HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

Aubrey de Grey – Advocate for an Indefinite Human Lifespan

Stephen Lee Naish reviews a new interview book between Douglas Lain and controversial age-defying scientist Aubrey de Grey, who was interviewed at the HKRB earlier this year.

Last year on Facebook my friends began sharing a questionnaire, which one filled in and shared again. The first question was ‘What are you most afraid of?’ Most of the answers for that one were everyday occurrences such as spiders, bears, horror movies, Justin Bieber.  I didn’t have to give it much thought when I wrote that death was the thing I was most afraid of. I should clarify; this is not the slow act of dying, but the actual release into death, the last breath, the nothingness, the not knowing of what lies beyond living. This is something that has plagued me for years and as I get older and realise that life is forged on an unmoveable linear narrative, there is increasing concern on how and when I’ll eventually expire. Death is the one certainty of life; the one act we all must go through, and the fact there is no manual to read, no training course to take, no wise sage to tell us how it’s done is a truly terrifying prospect. Biomedical gerontologist and Chief Science Officer of the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation, Aubrey De Grey, is scientific medicines Darth Plagueis, fiddling with the mythical Force to prolong human life (if you don’t know that Star Wars reference, look it up, it’s a cool story).

In the slim and concise Advancing Conversations: Aubrey de Grey – Advocate for an Indefinite Human Lifespan, the first in a new series from Zero Books, author Douglas Lain (Billy Moon, After the Saucers Landed), conducts an interview Aubrey De Grey and allows him to lay out his research on how regenerative medicine can prevent the human aging process, and therefore delay death by possibly hundreds of years. The conversation is carried out in a positive manner and understandable language, so whilst the science is unfathomable to the layman the ideas are at least made clear. De Grey’s research wants to redefine ageing as a disease and then using a series of therapies eliminate the aging disease from the human body.

This is how the paternally youthful De Grey defines ageing:

So, in exactly the same way that a car will progressively accumulate rust and eventually the doors will fall off, similarly the human body accumulates… well, the equivalent of rust, various types of molecular and cellular damage, and eventually that damage accumulates to a level of abundance that is more than what the body is set up to tolerate. And that’s when the overall function of the body starts to decline.

As age creeps in on my own body, I too feel the accumulation of rust in my joints and muscles; the degradation in mind is not far behind, my hair all went last year. De Grey’s research would be welcome to most of us, except a large portion within the scientific community dismisses the work as utopian fantasy, something only fans of Star Trek can ponder. De Grey defines this negative response as a ‘pro-aging trance’ and as he clarifies this is really “a coping strategy, a way of avoiding the psychological trauma of hoping for something that might or might not come to pass in time.” De Grey is up against an instilled belief that aging and death are inevitable. A change in this perspective will be hard to push through. This is also a case of how we perceive the vessel delivering this radical theory. Watch De Grey on one of his many Ted Talks, or debates and he comes across as a mad hippie wizard fidgeting across the stage. This is obviously refreshing to most people; especially those who wish avoid the dry academia of human progress. His approach, though unconventional, may just be the ticket his theories need to push into mainstream recognition.

As much as De Grey’s research is both wonderful and essential; and as much as I want to believe in the overall benefits it could have, there are some holes in its plausibility. I guess this is my own ‘pro-aging trance’ kicking in. There is not much consideration to the economical, environmental, social-political and cultural damage an ageless society could have on mankind as a whole. Most of these issues are swept under the carpet or, at best, De Grey signals that the march of progress will simply solve them. The scenario of an eternal dictator assuming power, a criticism that is often fired at him and his team, is laughed off with De Grey finding it “particularly hilarious because dictator tends to rank pretty high on the league table of risky jobs.” which doesn’t hold up when you consider Spain’s Francisco Franco, and North Korea’s Kim Il-sung both expired at age 82; evil tends to want to hold on tight. De Grey also shrugs off the work impact an ageless society could have. Imagine for a second (Though you may not wish too) you attain the position as the photocopying assistant in a large corporation. With a non-retiring workforce staying within their positions you will be consigned to photocopying assistant for eternity with no upward mobility to become the photocopying manager, or anything else. We are already seeing Generation X and Millennials stuck on the bottom rung of every socio-economical ladder due to the Baby Boomers hanging on to their cushy jobs, paid for houses, well-earned money, and their healthy lives. Though Lain makes the quite valid point that people “would be less likely to put up with that if they had the prospect of living a whole lot longer in those positions.” and this I think is a truth. Unless society can be entirely reorganized (this is alluded too) De Grey’s research could do more harm than good. Death of a previous generation allows society to aspire to greater positions, practice new ideals, right the mistakes previously made. A society with no upcoming generation would possibly stagnate within its own self-made status quo. Whilst these questions are valid they are not ones to be answered by De Grey’s research. In fact, as discussed in this book, there needs to be a more unified approach from the scientific community, with involvement from other fields that follows on from where De Grey’s research begins, and when it becomes legitimised in the eyes of the public. And with time it will, the existence of this book is proof in itself.

Aubrey de Grey, by Roy Christopher

The other question to ask is does anybody really want to live forever? While death scares a large majority of us, wisdom often comes with the aging process; new insights become apparent as mortality approaches. I myself feel I’m in a better shape physically and mentally at age thirty-five than I was at say twenty-five (though some may disagree), due to the need to eat better, drink less alcohol, do more cardio-vascular activity, to hold back the degeneration. Does anybody want to remain locked in their own age range? To remain a perpetual horny teenager, a stuffy fifty year old college professor, or a typecast actor. Perhaps I’m looking at this all wrong, in fact I know I am as this is the brick wall De Grey and his associates have been banging their heads against for nearly two decades. A revolution in how we age will undoubtedly lead to a revolution in how we live our lives. This series of Advancing Conversations is intended to open discussions on theories and research that have yet to enter the popular public discourse (a book with Srećko Horvat is scheduled for later in the year). In this respect, the debut book in this series works a charm in allowing the reader to, at the very least, envision a world that follows a different set of rules.


Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals, including Gadfly, The Quietus, Empty Mirror and Scholardarity. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and the forthcoming Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.

Please support the HKRB by following our Facebook page.

The featured illustration on this post is by Roy Christopher. Find out more here or visit his website.