It’s all about the radio today. Aubrey de Grey is a researcher who believes the first human being who will live for 1000 years has already been born. This morning I was reminded of de Grey when ABC radio interviewer Cassie McCullagh interviewed Professor John Rasko.
Tonight, Professor Rasko will deliver the 2018 ABC Boyer Lecture. He will talk about “the power of gene therapy to cure disease, prolong life and change the course of human evolution.”
In Cassie’s interview they talked about Stephen Hawking’s posthumous book Brief Answers to the Big Questions to be released tomorrow.
In this book Hawkings suggests “that wealthy people will soon be able to choose to edit their own and their children’s DNA to create superhumans with enhanced memory, disease resistance, intelligence and longevity.”
Some years ago, while driving out to my then elderly mother’s nursing home, I listened to another radio interview. This one was with Aubrey de Grey, then a researcher at Cambridge University and later the chief research officer with California’s Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Foundation.
He was arguing that the first human beings who will live for a thousand years have already been born. He said ageing is just a disease that can be cured. Maybe by his standards we weren’t trying hard enough for Mum.
When I arrived at Mum’s nursing home the interview was still going, so I turned off the car engine and listened. After it was over I sat there crying.
Not because I wished my dying mother could live for a thousand years, but because I didn’t. Mum had been given less than six months to live because of cancer, and already she was in pain and deteriorating.
I could see the sunlight, catching in Mum’s hair.
I walked into Mum’s room and she was sitting peacefully, the soft sunlight playing on her hair. I struggled to suppress my tears.
“What’s the matter?”
I fumbled to come up with an excuse.
“What’s the matter?” she asked again, more urgently.
I told her I was worried about my daughters.
“What have they done that’s making you so worried?” she asked.
I knotted together as many little tales about their risk-taking behaviours as I could, but she looked dubious.
“Maybe I need a holiday,” I sighed.
“Well, that sounds like a good idea.”
Then after a pause she looked puzzled: “Why do you need a holiday?”
Maybe Aubrey’s mother lived in a place like Mum’s. Maybe he, too, was repulsed by the familiar yet distinctive nursing-home smell of urine mixed with faeces and lunch. But instead of accepting that she would eventually be freed from it, Aubrey was spending his career, his energy, his talent, fighting the essential fact of decay and death.
That radio moment wouldn’t leave me, so a little while later I rang Aubrey. He was mildly irritated when I told him I felt more confronted by the idea of Mum living for a thousand years than of her dying.
“I imagine. That was probably because she wasn’t very well. But presumably your concern arises from your suspicion that living longer would entail living for a long time in the kind of state of health that your mother was in at the time?”
“Well, I don’t think you listened to my interview very hard, if you don’t mind my saying so. Because I make very, very clear whenever I go in front of a camera or a microphone that the work we are doing is precisely to stop people from ever getting into any kind of age-related disease or disability, however long they live. Indeed, more than that, if people are already in middle age or older, to actually fix them up and maintain them in that state as long as they live which, of course, will be determined not by how long ago they were born but by how careful they are crossing the street.”
Walt Disney’s The Lion King popped into my head. Simba struggled but ultimately moved powerfully into the space left vacant by his father, Mufasa, and through the elder’s tragic death, Simba found his true self. This prompted me to ask about the circle of life, and to suggest there might be a purpose to death.
“That’s an emotional reaction,” Aubrey said. “It’s got absolutely no basis in scientific fact whatsoever. There is absolutely nothing wrong with organisms living longer.”
We debated what defined ‘natural history’.
I argued that it’s a fact of natural history so far that living creatures are born, then die, and that makes room for others to be born.
“That’s right – very much as it was a fact of natural history so far that forty per cent of babies would die before the age of one until about a couple of hundred years ago, when we started to figure out how to fix that. And I am not sure that you would argue that success in thwarting what is natural so far was a bad thing to have done,” he replied.
