in decades rather than centuries.
The future is going to be an exciting place.
I would like to turn now to two related questions that are not discussed in the book, and very briefly discuss these in the context of the two most significant books I have read in my lifetime: (1) At 60 years old, what good does any of this do for me (or you) personally? Wouldn't it be a deep tragedy to be a member of the last generation that has to suffer the ravages of aging and death? (2) If aging is defeated, would this result in insurmountable problems of overpopulation and resource depletion?
1. Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, by K. Eric Drexler (1986). [Complete online copy] [Buy from Amazon] [2nd Edition, 2007, PDF file, free download but you have to register and fill out a questionnaire].
This book presents nothing less than a complete scientific roadmap to — well, to almost anything that is possible to exist that is made out of atoms. Among the more advanced foreseen applications of nanotechnology are bacteria-sized cell repair machines that can fix whatever is wrong with individual cells, curing damage not only from aging and disease but also from frostbite. Although such machines are theoretical and may take 200 years to develop, the basic design proof that nanotechnology works is the existence of living systems. We are nanomachines, therefore nanomachines are possible.
Any possible future cure for aging and for frostbite is the basis for cryonics, the practice of getting frozen (or better yet vitrified) immediately after legal death in the hopes of being revived with future technologies and made youthful and healthy again. This is how future repair technologies can benefit those of us alive today. I have been signed up for cryonics for over 20 years now. Aubrey de Grey is signed up as well, just in case progress in his field is not as rapid as he hopes.
I am proud of my volunteer work to personally place on the web the largest library of information on cryonics available. Consult that if you would like more information. See also the PBS 5-minute video documentary segment "Nanotechnology Takes Off" (May 2007) for a brief and informative look at nanotechnology.
2. The Next Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, by Gerard K. O'Neill (1977; 3rd Edition, 2000). [Review] [Buy from Amazon]. Equivalent book: Colonies in Space, by T. A. Heppenheimer (1977). [Complete online copy] [Review] [Buy from Amazon].
Either of these two books presents nothing less than a complete scientific roadmap to colonizing space on a large scale — not planets, but space itself — and not starting 200 years from now, but starting today. Using 1970s technology, Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill designed 20-mile long cylinders in space that can each accommodate a population of several million people. Construction material for these is not launched from the Earth, but acquired in space from asteroids or by using electromagnetic launchers ("mass drivers") to get material from the Moon. With future nanotechnology, continent-sized space habitats could be built.
Doomsayers about overpopulation and resource depletion overlook solutions like space solar power and the enormous economic resources in the solar system that we already have blueprints for tapping. The solar system has a carrying capacity for a population of at least 25 trillion people, and in the future only a tiny percentage of humanity will live on the Earth. It's inevitable (assuming civilization survives), because space is where the bulk of the resources are.
I am proud of my volunteer work to personally place on the web the largest library of information on space settlement available. Consult that if you would like more information.
The future is going to be an exciting place. I aim to be there. Anybody care to join me?
© 2007 David Brandt-Erichsen
Other book reviews by David Brandt-Erichsen: