Why so much hostility towards SENS?

You probably are not aware that, earlier this month, there was a bit of a Facebook flamewar between a few SENS opposers and some life-extensionists, some (or even all, I don’t know) of whom were SENS supporters.

The flamewar was started by Jason Pontin, the editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review, who posted on his own Facebook wall a link to an article on Nature claiming that human lifespan has an upper limit past which one cannot go.  Other articles have been written in response to it—for example, this and this—expressing scepticism on the validity of the research  mentioned in the original article. As it was pointed out, it is quite obvious that human lifespan has an upper limit, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t devise medical interventions to greatly extend our lifespans. We know that humans tend get too sick and die after a certain age; if this wasn’t the case, there would be no reason for anti-ageing research to exist. In this sense, the article on Nature was basically saying that water is wet.

Anyway, this post isn’t about the controversy stirred up by the article on Nature. I said Pontin started the flamewar, and you might be wondering how so. Well, the thing is, the post he made on his wall was public, and he tagged Aubrey de Grey in it, saying verbatim


(Note that Pontin’s accusations are nonsense, for the same reasons I was explaining above: If Aubrey de Grey disputed the ‘dark truth’ of our limited lifespan, he would not have devised SENS in the first place.)

As a side note, this is the same Pontin who in 2005 threw the MIT challenge to prove that ‘SENS is so wrong that it is not worthy of learned debate’—challenge which he lost. Tagging people just to publicly insult them is silly enough, especially for a person in Pontin’s position, but the actual flamewar was even worse;  while childish behaviour was exhibited by at least some members of both parties involved, I must say that Pontin and those who sided with him cut an extremely poor figure and came across as high-school bullies at best. I’m not going to delve deeper into the details of it; if you think you can stomach it, you can go through the flamewar yourself and see how a bunch of grown-ups spent several hours (if not longer) throwing poo at each other via the Internet. (To my shame, I must admit I also wrote a comment or two, but thankfully I was too late for the party to be dragged deeper into it.)

But this post isn’t about the flamewar either; this was just a necessary preamble. This incident got me thinking. Why does SENS face such a fierce opposition? Why all these clearly emotional, gut-driven reactions? Forget Pontin: He’s probably still bitter about the lost challenge, and if you read his comments it’s quite clear he probably has unresolved Aubrey-issues from school. A lot of other people over the years have raged against SENS and labelled it as quack science, a fraud, nonsense, and what you have, while having no evidence that this was the case. Sure, SENS is not fully established science yet, and who knows, maybe it will never be; we don’t know for a fact. But isn’t this case with tons of other research projects? Isn’t the very purpose of research to establish what works and what doesn’t? If SENS critics are so sure that SENS will never work, they really don’t need to bother throwing challenges to disprove it and attacking it so ferociously. They could just sit back and watch as SRF prove themselves wrong through their own research. On top of that, even if SENS were wrong, all the data coming from their work will certainly prove itself invaluable for future research endeavours. Win-win.

Personally, I came to the conclusion that what caused SENS to be so unpopular (at least initially) amongst the experts of the field might be its clearly stated goal of curing ageing. Biogerontologists are not immune to the pro-ageing trance by default; also, as far as I know, at the time when Aubrey de Grey first introduced SENS to the world he was practically unknown and quite new on the scene. To top it all, he was from a different field. I can see how other experts would be rather pissed at an outsider who comes out of nowhere and claims he’s got the solution to a problem they mostly weren’t even trying to solve. Maybe SENS wouldn’t have faced any opposition if it had kept a low profile and disguised itself as mere research-for-the-sake-of-research, as it was customary in the field of gerontology back in the day.

On the other hand, people like David Sinclair and Bill Andrews too are set on bringing ageing under medical control, and to the best of my knowledge, they don’t face nearly the same opposition as SENS does. Maybe it’s because they followed a more traditional career path than Aubrey de Grey. Maybe their approaches are more orthodox, or maybe SENS has more media exposure and thus is more likely to be criticised. Maybe it’s because of Aubrey’s bold claim that the first person to reach 1000 years of age has already been born[1]. I don’t know for a fact why SENS faces such fierce criticism. All I know is that, quite likely, if Aubrey de Grey hadn’t been shouting from the rooftops for the past 16 years that we can and should cure ageing, this tremendous problem wouldn’t be receiving nearly as much attention as it does today.


