January 13, 2005

Sherwin Nuland slams Aubrey de Grey

The February 2005 edition of MIT's Technology Review has been published and it features a cover article about biogerontologist and transhumanist Aubrey de Grey. Interviewed by Sherwin Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University’s School of Medicine, the article is yet another PR breakthrough for the man voted most likely to solve the aging problem. As Dale Carrico noted to me at TransVision 2004 last year, de Grey is truly the first transhumanist superstar.

But the victory of the cover article aside, and despite it being a well written and researched piece (Nuland spent 10 hours in person with de Grey), the article is peppered with Nuland's rants in condemnation of both the quest to cure aging and those who, like de Grey, are actively working to solve the problem. While at times overtaken by de Grey's charisma, articulateness and brilliance, Nuland is at other times filled with great unease in regards to the man and the nature of his work. Consequently, the piece comes off as being quite schizo and unbalanced. It feels as if Nuland, by soiling himself with a de Grey interview, needs to assure everyone that he's not among the True Believers:
I should declare here that I have no desire to live beyond the life span that nature has granted to our species. For reasons that are pragmatic, scientific, demographic, economic, political, social, emotional, and secularly spiritual, I am committed to the notion that both individual fulfillment and the ecological balance of life on this planet are best served by dying when our inherent biology decrees that we do. I am equally committed to making that age as close to our biologically probable maximum of approximately 120 years as modern biomedicine can achieve, and also to efforts at decreasing and compressing the years of morbidity and disabilities now attendant on extreme old age. But I cannot imagine that the consequences of doing a single thing beyond these efforts will be anything but baleful, not only for each of us as an individual, but for every other living creature in our world.
As for Nuland's critque of radical life extension, in addition to falling for the 'nature as ought' fallacy, he's really all bark and very little bite. There's virtually no discourse given to ethics issues, choosing instead to resort to abstract and broad-based fears. His rants are largely rhetorical and filled with fear mongering. And of course, what would a slam against life extension be without the proverbial stab about violating 'humanness,':
But the most likable of eccentrics are sometimes the most dangerous. Many decades ago in my naïveté and ignorance, I thought that the ultimate destruction of our planet would be by the neutral power of celestial catastrophe: collision with a gigantic meteor, the burning out of the sun—that sort of thing. In time, I came to believe that the end of days would be ushered in by the malevolence of a mad dictator who would unleash an arsenal of explosive or biological weaponry: nuclear bombs, engineered microörganisms—that sort of thing. But my notion of “that sort of thing” has been changing. If we are to be destroyed, I am now convinced that it will not be a neutral or malevolent force that will do us in, but one that is benevolent in the extreme, one whose only motivation is to improve us and better our civilization. If we are ever immolated, it will be by the efforts of well-meaning scientists who are convinced that they have our best interests at heart. We already know who they are. They are the DNA tweakers who would enhance us by allowing parents to choose the genetic makeup of their descendants unto every succeeding generation ad infinitum, heedless of the possibility that breeding out variety may alter factors necessary for the survival of our species and the health of its relationship to every form of life on earth; they are the biogerontologists who study caloric restriction in mice and promise us the extension by 20 percent of a peculiarly nourished existence; they are those other biogerontologists who emerge from their laboratories of molecular science every evening optimistic that they have come just a bit closer to their goal of having us live much longer, downplaying the unanticipated havoc at both the cellular and societal level that might be wrought by their proposed manipulations. And finally, it is the unique and strangely alluring figure of Aubrey de Grey, who, orating, writing, and striding tirelessly through our midst with his less than fully convinced sympathizers, proclaims like the disheveled herald of a new-begotten future that our most inalienable right is to have the choice of living as long as we wish. With the passion of a single-minded zealot crusading against time, he has issued the ultimate challenge, I believe, to our entire concept of the meaning of humanness.

Paradoxically, his clarion call to action is the message neither of a madman nor a bad man, but of a brilliant, beneficent man of goodwill, who wants only for civilization to fulfill the highest hopes he has for its future. It is a good thing that his grand design will almost certainly not succeed. Were it otherwise, he would surely destroy us in attempting to preserve us.
Like the Kassites, Nuland also buys into the false assumption that society will come to the rescue and prevent the scourge of radical life extension. This will hardly be the case, something I argue in my column, "Deathist Nation." Moreover, as fellow WTA Board member Giulio Prisco noted in a discussion today, the tone of the comments section at the end of Nuland's article is nearly exclusively in support of Aubrey de Grey.

Despite all this, however, I do strongly recommend that this article be read. It's probably the most detailed piece I've read about de Grey yet, touching upon his background and other personal aspects of his life. Nuland also does a decent job articulating de Grey's concepts and his SENS mission.

No comments: