Why you should NOT support Aubrey de Grey's work on ageing. (maybe)

by Sanjay 9mo24th Feb 20191 min read9 comments


EDIT: This was originally something I jotted down briefly on my Facebook wall, but it was suggested to me that I cross post here, so I've done so.

Yesterday I attended a conference on ageing and the extension of life, so much of what I will say here is based on what I heard there.

You may have encountered Aubrey de Grey from his famous TED talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/aubrey_de_grey_says_we_can_avoid_aging

PRO de Grey
At first glance the thought of donating to SENS (the research foundation that de Grey encourages us to donate to) seems appealing:
- de Grey speaks like a pioneering radical
- ageing is something that will cause discomfort and death to almost everyone (who doesn't die prematurely) so the scale of the issue is massive
- he makes it sound like the goal is achievable and neglected

CONTRA de Grey
However yesterday I learned the following:
- From hearing de Grey speak, you might get the impression that the scientific community has deftly avoided studying ageing. This is not the case; it has been studied for some time.
- His talk of an "engineering" approach to solving ageing is very promising if we have a "maintenance/repair" model of ageing (i.e. the body is like a machine and suffers from wear and tear just like any other machine)...
- ... however the scientists speaking yesterday argued this is highly unlikely to be the whole picture. In fact the scientific consensus (if we're to believe yesterday's speakers) is moving towards a model of "antagonistic pleiotropy", which means genes might have multiple ramifications. Genes (e.g.) for expressing calcium might be useful for a young animal (for building bones) but harmful when the animal is older (calcium deposits causing/exacerbating cardiovascular disease)
- So the work of SENS is unlikely to solve ageing on its own.

PRO de Grey
de Grey predicts that scientists will bristle at his work. Could it be that very natural human biases are causing yesterday's established scientists to bad-mouth this upstart outsider who is much more famous than them?
- The way they spoke sounded calm and measured, but I still think that an element of this bias might have crept in. They did not use the word "cult" in describing de Grey's following, but it sounded like they were close to it.
- In particular I wasn't clear on why an engineering approach couldn't be used to address the "antagonistic pleiotropy" issues as well as the maintenance issues.

On balance I updated my views to be more negative about donating to SENS, but I still don't think it's obvious that a donation there is necessarily a bad thing.


Post scripts

The main scientists speaking at yesterday's conference were Dr David Gems, who spoke about using c. Elegans (a nematode) to understand ageing, and Dr Lynne Cox who spoke about senescent cells.

When I refer to "antagonistic pleiotropy" I'm referring to what some might call the "Williams/Blagosklonny hypothesis", after two people who have supported variants of this theory.