"Is Aging a Disease that can be Cured?" Why? Radio Episode with Guest Aubrey de Grey
6:22PM Sep 29, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
Aubrey de Grey
Disclaimer: This transcript has been autogenerated and may contain errors, do not cite without verifying accuracy. To do so, click on the first word of the section you wish to cite and listen to the audio while reading the text. If you find errors, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the episode name and time stamp where the error is found. Thank you.
Why philosophical discussions about everyday life is produced by the Institute for philosophy and public life, a division of the University of North Dakota's College of Arts and Sciences. Visit us online at why Radio show.org
Hi, I'm jack Russel Weinstein host of wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. On today's episode, we are asking Aubrey de Grey whether aging is a disease that could be cured. While it may sound like an odd question, what would happen if we were to consider aging as an illness instead of a fact of life? What if we regard it not just as a conglomeration of sicknesses like cancer, Alzheimer's disease or arthritis, but an illness in itself? What if we asked whether we can make our bodies younger again? Is this craziness or would it be worthwhile? This idea has its precedence. Humans have been socially constructing sickness ever since we developed the concept of normal, homosexuality was once considered disease, but now it isn't. addiction, on the other hand, was regarded as weakness of will, but it is now thought of as an illness with neurological components. In short, what we call healthy is really a set of expectations about how much we weigh how far we can walk and which food we can digest. There are two advantages that come from pathologizing aging. The first is that it becomes a potentially solvable problem. We generally regard getting older as a simple indisputable fact of life. It is the precursor to death, after all, the partner of taxes the other human certainty. By making aging into a problem, we give ourselves permission to think about it intellectually, to talk to others about it without having to undermine our own interest, and to devote resources to its cure. Philosophy is often attacked for creating problems where there are none. But identifying new controversies is essential to progress. You can't solve a problem if you don't know it's there.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously called humanity the being unto death. He argued that what makes us unique is that we are the only animals that know we die, and that this impending death gives our life meaning. But what if instead of seeing death as an unavoidable ending, he saw it as a human challenge, something to overcome? How would his understanding of human beings change if he defined us in terms of our possibilities, rather than our limitations? I bring this up because Heidegger was certainly on to something. Death does define a great deal about how we see ourselves. parents worked very hard to teach their kids to be independence they can manage once their parents are gone. The ideal marriage lasts until one of the couple dies, people scrimped and saved to retire, they can spend a few decades free of work responsibility. What would family life look like? If your child always expected you to be by their side? Would people still marry if they were expected to be together for 5000 years instead of 50? What happens to the idea of retirement, if people are able bodied enough to work well, forever, the ladder the work thing is pretty horrifying thought even for me and I like my job. Aging is so intertwined in the human experience, that if we cured it, we would have to rethink everything else, we'd have to restructure the way we work, play, love and lament. Maybe then, the refusal to think about aging as an illness to be cured is not a lack of imagination, but a fear of no longer living a life that is comprehensible to us. But if this is the objection, we need to remember that our own lives would be largely in comprehensible to Thomas Jefferson to William Shakespeare to Joan of Arc. In fact, most of my own life was in comprehensible to my own grandmother, and she was only 99 when she died, not 990. This doesn't mean she couldn't have learned the things she needed to. It just means she didn't have the time. The other advantage of thinking about aging as an illness is that it shifts getting older from being a literary concern the purview of poets and novelists to one of science. The medical industry has long seen itself as managing aging. It is focused on figuring out how to make getting older more pleasant or making dying less traumatic. From morphine to hospice. Medical Science has advanced palliative care and measurably, but it considers immortality a non starter, the same non starter I suspect that people thought going to the moon was or curing polio or cloning. Those two required an optimistic view of human capabilities and a faith in human knowledge. What do we have to lose other than death? Today's guest approaches the question of aging from both the philosophical and the scientific perspective. He sees it as both a problem to solve and a perspective to overcome. This makes him a compelling advocate for a project that almost nobody believes will work. It makes the search For the cure for aging, possibly the most important underdog story that was ever written. If aging is an illness, it can be cured, and it can be cured. Well, let's find out what's next. And now our guest, Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist and the Chief Science Officer for the sens foundation in Mountain View, California. He's the author of ending aging, the rejuvenation breakthroughs that could reverse human aging in our lifetime. Aubrey, welcome to why.
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
We have pre recorded the show. So we won't be taking any questions. But if you'd like to send your comments, tweet us at why radio show post a email@example.com slash wire radio show or visit our live chat room at why Radio show.org. So I had a lot of questions, Aubrey that I wanted to start with including some that I ran by you when we contacted each other over email. But as I was driving here, I I wanted to ask what amounts to I think, the first question that comes to mind and people's, as people think about immortality, and I want to do it by channeling my best friend's mother, who was born and raised in the Bronx. What are you crazy? Is this just insanity? Are you taking the the greatest fantasy of human beings and taking it seriously in a way that nobody ever actually wanted you to do?
Well, so when people ask me whether I'm crazy, I guess my first response? And my first answer is to come back with another question. Which is, do you mean, am I crazy to view aging as a potentially solvable problem? Or do you mean, am I crazy to think that it would be a good idea to bring aging under medical control? Now, I think from the elaboration that you gave, that your main thinking is the first of those. Am I crazy to think that aging could in principle be brought under medical control? And, you know, it's a reasonable question, because, of course, first of all, people have been claiming, since pretty much the dawn of civilization, that aging already could be brought under medical control by some kind of magic bullet, some kind of fountain of youth. And secondly, because you know, at the moment, there are not very many experts like myself coming out there and saying that, yes, this is within striking distance. However, the first thing I want to point out is that the number of experts who are saying things that sound suspiciously similar to what I've been saying for the past 15 years, is great. You know, people are beginning to say, Yeah, well, you know, there's a lot of progress. And we do understand the nature of the problem pretty well now. And yeah, well, you know, I mean, we're going to carry on making progress. And eventually, you know, aging is a very, very difficult problem, but it's only financially difficult, eventually, we're going to get there. Not very many experts are willing to talk in terms of any kind of timeframes. Yes. And I think that's a big problem. I think that the failure of responsibility on the part on the part of most of my colleagues, because I feel that unless we do talk about timeframes, or be it, of course, definitely very much hedged by emphasis about the speculative nature of those predictions. You know, other people are going to say, Well, yes, it will happen 1000 years from now, it's not a problem for me today, and that will slow down progress. But no, so I think that, you know, it's reasonable to wonder whether I'm crazy, but to actually answer the question, and one has to look at the details of not only what I'm saying, but of how what I'm saying is being received by other experts, and then one comes to the answer that way, you know, probably I'm not crazy.
You know, it's interesting cuz you are featured in a documentary called the immortal lists. And then about six months ago, I think there was an article about this aging research in the New York Times Magazine and, and a lot of the media coverage of you focuses on and the people you're working with focus on the psychological motivations, you know, why does the person do this? You know, what is the secret that they are trying to, you know, overcome? How are they eccentric or and it seems that these are just ad hominem attacks against the against the project that very few people are really taking you. on you at your word as a member of good faith and let's talk about the science. Let's talk about the philosophy. Do you find that Do you find that the debates are as much about you and discrediting the the, the you as an agent as opposed to handling the project in itself and dealing with the project on its own terms?
There is a lot of that there's a lot of looking at motivations and Looking at credibility looking at, you know, as you say, ad hominem aspect of the question. And I think, you know, it's important to point out that these things are happening and that the real meat of the question is often ignored. But actually, at the same time, I have some degree of, well, if not sympathy, at least comprehension of where that's all coming from. The fact is that nobody really wants to get their hopes up on all of this, there is a huge terror of aging that pervades pretty much all of us, not not necessarily even of death, but of the suffering that precedes death from aging. And that is a huge psychological challenge for anybody. It's something that most people can't stomach. And instead, they only, they have to find some way to put it out of their mind. And the best way to do that is when they encounter someone like myself, who is actually bringing this to the fore, they have, have, on the one hand a great deal of fascination and interest in understanding the plausibility of what I'm saying. But on the other hand, they also have a compulsion to maintain some kind of, if you like, emotional distance from the question from the issue. And the best way to do that is to put themselves in a position of some kind of ambivalence with regard to the credibility of the messenger.
What was the point? In your research, what happened? When you moved away from just this is something that you're interested into? This is something that I can do was there, discovery and innovation, conceptual shift that allowed you to say, hold on a second, this is real.
I'm not really, the way it worked for me was actually that I started out from my earliest years, knowing perfectly well, that in principle, aging was a medical problem that could be solved, that eventually we would bring aging under just the same degree of medical control that we already have for most infectious diseases. The thing that I didn't know was that most other people didn't think that way. It was such an obvious fact to me that I'd never I never did the experiment of writing the topic with other people, and thereby discovering, you know, that they thought differently. They thought that aging was some kind of inevitable fact of life. It was only after I met and married a biologist who was laid out with me and already failure professor at UC San Diego. Though I discovered that no, she was actually not very interested in aging. So it wasn't very important. And then I discovered that other biologists thought the same. And then I discovered the people in general thought the same. And I was completely horrified by this, I had gone through until my late 20s, just not knowing that fact. So that basically made me feel that I had to switch field. Now, in terms of your question, really, when I switched failed, it wasn't a case of knowing that I could do something, it was a case of knowing that I needed to try to do something, having been for several years, by that time, a researcher in a completely different field in artificial intelligence. I knew on the one hand that I was pretty damn good at working on very hard problems, because I had been quite successful in my artificial intelligence research. But I also knew that by definition, very hard problems are ones that you might or might not succeed in solving. Or someone else might succeed or whatever, I just knew that by switching fields by becoming a researcher in this area, I would have some chance of making a contribution, and therefore I would improve the the expected time that it would take to actually for for humanity in general to actually achieve a solution to this problem. I didn't know how important my own contribution was going to be. But I didn't need to know I definitely need to know that I had some significant probability of making some significant contribution.
So I'm interested. I brought up a lot of ideas about death and the way that death figures into human understanding and literature and things like that. But aging and death are not the same thing. So how do you conceptualize aging? When you imagine yourself stopping aging? Is it just putting aside diseases people are no longer getting cancer, people are no longer going to get Alzheimer's disease or do you really see the body not getting older?
I will say the body not getting older, I say the body has a machine a really, really, really complicated machine whose detailed construction and mechanics we are still very, very poorly knowledgeable of, but nevertheless a machine and therefore an entity that is whose function is defined by its structure. Therefore, I understand that if we can engage in Comprehensive preventative maintenance every so often just as we would for a car or an airplane or whatever, then we can preserve and maintain the function of the body, both mental and physical, of course, as long as we like, you know, so we're going to confirm that it's a perfect, it's perfectly valid to look at vintage cars, for example, these are cars that are more than 100 years old, they were absolutely never designed to last that long, they were designed to last maybe 10 or 15 years. And yet, by virtue of comprehensive preventative maintenance, here, they are working just as well as when they were built. That is the goal.
So is the process to prevent the younger from getting older? Or do you think that the discoveries that you make will also help the already older, get younger, there's an interesting section of the the documentary where you are in an aging clinic, and you compared your chronological life with your biological life? And this is something I know that on the internet I've done and other people have done? Can you make people younger? And if so, what do you mean by that?
Absolutely, the idea is to make older people younger, again, as well as to stop younger people from getting older in the first place. It's really, again, just the same as it is for a simple man made machine like a car, you can take a car that's got a lot of rust, and you can remove the rust, and you can generally put it back into better condition better function than it was before you started the process. So yes, absolutely at the process of rejuvenation that we're talking about. Now, that actually, if you think about it makes makes the problem easier than it would be if we were talking about stopping the process from happening, we're not talking about altering the way that the body works in such a manner as to stop it from damaging itself by the side effects of its normal operation. Instead, what we're talking about is letting that damage be created as a side effect of the body's normal operation. But then periodically eliminating damage so that the overall load of damage does not increase long term. And in particular, so that load is maintained at a level that is tolerable by the body, the body is set up to tolerate a certain amount of damage. And all we need to do is keep the overall amount of damage below that level.
In a little bit after the break, I'll ask you to talk a little bit about the genetics involved and the way that you're actually trying to solve the problem. But before that, I want to talk about a concept that you yourself bring up and that is the notion of ageism, I want to ask you sort of in advance, what is the ideal age? What do you think? What age do you think people should remain at biologically or physiologically to have a good life? But But if I ask that, then aren't I, in some sense, devaluing the older folks and suggesting that there's something wrong with being old? You You, you accuse your critics of engaging in ageism? By expecting people to die at a certain age, I'd like you to address that but also isn't? is being old, a value and an experience that maybe we shouldn't get rid of?
If we want to answer that question carefully, then we have to distinguish between being chronologically old and being biologically old. I am certainly in no way against people being chronologically old. In fact, I plan to develop technologies, which will allow a lot more of us to become chronologically a lot older than people do today. But biologically, Oh absolutely, I am all for denigrating and deprecating health and disease, I am not in favor of it. And I don't want to get it and I don't want anybody else to get it either. And the same applies for absolutely every other aspect of the diminished performance, both mental and physical, that we see associated with old age, it applies to all of the things that we call diseases, which we really shouldn't call diseases like most cancers, atherosclerosis and so on. And it also applies to those aspects of aging that we tend not to give disease like names to like decline in function of the immune system or loss of muscle or frailty, you know, things that are much more nebulous, but nevertheless, just as real when it comes to decline in what we can do.
You know, that's a really interesting distinction that you're making there. is trying to figure out how to phrase this question. Do we take that, that I want to say do we take for granted the process but but but that's not right. Why isn't the degeneration of muscular ability why isn't the weaknesses considered a disease? Why is it just regarded as is something that happens and we're not going to address it? What is it about that amorphous idea that human beings get weaker as they get older? That really isn't a focus of serious medical research?
Well, first of all, there is more medical research in those areas than they used to be. So the news is not all bad. But really your question is, why do we carve out certain components of aging and call them diseases and leave other parts of what we think of as, quote, aging itself? unquote.
Thank you. That's, that's a better phrasing.
Yeah. So my take on this is it's purely part of what I was saying earlier, the process of putting aging out of our mind and not and not letting it destroy. equanimity. Essentially, for me, you know, there is absolutely no biological basis for that kind of distinction. It is, in fact, very counterproductive that we make the distinction because when we call a part of aging, a disease, we make ourselves think that we can cure it in the same way that we might be able to cure an infection. And that results in huge amounts of money being spent totally and appropriately on medical research to achieve this so called cure, which can't be done because these so called diseases are actually side effect of being alive, same as the rest of aging is. But why we do it, I believe, yeah, it's a case of, we know that aging is horrible. If we take bits of it, and we call them diseases we're allowed, we allow ourselves to think that those bits are horrible. And that kind of makes it easier to have some residue left that we can kind of make excuses for, and pretend it's a blessing in disguise of mankind, thereby allowing ourselves not to think about too much and to get on with our miserably short lives and make the best of it.
When we come back, I want to pursue this question, obviously, in a variety of different ways, including talking about the biological components and the genetic components. But I will ask you in advance it's we have about another minute or two. What do we have to know? What do we have to get before we go from the conceptual discussion to the scientific discussion? Is there something that we are doing wrong, or a way that we're thinking other than just the shift into the disease vocabulary that we need to get past in order to really grasp the potential of the genetic research?
I would say the one thing that we need to get past is the idea that aging is some kind of mystery, opening, it's simply not a mystery. It's not an enigma at all. Not only do we understand a load of the molecular and cellular details of what changes in the body, what eventually causes the and contributes to the decline in health in old age, but also, there's a whole bunch of stuff that we just know that we don't need to understand, because we have ways to sidestep that ignorance so to speak, essentially, you know, the demystification of aging is a huge part of what I have to do what I have to engage in, I need people to understand that the analogy with simple manmade machines like cars is truly a valid analogy. The fact that the body is alive and cars are not alive does not does not change the validity of that analogy, the fact that the human body is much more complicated than any man made machine does not change the validity of that analogy. The fact is maintenance works. The body is a machine, therefore it function is determined by its structure. Therefore, if we can restore even approximately the structure of the human body of an older person to something like what it was at a young adult, then we will restore its function as well.
Well, you've certainly whetted my appetite. I'm very excited to figure out what the next steps are and the science behind it. We'll get to that in a moment. You're listening to Aubrey de Grey and jack Russel Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life We'll be back right after this.
The Institute for philosophy and public life bridges the gap between academic philosophy and the general public. Its mission is to cultivate discussion between philosophy professionals, and others who have an interest in the subject regardless of experience or credentials. visit us on the web at philosophy and public life.org. The Institute for philosophy and public life because there is no ivory tower.
You're back with jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life, we're talking with Aubrey de Grey about aging, and whether it's a disease that can be cured. I just had my birthday a couple days ago, I turned 48 years old. And my experience of birthdays, an age has had sort of two parallel paths, although at least, that's how I talked to my students about it. The first was, I remember when I turned 40, I really didn't mean that much to me. And I didn't have any deep problem with it. But then about six months later, I went to the eye doctor and discovered that I needed bifocals. And that just threw me and that really put me in a sort of, Oh, my God, what's happening to me, attitude. And then I began to notice, as I progressed in my 40s, that my body began to betray me in ways that it never did before. At the same time, I talked to my students about how difficult and angst ridden their 20s are, and how they're not going to know where they are. And there's going to be all this drama, but that in general, the 30s are actually wonderful, that the 30s, you have a sense of who you are, you have a sense of what you want. Often you're you found a community of friends, if not a partner, and there's a there's a confidence and a stability of the 30s that make it a very satisfying decade, I use those two examples, because there's two very different experiences of aging there. One is the mechanical breakdown of things. And the other is the experience of wisdom and life. And what we're doing here today, I suspect is breaking those two things apart. And so, Aubrey, I want to ask you, is there a direct connection between the physicality of aging and the psychological experience of learning and wisdom, or as a scientist, can you just focus on the machine and leave the experiential elements to other folks?
I believe, as I would call myself, a technologist more than a scientist, in other words, someone who wants to manipulate nature more than someone who wants to understand nature, I believe as a technologist, I can indeed leave the psychological side to other people. At the end of the day, you know, so much of our psychology is determined by our physical health Anyway, you know, by what we find ourselves able to do, and particular by what we find ourselves unable to do that we used to be able to do. So I believe that I am already making the job of the psychologists among us a lot easier, just by bringing greater health to get physical health, physical and mental functionality to older people.
So let's let's dive in and ask how that happens. I think most of my listeners, like like me, really don't understand the basics of genetics. But you've had a lot of practice in this. So I wonder if you could give us a primer on just what the problems are, and how you plan on solving them on the biological and genetic level?
Sure. So as with the preventative maintenance of a simple machine, the first step has to be to characterize what kind of damage is accumulating, as you know, a byproduct of a side effect of the machines mobile operation. And, you know, somehow getting a nice comprehensive catalog of all those types of damage, so that one can then develop a corresponding catalog of ways to eliminate the damage so as to restore the structure of the machine to how it was earlier. And the good news, of course, for me was that but what by the time I started in this field, in the mid to late 90s, I people had been studying aging for rather a long time. And there was a pretty good catalogue already of what those changes were. And indeed, the good news for me at that time was they had already been well over a decade, maybe 15 years, since anybody had come up with anything new, any new aspect of molecular or cellular changes that would occur in the body, the consequences of the metabolism, and that appeared to contribute later in life to the decline in health. So that was pretty good news. And I basically took this catalog and the catalog was not like, generally viewed as a catalogue. But nevertheless, I was able to make that list pretty easily just on the basis of what I had learned from the literature and conferences and so on. And in the year 2000, when I'd been in the field for only about five years, I began to realize that none of the various types of damage was really off limits, that all of them had the potential ways in which we could actually not simply slip down the rate at which they were created, but actually repair the damage that has already been created in the body. And the reason why this had not occurred to my colleagues studying the biology of aging was largely because a lot of the most promising ways to go about this process were based on technologies that had been developed in other areas of biology, not for the purpose of challenging aging at all. And of course, therefore, these technologies were simply unknown to my colleagues who were studying the biology of aging. So a large part of the reason why over the subsequent maybe five or 10 years, I had to work quite hard to get my ideas taken seriously with because in order to take them seriously, my colleagues had to have learned a lot of stuff that they had not previously viewed as remotely relevant to their own work.
When, what when you're looking at the literature, and you're looking at the people who are who are engaged in it there, there's two sets of conversations. One is, again, on the cellular level, and in a minute I'll ask you about to Talal Murray's, I can't remember what the how to pronounce it, but the end the cellular structure, but then there's the other aspect, which is the basic physical fitness, you ride your bike, you eat healthfully, you take care of the machine, how much of the preventative stuff happens behaviourally, and how much of it is the advanced medical science and and eventually, we'll talk about nanobots, that that, that are in the that our discoveries waiting to happen, how much of aging is about what we do, and how much of aging is the machine itself.
So I want to emphasize that I'm all for a healthy lifestyle, you know, not smoking, not getting seriously overweight, you know, generally living the way a mother told me to, I'm over that. But we must at all times, keep a sense of proportion with regard to how much difference that makes, a lot of people will say to themselves, well, you know, a bad lifestyle, bad diet, and so on, you're shortening, you're living a lot less long than if you behave right. And that is true. But what people are often thinking is, well, therefore, if I, you know, I take advantage of all the latest knowledge, and I eat an unusual diet that's particularly well informed so and then I can, I might be able to live a lot longer, like 20 years longer than I would, if I only did what my mother told me to. And that simply isn't true. There is absolutely no evidence for that. It seems that the basics, the real basics that we all know already, almost the best we can do. We add, we can hardly provide any more increments on top of that just by doing something particularly special, you know, no one lives all that much longer. There are certain regions of the world that have particular lifestyles or particular diets, and they live longer than the surrounding areas, but they don't live much longer, you know, a year or two. Now, that's all very well. And the reason why I'm all in favor of this is because every day is better than nothing. But what we need to avoid is getting too fixated on that and forgetting that the real damage to aging, so to speak, the damage to damage will be done by developing medicines that can truly transcend anything that can be achieved by simple lifestyle or indeed today's medicine.
So what kind of things can we do with that medicine? You talked about cleaning up the garbage? And and the preventative? aspects of it, what what does biological garbage look like? And how do we get rid of it? Are there limits to how clean they can be? And then and then I guess, the other question is, are there limits to what the machine can do? Can cells only divide so often, is there just a point where the pieces are just out of the necessary energy or manner to do what they need to do?
Okay, that's garbage is a fine example of a type of damage that I can talk about and explain in pretty non technical terms. So the cell, every cell does a lot of different things to do its job and to keep itself alive and so on. And these processes create byproducts that are not necessary for the function of the cell, but they still created now a third byproduct created at a rapid rate, then they will just accumulate and accumulate and kill the cell pretty quickly. And that would be bad. And, you know, we wouldn't live long enough to have offspring and so, natural selection would, would not look favorably on our that. Therefore, evolution has created systems that eliminate garbage like that. Either destroys the garbage or the system may just arrange for the garbage to be excreted from the body. However, the thing is that there are some types of garbage, some kinds of byproduct of metabolism, which are created really, really slowly. And they are the problem. Because if the credit really slowly, then they don't accumulate to a problematic level, a level that gets in the way of the operation of the cell, until late in life. And late in life, evolution doesn't care about us anymore, we may already be dead because we got eaten, or we starve to death or whatever, or brandy right, we will have had our offspring. So you know, we'll have done a bit. So there's not enough selective pressure on evolution to generate the corresponding machinery to destroy or eliminate this type of garbage. And sure enough, when we live long enough, in the so called captivity that we have created for ourselves, we get into a position where those types of garbage do reach a level of abundance that impair cellular function. And that is the main driver of a number of the most important diseases, so called of old age, such as atherosclerosis, of course, the number one killer in the Western world, that driver of heart attacks and strokes that's caused by the problematic accumulation of oxidized cholesterol. Another example is macular degeneration, which is the number one cause of blindness in the elderly, it's caused by the accumulation in the back of the eye of a particular type of derivative of vitamin A, that's responsible for all the chemistry of vision. So yeah, so these things accumulate. And our approach to eliminating those things is to introduce into the into the human cell, new enzymes found in bacteria, that are able to break down the stuff that we can't naturally break down. These enzymes are quite easy to find. And they do need to be modified in quite tricky ways in order to still work in a human fell. But we have successfully done that, in both the cases, I've just mentioned, atherosclerosis and macular degeneration. And indeed, the projects have both gone far enough that we've been able to spin them out into startup companies. So this is definitely a viable approach. But as you can probably already tell, it's technically quite challenging. It's not like popping a pill, we have to do things like gene therapy, and, you know, cell therapy, to actually introduce these, these enzymes into the body and to have them go where they're needed.
So when you're talking about these enzymes, I have a vision of an analogous process, tell me if this is right. as I've gotten older, it's become harder for me to digest milk become lactose intolerant. So I take when I want to these little pills that provide the enzymes for my stomach that allow my stomach to digest the milk and not have bad things happen. Obviously, this is on the cellular level. But is this the same sort of process that you're talking about that what we're doing is we're taking foreign enzymes, and putting them in there to do a job that our body can do
it very much the same, the fundamental, the main difference between the situation that you have with lactose intolerance. And the situation I'm talking about with those two aspects of aging, is that you were not lactose intolerant at a younger age, this is an activity that you have lost as a side effect of other things that are going wrong in the body. Whereas the accumulation of oxidized cholesterol in the artery or of this derivative of vitamin A, in the back of the eye, these are things that happen throughout life, because they, we simply don't have the genetic machinery at any age, to eliminate these things. And eventually, their accumulation has knock on effects very much as the other changes in the body, the newer body have had that knock on effect of lactose intolerance. But yes, we have to introduce these things in order to give ourselves capacity and functionalities at the informatic level that we never had, even even with young people.
In a minute, I want to ask you about some other things. But you you used a phrase, you made a comment that my philosophers ears really picked up on you said that, that after a certain age, evolution doesn't care about us anymore. And so I guess the the first sort of general philosophical question is, does that suggest that the stuff that you are doing is in some way and I know this is a really problematic concept, but in some way unnatural? But the second is that do you think that this would have such a profound effect on the human experience that it would alter evolution, and human beings either wouldn't change or would change in a fundamentally different way, then the evolution seems to be moving now.