I needed a higher authority than Simba. I read to Aubrey the seventeenth – century English writer and physician Thomas Browne’s cruel yet elegant explanation of the purpose of death, quoting from a book by English doctor Iona Heath. Browne’s observation still stands today.
“Reflect for a moment, in your vanity and folly; delve the poor soil of your reason and you will uncover the truth: if, since the first man was expressed out of clay; if we had not harvested man from earth, animals from the wastes and wilds, fish from the waters of the deep, the very air would be thick with flies, and none could withstand them.”
“Well, it’s obviously a complete nonsense, isn’t it?” Aubrey responded.
“It was perfectly rational, perfectly justifiable to make up fairy tales about ageing being a good thing in order to put it out of one’s mind when the alternative was to spend one’s life being preoccupied by the ghastly suffering that was going to befall one in the future.”
What about the woman able to give birth continuously, I asked, returning to Browne’s point about crowding. In Aubrey’s vision wouldn’t that woman be left exhausted as she produced more children than ever before?
“For the same reasons they are already delaying having their kids at the moment into their 30s and their 40s, women will start delaying having their first kid until they are 70, or 80 or 180.
“And that of course will mean the trajectory of global population will actually be less than it would be in the absence of these events,” he replied, returning to the overcrowding argument.
I told Aubrey that, with respect, I didn’t believe his vision would ever come to pass and he laughed.
“Let me tell you, I know a great deal more biology than you do and I wouldn’t be suggesting that this was feasible if I didn’t have a great deal of data on my side.”
I had other questions unrelated to science. What sort of arrested development would there be in our civic life? What would be the definition of maturity? What would our politicians be like? But Aubrey had already indicated this was not his area when I’d asked an earlier question about equity: “In some sense I’m slightly taken aback that you’re asking me all these questions about politics and sociology when of course I’m actually a scientist.”
I finished the interview where I started, with our mothers: “I hope this isn’t too personal, but is your mother still alive? What did she think of your research?”
“No, she died two and a half years ago. She was extremely proud of me.”
I was left unsettled. Like so much in life; the badly-placed tattoo, the expensive but uncomfortable shoes, the ill-considered bed companion, I wondered whether, having bought eternal life, the 590-year-olds would feel conned; realise they hadn’t read the fine print; forgot to ask about the implications in the place science can’t reach – the human heart.
I saw them searching for their nearest euthanasia society’s telephone number.
Grandmothers talked about their grandmothers.
Several years later, some time after my mother died, we had a family dinner to celebrate my middle daughter’s engagement.
My mother was, sadly, not with us, but the other three grandmothers were, as were the two grandfathers still alive.
Looking around the room I saw all the blood lines that would thread together through my daughter and her husband-to-be.
Her future mother-in-law had lifted up a fork and said: “This is the Ferguson silver.” Ferguson, Maughan, Cape, McEgan, Bannigan and O’Connor, were just some of the grand family names, with their rich histories, already invoked in conversation earlier in the evening, as each of the living grandparents shared the stories of who they were and their own grandparents.
The four parents were invited to make a speech. I told the story of interviewing Aubrey de Grey, so determined to have people live for 1000 years.
“How awful,” one of the surviving grandmothers called out, stealing my punch line.
“I don’t want to live to be a 1000 years old either, Nana,” I laughed back to the small crowd in the room.
“How much more interesting my DNA will have become after 1000 years, when all these other strands have been plaited through it.”
To listen to John Rosko’s Boyer lecture, follow the links at:
To listen to Professor John Rasco’s interview with Cassie McCullagh on Monday, October 15, go to:
And don’t forget to follow Jill Emberson’s podcast Still Jill at:
To find out more about Jill, go to:
To read about Stephen Hawking’s predictions about ‘superhumans’, register following the links at:
Iona Heath’s book Matters of Life and Death – Key Writings, was published by Radcliffe Publishing, Oxford, New York, 2008.