Can we stop the aging process? Should we? Andrew Ladd explores two books that tackle our quest to stay forever young.
I’d like to start with a confession: I think George Clooney is a fine-looking man, and he’s only gotten finer as he’s aged. Sometimes when I see a picture of him I find myself wishing I could just skip to my late forties.
Still, I’d be fibbing if I said I don’t otherwise consider forty (or even thirty) with a certain degree of terror and foreboding, and I’d be outright bald-faced lying if I said I didn’t sometimes wish I could return to the carefree youth of my early twenties. I’m sure most people wish they could stay young at some point in their lives, and that’s why the anti-aging industry is, well, such an industry.
Indeed, according to two new books out this summer, Long For This World: The Strange Science of Immortality by Jonathan Weiner (Ecco, $27.99), and The Youth Pill: Scientists at the Brink of an Anti-Aging Revolution by David Stipp (Current, $26.95), the anti-aging industry is about to reach critical mass: within our lifetimes, according to Weiner and Stipp, we might be surviving well into our hundreds—or even, depending on who you ask, into our six- seven- and eight-hundreds.
In some respects there’s little to tell these two books apart. Science is, after all, science, and there’s only so much creativity you can exercise in explaining the finer workings of our molecular biology. That’s especially true because the most obvious metaphor for aging is already so compelling and intuitive: as our cells age, they get worse at taking out the garbage (mutations, free radicals, other cellular gunk), and as all that garbage collects it begins to show—until finally (gulp) the dump is condemned.
Because of that, most anti-aging research is devoted to making our biological garbage disposals more efficient, and as both authors happily explain, there’s already been a good deal of progress on that front.
Researchers have isolated antioxidants in foods like red wine that help dispose of free radicals and are busy trying to replicate their effects with synthetic compounds; elsewhere, money is pouring into drugs that mimic the effect of CR, or calorie restriction, a curious phenomenon whereby almost any animal’s lifespan seems to be significantly extended simply by reducing their calorie intake by about thirty percent.
This is the conventional end of the anti-aging spectrum, especially relative to some of the kooky stuff people did a hundred years ago. (In that respect, history is also history, and both authors also make much of some of the more outlandish efforts of the past, a lot of them involving testicles.)
But where the two books finally begin to diverge is in covering the even kookier anti-aging scientists out there today: while Stipp sticks mainly to the key players in the mainstream, Weiner structures his book around the research of Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey—a fringe lunatic if ever there was one.
One of de Grey’s biggest bugaboos, for instance, is cancer: until we’ve cured that, he says, any other anti-aging advances are essentially useless, and to that end he suggests genetically engineering every cell in our bodies to be lacking the gene for one specific enzyme that drives all types of tumors. Anyone undergoing that procedure would then have to have regular enzyme “transplants” to make sure their normal cells continued to function.
That might sound a bit like dystopian science fiction—if we’re all dependent on regular enzyme transplants, what happens if a natural disaster knocks out all our technology?— but it’s actually fodder for the uncharacteristic lack of foresight it displays, because throughout, otherwise, de Grey’s outlook and Weiner’s coverage of it is thoughtful and comprehensive.
They tease out the potential consequences of a society in which we all live well past 100 —for example, that we’d all be more terrified of accidents with the spectre of old age removed—and most importantly they ask a broader question than simply whether we can live forever: they ask whether we should live forever.
It’s a good question to ask. As an individual I can see definite pros (and a few cons) to immortality, but from the point of view of the species immortality isn’t necessarily that desirable. No death means no room for children—even assuming you would want children if you were going to live forever yourself—and no children means the species can never evolve. (To say nothing of the joys of having kids.)
Besides, a society populated entirely by Methuselahs would be very different from the one we live in now—when would we retire? When would we get Medicare?—and one could argue that we’d be better off sticking with the devil we know.
Stipp, unlike Weiner, is unapologetically enthusiastic about the anti-aging industry, and would probably say I’m being close-minded or standing in the way of progress. But I’d more willingly swallow a youth pill from someone who’s contemplated its consequences than from someone who hasn’t, and Stipp’s blind admiration of the anti-aging industry often has an almost cultish earnestness to it that makes me doubt his objectivity.
Hell, he even admits at several points that a big reason he’s interested in all this stuff is to work out what supplements he should be taking. (Tellingly, for someone keen to convince us that the anti-aging industry is legit, Stipp mentions de Grey hardly at all.)
What’s a liability for a thinker, though, is an asset for a writer, and in that respect Stipp’s breathless excitement serves him very well: The Youth Pill ends up being a rip-roaring and endlessly readable scientific thriller even if it’s not much more than a propaganda piece. (It’s the same reason Glenn Beck is so compulsively watchable even if you can’t stand his politics.)
Conversely, Weiner’s lengthy ruminations about the morality of mortality turn his manuscript into the literary equivalent of a Jackson Pollock: the material is such a messy splatter that you’re not quite sure where to look or even what exactly you’re looking at. Half the time he barely even seems to be talking about mortality, and though he’s still talking in an elegant and interesting way, it’s hard to sustain your attention span when there’s no clear throughline to focus on.
Whether you want thoughtful philosophizing or eager salesmanship, though, you ought to take the time to read at least one of these books for some insight into the intriguing world of anti-ageing research—and hey, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll live long enough to read both.