1. People generally don’t get this one right. He does not say that we will soon develop therapies that will make us live 1000 years. That doesn’t even make sense in the context of SENS, which is a panel of therapies that would need to be periodically reapplied. What Aubrey says is that we’ll probably get around 30 extra years of healthy life with the first round of SENS; during this time, perfected versions of the same therapies are likely to have been developed, granting even more extra years of healthy living, and so on. This concept is known as longevity escape velocity.

A sickeningly bad idea indeed

Science and progress hardly ever stop just because a few cuckoos think we’re going too far. That’s what I tell myself most of the times when I bump into depressingly ill-informed articles about ageing and the diseases of old age. I tell myself that the best thing to do is to just let such articles disappear into oblivion and not give them any extra visibility. However, if instead of a few cuckoos we’re faced with an army of cuckoos, then we’re in for troubles.

At the time of this writing, people who are in favour of or oppose rejuvenation aren’t many, and neither are those who know about it but don’t care. Quite likely, most people in the world haven’t even heard about it yet. What I fear is that, when the advent of rejuvenation biotechnologies will be close, people who oppose rejuvenation will do their best to persuade undecided ones that disease is better than health, and ultimately, provoke an us-vs-them conflict that could jeopardise the cause of rejuvenation. The best way to avoid that conflict is to convince as many people as possible to support rejuvenation biotechnologies before they even arrive, so that when they do, those who oppose them will only be a few cuckoos indeed and not an army. Exposing the intellectual misery of deathist arguments is indubitably a good way of reaching this goal; that’s why I chose to respond to this spectacularly stupid article, instead of just ignoring it.


Lewis doesn’t want to live in a world without diseases.
She prefers living in one where diseases are invented.

I’ll spare you my thoughts on the annoying arrogance oozing out every single word of the article, and I’ll just focus on the rather questionable opinions expressed in it. Recently, founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have announced a philantrophic effort to ‘end all diseases’ and, to this end, pledged an investment of 3 billion dollars for the necessary research. The author of the article I was talking about, Jemima Lewis, argues that ‘we’d better hope they don’t succeed’, and that ‘developing new technologies and medicines to tackle every disease ever invented’ is a ‘sickeningly bad idea’. Rather than living forever in perfect health in the world as it would be if the Zuckerbergs succeeded in their endeavour, she adds, she’d prefer dying of an ‘old-fashioned heart-attack’. Well, you know me: I’m very liberal, and I think Lewis has the right to die in any way she sees fit (including an oddly hyphenated heart attack), but for God’s sake, she should definitely pick up and read a dictionary before she dies. She could find rather interesting trivia in it—for example, the fact diseases are not invented but discovered.

Lewis goes on making up numbers and dire predictions of wars over fresh water a month after ‘curing mortality’, of WHO forcing sterilisation on people, and of starvation. It’s not very clear what sources she’s basing her predictions on or where she got those figures. Apparently, backing up one’s claims is not a thing journalists need to care about. I doubt she actually consulted any source; if she had, she would have noticed that the average number of daily deaths doesn’t even come close offsetting the number of daily births, and that in order to avert potential apocalyptic overpopulation scenarios, we would need to make fewer babies, not kill off more people. What we would need is to decrease the population growth rate—which, incidentally, is happening on its own since the sixties. Her articles might improve a little if she bothered doing some research before talking about a subject she clearly knows nothing about.

Lewis’ masterpiece, though, is the following bit:

To avert global catastrophe, the Zuckerbergs will have to leave us something to die of. But perhaps they’ve thought of that already. Perhaps instead we will be discreetly euthanised, once our online data suggests we are starting to flag. There’ll be a knock on the door, and one of those cute Japanese nursing robots will gently see us off with a painlessly lethal injection.

Let me get this straight. Curing all diseases and preventing all deaths, she reasons (loosely speaking), would lead to catastrophic overpopulation, therefore we shouldn’t cure all diseases. Of course, we can’t not cure all diseases either, so the only option left is to cure only some diseases; after all, as she points out with brilliant witticism, euthanising people to rid ourselves of overpopulation would be unethical. In her own words,

Anything that kills people much too young, or much too painfully, can go. But we need the diseases of old age, however much we may rail against them.

I wonder, though, what’s the age beyond which people aren’t ‘much too young’ to die, what diseases aren’t ‘much too painful’ and therefore should not be cured, who is going to make these decisions, and what we are going to do if people don’t want to die at age X just because somebody else has decided for them they’re ‘much too old’ to live and not in sufficient pain to be cured. I ask in the spirit of pure enquiry: Far be it from me implying that these would be profound and unsolvable ethical problems which Lewis is nonchalantly and irresponsibly overlooking.

(As a sidenote, if I was forced to choose between 1) being perfectly healthy for as long as I’m alive and dying painlessly with an injection, and 2) spending the last 20+ years of my life in a state of increasing decrepitude, illness, and disability which will eventually kill me, I would definitely choose option 1. Both options suck, since they both imply my death, but the first is far less grim. With some luck, though, we’ll be able to pick another option—being perfectly healthy for as long as we are alive, however long that may be.)

Not everyone agrees with Lewis that letting people die is a solution to anything, but perhaps they could be persuaded by the quote by Steve Jobs concluding her article:

Steve Jobs, the original tech giant, understood this – even as he fought the cancer that eventually killed him. “No one wants to die,” he wrote, yet “death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Of course, silly me. Who cares about old people’s lives and well-being? They’re much too old, and we need to get rid of the old to make way for the new. It kind of reminds me of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode by the title of Half a life.

If anyone ever had a sickeningly bad idea, that was Lewis when she decided to write her article.

A matter of terminology

Words and expressions we use influence our thoughts more than we think. In particular, some of them are more prone to interpretation than others, or have several meanings that can ‘rub off’ on each other.

The word ‘ageing’ is a good example of what I’m talking about. The first, obvious meaning of the word is that of the passing of time; if you don’t age chronologically, then you cannot possibly age in any other way. The second meaning is the process of physical decay that nearly every living and non-living thing undergoes to some extent. I wonder, though, how many people have been (and still are) thrown off by the word and led to believe that the reason our bodies fall apart as time goes by is exactly the fact time goes by.

Arguably, not many people in the world know that there’s an ongoing process of damage creation and accumulation going on in their bodies all the time. Most people seem to just be used to the fact they’re going to look and feel worse later in life, and the explanation they can provide for this phenomenon is often not much more detailed than ‘they’ve grown old.’ After all, it’s only fairly recently that we found out what ageing really is about; when the term was first adopted, there was no apparent cause of ageing, and people were probably forced to conclude that ageing simply happens with, and possibly because of, time. I wouldn’t be surprised if on some level people actually believed that the passing of time is the cause of ageing; the process of biological ageing is habitually referred to with a plethora of time-themed metaphores, such as ‘the injuries of time’, so it’s quite possible that people passively learnt that what causes the functional decline of their bodies later in life is time. As a consequence, people might well think that the idea of ending ageing is ridiculous, since it would necessarily imply stopping the passing of time.

I have been thinking for a while that biological ageing might need a proper disease-like name, which it will hopefully get when it will be added to the WHO’s list of recognised diseases. However, there are more terms that I think are misleading; ‘life extension’ is one of them. While it is true that the medical interventions we refer to are meant to extend life, this expression can cause several misunderstandings.

First, ‘life extension’ generally pushes people to commit the Tithonus error: They’ think we’re going to extend our lifespans without extending our healthspans. This is of course impossible, but you’d be surprised how many people actually associate ‘life extension’ with ‘living longer in a decrepit state’.

The second, and perhaps worse, side-effect of the term ‘life extension’ is that it may fuel the idea that life has a predefined, ‘right’ length, and that trying to push its length beyond that limit is wrong. There is, of course, no such thing as a predefined length for your life: You’re going to be alive as long as you’re healthy enough to be alive. Still, countless times I’ve had the distinct feeling that people think there are two kinds of death: death by ageing—the ‘natural’ end of your life, which will happen regardless of anything, unless you die ‘prematurely’ of something else—and death that occurs in whatever way before the ‘natural’ one.

It’s a bit as if life was an outdoor show: If it rains it will finish earlier, but the show will come to a conclusion anyway, eventually.

Needless to say, there is only one type of death, which occours if and only if you’re not healthy enough to be alive, be it because of age-related diseases, infectious diseases, or because you’ve been shot in the head. The goal of nearly any kind of medical intervention is to prevent your health from becoming so compromised that you would die, whatever the cause may be. The same is true of rejuvenation biotechnologies: far from trying to push life’s non-existent predefined length beyond a non-existent ‘natural limit’, their goal is no different from that of the rest of medicine: save your life.

Let’s get SENS on SciShow

I’ve been thinking for a while about how supporters of SENS and rejuvenation science can help beyond donating money and talking to friends and family about our cause to end ageing. Even persuading one person to join the cause is great, but getting the message to millions of people would be much better.There’s a tiny chance we could make it.

Have you heard of the YouTube channels SciShow and VSauce? If not, you should really check them out. SciShow focuses on bringing science to the masses through extremely informative and fun videos where a host (usually, but not exclusively, Hank Green) talks about a certain scientific topic, either because they’re interested in the topic themselves or because their fans asked for it. VSauce isn’t strictly about science, but rather about what its host, Michael Stevens, finds interesting—i.e. pretty much anything in the universe. I think they’re both awesome channels, definitely among my favourite ones on YouTube. Do you know how many subscribers they have? 3.5 and 10 millions, respectively. If they did a video about SENS, or even better, if they interviewed Aubrey, the exposure the rejuvenation cause could get would be enormous.

I’m quite sure Hank would be interested; as shown in this video, he’d appreciate the extra nerd time he’d get thanks to rejuvenation biotechnologies. I’m not super sure VSauce has made any videos about ageing, but I think Michael may very well be interested in the subject. It’s the kind of stuff whose implications, twists, and details he could go on about for days, probably. Additionally, both channels interview scientists in some of their episodes, and I’d love to see Aubrey on one of those.

I’m not the only one to think this could be a good idea; Keith Comito of Lifespan.io talks about it in this video, and apparently he’s in touch with the host of VSauce 3 (there’s more than one VSauce channel), who seems to be very interested.

I talked about this with Jerri Barrett, SENS’s vice president of outreach, and she seems to agree as well. She said she’ll look into it, but also that these channels pay a lot of attention to their fan base, and she’s right. If enough people emailed or tweeted to SciShow, VSauce, and/or their hosts suggesting to interview Aubrey or talk about SENS/rejuvenation biotechnologies on one of their episodes, they might just listen to us.

You can get in touch with SciShow and/or its hosts through their YouTube channel, their website, their Twitter, Tumblr, and their Facebook page; Hank Green can be reached via Twitter or Facebook. Same goes for host Michael Aranda; you’ll find him on Twitter and Facebook.

Similarly, you’ll find VSauce of course on Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook.

By all means, if you want to help, do not stop at these two channels; there are many others that may be interested in talking about rejuvenation. I’m giving a few more suggestions here, but feel free to get in touch with any channels or websites you deem appropriate. You can also leave your suggestions in the comments below.

DNews: Another science-related YouTube channel. You’ll find them also on Facebook and Twitter; here you’ll find information to get in touch with individual hosts, if you like.

Singularity 1 on 1: These chaps like to interview prominent scientists and thinkers for their podcasts. You’ll find them on their website, and on Twitter and Facebook among others. (UPDATE: They’ve actually interviewed Aubrey twice already.)

Wait but why: WBW is a very popular technology blog dealing with a variety of different topics. You can get in touch with them via their website, their Facebook, and their Twitter.

TED talks: TED hosts speakers with ‘ideas worth spreading.’ Aubrey was there quite some time ago, and it is perhaps time we suggested him for another talk.