Well, first of all, let's look at the question of whether it is unnatural. So on the one hand, I could say, well, obviously, it's unnatural. But so if the whole of technology, you know, the wheel is unnatural, you know, all of medicine is unnatural. And there's nothing wrong with that, you know, technology is considered a good thing. Another way of saying the same thing is that technology is natural, in other words, that it is natural for human beings to alter nature in their own interest. So that, you know, if we're doing things to preserve our health beyond what nature allowed us to do, in other words, beyond what evolution bothered to arrange, then so much the better. It's just like the wheel, it feels like antibiotics.
You know, I think I think that's really the straightforward answer.
And do you think that it's a powerful enough change that it would alter evolution itself? Or do you think that
Well, I think that's also kind of the wrong way to look at it? A good way to explain why we mustn't be too parochial and about too, too, like, simplistic about evolution, is to look at our immune systems. So it's perfectly clear and widely understood that the immune systems of typical people today are weaker than they used to be 100 years ago. So we might ask, Well, first of all, how did that happen? And second of all, does it matter. And first of all, it happened by evolution, evolution, over a period of only a few generations, underwent our genetic, the genetic basis underlying our immune systems underwent a significant shift. And the reason it went through that shift is because historically, in pre medical times, so to speak, before modern medicine came along, if you had a weak immune system, you tend to die before you had a chance to pass on your genes by reproduction. Whereas now, you can get away with it, because we've got hygiene and vaccines and antibiotics and all that kind of stuff. So that's one reason why the selective pressure went away. On top of that, it turns out that women who have weaker immune systems tend to be more fertile, because they have a lower risk of an immune rejection of the fetus. So that is further accelerated the process of shifting our immune systems to a weaker state. Now, we might say, this is a bad thing, you know, we would prefer to have strong immune systems. But why I mean, the fact that we have these technologies, the medicine that we have developed over the past century is not magically going to go away at a point. So it's fine, really. And there will be other examples. In fact, I believe that that it's pretty much forgotten that evolution as as defined by the change in the genetic composition of the population is going to enormously accelerate, really soon, simply by virtue of the development and implementation of high quality, high volume, somatic gene therapy, in other words, alteration of the genetic composition of people who are already alive. Of course, that allows an enormous acceleration because it doesn't involve this terribly time consuming reproduction step.
Okay, so then the next step is, do the enzymes added to the cells do the whole job, or there are, are there other things we need to do as well,
they certainly don't do the whole job. Normally, what I, how I describe the phenomenon of aging is by breaking it down into seven categories of danik. And the accumulation of molecular waste products within the cell. It's just one of those seven categories. So for example, another category is loss of health of into ourselves, so dying and not being automatically replaced by the division of other cells. Clearly, if that process happened, and it continues to happen, then the number of cells in the affected organ is going to continue to decline. And eventually there won't be enough cells for the organ to do its job. So the, you know, that's definitely part of aging, we can ident we can point to particular components of aging that are fine examples of that Parkinson's disease is one of them. It's caused by the loss of a particular type of neuron in a particular part of the brain. And, you know, the right way to fix it, of course, is by replacing ourselves. Can we do that? Yes, we can. We've got this concept called stem cell therapy, which involves injecting cells into the body that are pre programmed in the Berkery to divide and transform themselves into replacements for the cells that the body is not replacing on the phone. And I could go through the rest of the list, but you get the idea. There's a variety of different types of damage and corresponding ways to repair that damage.
And and for those people who are interested, all of this is described in the book ending aging with great detail and a very accessible way, all the science stuff I sometimes have to pay a little closer attention to just because of the nature of my mind. Um, I want to ask, if we are stopping aging, does that mean that in theory, we are preventing cancer, that lack of aging means also necessarily lack of disease? Or are those different systems
lack of aging doesn't necessarily mean lack of age related disease, it doesn't mean lack of tuberculosis, or lack of HIV or whatever. But of course, you knew that it certainly means lack of all the diseases that are associated with old age that younger people don't tend to suffer from, and actually will have knock on effects on diseases that younger people do suffer from just because of the the reusability of certain technological advances. But yeah, cancer, for example, absolutely. Most cancers are the result of the accumulation in just one individual fell of a particular constellation of mutations that got it to misbehave in that way and reversed the ability of the body to get rid of it. And those mutations happen independently of each other. So it takes time for any Sally even even though we have many trillions of cells in the body, it takes time for any one cell to get into that particularly aberrant state. And that makes it part of aging and the individual mutations that the drivers of cancer are done it
is how closely does the community, the anti aging community work together? I know that there's other technologies that people are talking about, to try to, again, I alluded to these before, try to make cells split and definitely to, to lengthen the telomeres. telomeres, I can't say that word telomeres, and and then and then there's some discussion of advanced technologies like nanobots that can can target particular illnesses, disease, genes, damaged cells, how much? Are you all working together? Are there regular conferences? Are there? I mean, now I'm gonna sound like an academic are there listservs? I mean, to what extent is this a group activity? And to what extent is this a lot of people individually working and then coming together periodically to just sort of exchange research,
it's a pretty good group effort. I mean, the community has historically been a little bit too balkanized people not talking to each other enough. And a large part of the contribution that I've made has been to change that, to bring people together who wouldn't normally be talking to each other, but who are addressing different components, different facets of the same problem, and therefore, who would benefit from talking to each other and maybe find ways to, to put two and two together and make more than thought, you know, to synergize. But yeah, certainly within the community that recognizes the kind of things I say, the fact that aging is a unitary, the complex problem. And for that, the components that it consists of, and they interact, and they need to be configured as a network. You know, those people certainly understand the vital importance of continued communication. Of course, there is a certain amount of working independently, as in any research area, but yeah, a lot of communication.
So, no, so let's, let's assume that, that we can do it that the research is fruitful that, that in the next couple of decades, you have the discoveries in the revolution that you actually predict. There is a whole set of objections that people have, not that we can't do it, but rather that we shouldn't do it that the carbon footprint that the of people the overpopulation the damage that human beings do to one another with war. How do you respond to the people who just say, okay, but just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.
I have a variety of different responses to those kinds of positions. One, when I'm feeling in a good mood, I will tend to give the the details in Fira and says to do with why these problems and how these problems can be addressed. For example, problems to do with Well, we put all the people or Won't there be too much environmental damage and so on. The right answer to those questions is to point to all the technologies that we are already developing, to minimize and to you know, eliminate those problems for Example The rise of solar and wind energy, renewable energy fellows to minimize fossil fuel utilization, you know, whether it's desalination, artificial meat, all of these technologies that are coming along really rapidly, not even just in order to solve the environmental issues that humanity creates. But just because these ways are actually ending up being more economical than the old ways of doing things, you know, these are things that are going to increase the carrying capacity of the planet, much more rapidly than the elimination of aging would increase the population of the planet. So, you know, it's easy to it's basically impossible to argue that things would not go that way that the overpopulation problem we have today would actually get worse in the longer term, it's definitely going to get less bad whenever we do about aging. Um, but also, there are general answers there, which may sound a little bit more dismissive, but I think are just as important. One simple answer is look at sense of proportion, you know, yes, in principle, we might end up in some kind of outlandish worst case scenario, whereby we were, for example, increasing the population of the planet faster than we were increasing the carrying capacity of the planet. But so the hell what all that means all that would mean is that we would be in a position of having to choose between either carrying on the way we asked a day, everyone getting really sick, when they get older, and eventually dying, but before they die, having to go through a lot of suffering, and a lot of expense, and so on. Or, alternatively, choosing to have fewer kids than we might like to have, you know, that's the choice that we will ultimately be faced with. And, you know, it's a pretty easy choice to make, you know, kid, nice to have, but uptime is also a nice thing not to have, you know, and then you know, beyond that, we can say, Well, okay, even if you dare to be uncertain about that, even if you dare to think that, well, actually, I would prefer to get up time and not to have a lot of kids, then we have to ask whether it is today, the population that exists today, we should be making that choice. To me, it's very clear, it's completely unequivocal, that the moral obligation on humanity today is to develop the therapies as quickly as possible. So that humanity of the future, let's say, 20 years from now has the option whether to use these therapies how to use them, which they would not have, if we didn't develop the therapies in time. We have no right. It's perfectly clear to me, we have no right to condemn some cohort of the humanity of the future, to an unnecessarily early and unnecessarily painful death, just because we thought, Oh, dear, they're not going to be able to fix the overpopulation problem.
You know, it's interesting, you say that, because there is a, there's a component that I didn't even realize I was thinking about, which is that nothing you're saying, in invites, taking away the choice from people, right, just because you can live forever doesn't mean that someone who doesn't want to doesn't have to write no one is going to be forced to take the medicines, presumably,
correct. I mean, of course, it's a little bit more complicated than that, you know, if these medicines are available, and they're made available, you know, at, you know, for free, you know, irrespective of ability to pay, which I firmly believe they will be even in really tax averse countries like the USA. Nevertheless, you know, if that, even if that happens, you know, we've got to ask, you know, what will society think of people who choose to get old and sick and, and frail and eventually dead anyway. And I think actually, to be honest, we're gonna call people suicide all the way that we call people today who want to die sometime soon, when they don't have to, when they're still wet, have the option to continue being physically and mentally healthy. So we're probably going to try and change those people's minds in very much the same way that we try to change the minds of suicidal people today. But at the end of the day, it's a choice.
You said the thing that actually my wife wanted to bring up, which is, wouldn't this end up being just for the rich? And you said, you said just now that that you think it would be given to everybody free regardless of their ability to pay? And so I guess the sort of, towards the end of this conversation, I want to ask, Is this really just a question of optimism versus pessimism, you seem to have a very optimistic attitude about human beings that that they will give this stuff for free that this can happen that we will solve the problems. And I think that our age right now is a very pessimistic age. We had Steven Pinker on the show quite a few years ago when his book, better angels of our nature came out and his art Human is that we are living in a less violent period than any time ever before. And we're less likely to die by violence in any time ever before. And that and that actually, the left, the liberal community was really upset with us and found it objectionable. And there was a fundamental pessimism that people wanted to think that the world was worse off than it is. We live in a fairly pessimistic age is part of the disconnect. And part of the reason why not everyone is responding as positively to your research as you would like. And I think I would like at this point, that that you're just an optimist in a way that people aren't used to?
