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.


12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:28 PM
New Comment

Lol at "NOT" and "(maybe)" in the same title.

In his 2007 paper ‘Protagonistic Pleiotropy’, de Grey comments on ‘...the concept of antagonistic pleiotropy (AP) proposed by Williams (Williams, 1957) and now recognised to play a widespread role in aging’. He also mentioned it in an interview posted on fightaging.org last year.

So presumably antagonistic pleiotropy is already accounted for in the SENS Foundation’s ongoing work in developing repair technology, even if it’s not defined as one of the seven major classes of cellular and molecular damage in its own right.

Everything that works in machine is antagonistic pleiotropy. Car brakes stop car from crashing. But using car brakes wears out (damages) brakes. Machines damage themselves via machines normal operation. Also known as wear and tear. To keep machine functioning forever just need to repair machine at rate faster than damage laid down. Damage is defined as structural changes to the machine that impair machine function. Machine can only tolerate finite amount of structural change. Too much structural change stops machine function leading to death.

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.

It's weird that you got this impression, because in many TED Talks de Grey explicitly mentions that biogerontology has more than a century of history. It's his approach to be new, together with the attitude of aging research as translational research instead of just basic non-translational biology research. When, for example, The Buck Institute was founded 20 years ago, it was frowned upon to think about aging research as a translational field, and the whole discipline was much smaller.

Regarding antagonistic pleiotropy: be careful not to mix theories explaining different causal levels of aging. Antagonistic pleiotropy explains some of the processes that lead to damage, but doesn't say anything about damage itself. Aubrey de Grey's categorization of damage is actually more accepted than ever. The scientific consensus is settled on something very close to it, described in the landmark paper "The Hallmarks of Aging", from 2013.

I don't know who you heard criticizing de Grey so harshly, but that's very uncommon now. It happened in the early 2000s but not now. SENS Research Foundation, in fact, works with many universities and established institutions.

I highly suggest to read my new post about SENS Research Foundation that I just published here. I delve deep in these topics and more. I also plan to interview Dr. de Grey, and you will find some potential interview questions.

Thanks for taking the time to post; I like seeing people share experiences like this on the Forum as well as on Facebook.


I'd recommend against titles that use an all-caps "NOT" when the post's conclusion is highly uncertain; readers are likely to get the wrong impression before they look at the post, or even after they've read the post (titles are easy to remember).


I don't have any opinion of SENS, but it seems like a strong adjustment from "yes, donate" to "probably don't donate" would be better off coming from a deeper investigation (e.g. "these two key papers have mistakes X and Y" or even "I surveyed 50 experts and found that 90% of them thought SENS was approaching the issue incorrectly"). Conversations at a conference seem like pretty weak evidence against someone's scientific work unless they are extremely damning (e.g. "this person faked the data for a major study") or represent a strong consensus within a community with solid credentials and past achievements.

(I don't know from this post how many people you spoke with, what their positions are, or how successful they've been in their own work on ageing.)

I suspect that even de Grey wouldn't claim that SENS was at all likely to "solve ageing on its own", or that his organization is among the first to really study aging (though if he did, that would push me somewhat away from wanting to donate, as a sign of massive overconfidence). Maybe his TED talk proves otherwise, but I'd guess that his true argument is something like "aging research gets less funding and attention than it should, compared to other types of health research" (for a post that makes a similar argument, see Sarah Constantin).

Seconded on title, enjoyed content but title felt click-baity and misleading, especially given 90% of readers will only read the title.

I agree that Sanjay's claim was pretty strong based on his evidence (this kind of hyperbole is more at home on Facebook), but surveying 50 experts seems extreme. I think hearing the views of 5 key experts would be enough to shift my opinion.

I agree that hearing the views of five key experts would be enough; by "survey", I literally meant something like a poll or survey with a well-worded question about de Grey's work that ended in something like a yes-or-no answer (though 50 might still be extreme).

It's hard to tell from this post how "key" the experts who spoke to the author were, or how seriously they'd studied SENS' research agenda and past publications (vs. mostly knowing about de Grey's beliefs through his TED talk and other brief summaries).

I accidentally made this a linkpost for Aubrey de Grey's TED talk. I then tried to undo this, but it didn't seem to work.

Thanks for mentioning the issue, Sanjay. I've reported this to our tech team; they'll look into it and see whether or not this is expected behavior (I don't know whether removing linkpost text is a feature we're meant to have now, or one we haven't added so far).

Woops, that's a bug on our side. I just fixed it, which means the behavior here should be fixed whenever the EA Forum next updates to the latest LW version.

The SENS approach is to remove calcium deposits in arteries at rate faster than calcium deposited. Arteries can tolerate some calcium deposits. Excess calcium deposits cause cardiovascular events like stroke and heart attack. We all have small calcium deposits in our arteries. We're fine because there isn't too much yet.