The skeptic’s guide to the universe: They’re into science-related podcasts, and I’m sure their million followers could use one about rejuvenation. Find them on their website, on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

In order for this to work, though, we need to gain some momentum. If just a couple of people tweet to Hank Green, it probably won’t work. What we need is many people getting in touch with them and let them know their fan base would really like to see a video about SENS, rejuvenation, Lifespan.io, Aubrey de Grey, and all that is going on in the rejuvenation world.

I’m sharing this post on relevant subreddits, facebook groups, and all supporters of the cause I know; if you do the same, it might just work. Thanks!

Surprise! OncoSENS continues

The exciting announcement regarding the OncoSENS campaign I was talking about a few posts ago is that it got a 31-day extension, plus a matching fund of 15.000$. In other words, every dollar donated in the next 31 days will unlock an extra dollar from the fund, up to the first 15.000$. Right now the campaign is 58% funded, so there’s plenty of time to reach the goal and beyond. Pretty cool, eh? We’re counting on your help.

Again on the excuse of procrastination

In a recent talk, Keith Comito explained the need for the life extension movement to make friends, not enemies. He’s right, and I am a tad guilty. I get extremely annoyed and snappy at people when they raise silly objections to rejuvenation, and sarcasm isn’t really the best way to get people to listen to, understand, and eventually support your arguments. However silly certain objections can be, it’s to be expected they’ll be made. They’re a product of gut reactions, the same kind of reaction that makes you answer “ten cents” to the question: “A bat and a baseball cost 1.10$ together. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. What’s the price of the ball?”, when the correct answer is in fact 5 cents. The gut-reaction-driven answer (or objection) seems perfectly sensible, to the point one assumes no thinking is required. However, it does take some thinking to see why 10 cents is the wrong answer, and so it does to see why objections to rejuvenation are equally wrong.

I’m not the only one who gets annoyed at this problem, though. In fact, I’m in excellent company, since Aubrey de Grey himself complains about it in his talks every now and again. More specifically, he often points out how people can make two contradicting objections within the same sentence, for example ‘rejuvenation would cause overpopulation’ and ‘rejuvenation would be only for the rich.’ Given that there are very few people in the set of rich people, if you assume rejuvenation would be only for the rich you can expect it to have an extremely minor effect on the population; conversely, if rejuvenation caused significant overpopulation, it would follow that very many people must have used it, certainly not only ‘the rich’.

The above is one example of contradicting objections people bring up in a single breath, but it is not the only one. Another similar pair is “Living indefinitely would be boring” – “If people lived indefinitely, they would procrastinate a lot”. The first objection relies on the assumption that you’d run out of things to do, while the second objection assumes that, since you’d have eons at your disposal, you would postpone everything and consequently get nothing done—which, for all intents and purposes, equals never running out of things to do. Of course, one may argue, the two apparently contradicting objections may in fact marry well together: People might end up having an awful lot of things to do, but never doing any of them!

I have already addressed the two objections above before they even started dating (here and here), but let me address them now that they’ve been pronounced husband and wife. Whether you live indefinitely long or for just a ‘normal’ length of time, stuff to do has this unfortunate tendency to pile up if you don’t take care of it. Yep, that’s right. Stuff doesn’t get done by itself. And what’s more, there comes a point beyond which the length of your backlog doesn’t matter any more: If you have 100.000 or 100.000.000 things to do on your list, the situation is pretty much equally hopeless. If you were completely stuck in a room with a temperature of 300°C, would it matter if it were raised to 800°C? Exactly. The bottom line is, if you suck at time management, it’s your fault; the lenght of your lifespan is irrelevant. Regardless of how long you’ll live, procrastinating is a terrible habit which you should never pick up.

It’s quite far-fetched to assume that indefinite lifespans would turn everyone into a professional procrastinator. (Quite possibily, those who make the assumption already are professionals of this field.) Even disregarding this fact, using the spectre of procrastination as an argument against rejuvenation would be ridiculous. That’d be like saying, ‘If I lived indefinitely, I’d end up postponing everything and I wouldn’t do anything any more! Better to leave around some age-related diseases, so that I’ll die at some point and I won’t run into this thorny problem. Yep. That’s so much better than having to learn not to procrastinate.’

So much for not being sarcastic, I suppose. Sorry about that.