Well, yes or no. I mean, pinker was, of course, completely correct. The data Do not lie, it's absolutely clear that we live in a far less violent world, and in general, a world with far less suffering than we did even 50 years ago. or more. No question. But yes, I mean, of course, the danger is that, if I allow myself to be called an optimist, then people will think that I'm an over optimist. But I don't think that's true. I think that the pessimists, the unreasonable people who are not looking at the data, when I say I'm sure that the therapist will be available to everybody, irrespective who ability to pay even in the USA, I'm basing that on the simple economic logic, the fact that the expense, the money that we spend today on people who are not getting these therapy, because they don't yet exist, is astronomical, and therefore, that the therapy, even if they ended up being quite expensive, at first, will unquestionably pay for themselves many times over very quickly. In other words, from from, from the point of view of the, the the economy of the country, that any country that did not make the things available, free of charge, basically, to anybody who was old enough to need them would go bankrupt really quickly, by virtue of failing to compete with countries that were doing. So. it you know, it's just straightforward mercenary economic logic. Now, I don't pretend to be an economist, this is very simplistic economic logic. But I have talked to plenty of economists and challenged women fed and fed this thing. And nobody has come back and said, No, Audrey, you are wrong, actually, for this reason. And that reason, they think that this logic will not work. And these therapies will not be made available to everybody. nobody's done that. So until somebody does do that, I think I'm entitled to point out that nobody's done that. And that, you know, that the knee jerk presumption that the therapies are going to increase inequality, if complete nothing.
You know, it's it's a theme has developed in this show over the years. And it's emphasized by what you're saying now and the connection to our show last month, with Rutger Bregman who was arguing for everyone getting a universal basic income. And his argument was that giving everyone or the people who need it this money is cheaper than the welfare system, and then cheaper than poverty. And you're saying the same thing. And it's just astonishing that over and over again, we get this argument that it is cheaper to help people than it is to ignore people.
And right, I mean, the point is, we don't actually ignore people. Right? What it is, it's creepy to help people soon, early than to help people late. Prevention is better than cure. I mean, it's not exactly a new idea.
So what did then and I guess this is probably the last question, would it be more accurate for me to have asked the question not, can we cure aging, but rather, can we prevent aging? Is that a more accurate description of what your long term goal is?
Of course, words are always dangerous. You know, the word immortality is a word that's associated with my work all the time. And it's really problematic. Of course, you've not made that mistake, thank you very much. But it happens all the time. And it really annoys me because, you know, it's got an established meaning. And even the word disease and the word cure a difficult word for me, because, you know, when you use those words, it kind of goes against what I'm emphasizing that the thing the so called diseases of old age, are actually parts of aging, they're not like infections, they can't be cured in the same way that an infection can. So I try to avoid those as well. I really, you know, to be honest, the my preference would be to make all of my statements without using the word aging at all. So there's not to introduce all of these ambiguities. But at the end of the day, it's all about treating aging as a medical problem, something that can be addressed by pretty obvious measures that are well, obvious in the sense of how we can describe them. Obviously, we haven't implemented them all yet. So it is If you can understand what I'm saying, and the terminology gets in the way a lot,
absolutely. And the terminology also hides, or, or privileges, certain philosophical issues that I actually think you've done an outstanding job of bringing out to us in a way that we can all understand. And I think that a way that makes us hopeful. I've been looking at your stuff, and I am excited about the prospect and I really hope you are right. So, Aubrey de Grey, thank you so much for joining us on why
It was my pleasure. Thank you.
You've been listening to Aubrey de Grey and jack Russel Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life and we'll be back with a few thoughts right after this.
Visit IPP ELLs blog pq Ed, philosophical questions every day. For more philosophical discussions of everyday life. Comment on the entries and share your points of view with an ever growing community of professional and amateur philosophers. You can access the blog and view more information on our schedule our broadcasts and the y radio store at www dot philosophy and public life.org.
You're back with why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, we were talking with Aubrey de Grey, about aging and asking whether we should regard it as a disease that can be cured. And I think there are a lot of lessons from this discussion, including stuff that I'm going to have to do a lot more research on the scientific stuff that that interests me that I'm really not prepared to grasp fully. But what strikes me as the most important message is something that we've really encountered before, which is that it's all how you start the conversation. Can we cure aging? is a very different question, then what do we do about aging, regarding aging as a disease, although Aubrey said he doesn't like that as much, is very different than regarding aging as just what the body does. It's all how you start. And then once you start in a way that problematizes, everything else seems to come naturally. We know cancer is a disease, we want to cure it. We know HIV is an infection, we want to cure it, we knew that Ebola or anything else was destroying people. And because we thought of it in this way, we developed resources to fix the problem. We don't think of aging as a problem. We think of it as a nuisance. We think of it as an economic problem. We think of it as an emotional difficulty. But we think about aging itself as a nuisance. And I think the major conceptual shift, which we actually started with that was the thing we began with is moving the idea of aging from the thing that we have to learn to put up with and maybe make easier to the category of things we can solve. I'm not qualified to know whether that can happen. Aubrey de Grey sounds like he is and he's working with some other very smart people. And I'm glad they're doing it. We have to take the experts word on this in that, even if it can't be done, it's worth trying. And that's the same message that philosophy gives, even if it can't be answered. It's worth trying. And I think ultimately, that may be one of the lessons of aging that won't be lost. If we continue moving forward in an indefinite way. Trying is necessary. Thinking about problems to solve is natural. And structuring our inquiry in such a way that we can be proactive, rather than reactive or even apathetic changes the whole game. And certainly I think we would all be happy if the agent game was one of those things that was changed. You've been listening to jack Russel Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. Thank you for listening as always, it's an honor to be with you.
Why is funded by the Institute for philosophy and public life Prairie Public Broadcasting in the University of North Dakota is College of Arts and Sciences and division of Research and Economic Development. skipwith as our studio engineer, the music is written and performed by Mark Weinstein and can be found on his album Louis soul. For more of his music, visit jazz flute weinstein.com or myspace.com slash Mark Weinstein Philosophy is everywhere you make it and we hope we've inspired you with our discussion today. Remember, as we say at the Institute, there is no ivory tower.