This attitude is not uncommon. We all have seen titles along the lines of ‘How blindness changed my life for the better’, or ‘My disability made me achieve more than ever before’. Sure enough, at least some of these titles are meant to be clickbaits, but I don’t like attributing everything to malice.
Sometimes, when you’re ridden with an incurable disease, a certain way of downplaying your condition can help you cope, which is good. If your disease has taken the ability to walk from you and there’s no hope of getting it back, there’s little to be gained from wallowing in despair and focusing on your symptoms and on what you’ve lost. Focusing on what you haven’t lost and on what still is under your control, though, may help you make the best of a really bad situation. (This doesn’t apply to disabilities only, but to life in general.) Some people manage to do this very well and they end up achieving a lot despite their disability, and that’s awesome, but I think it’s wrong to attribute their successes to the disease.
Say you lost your sight. Suddenly, a ton of things you used to do with ease become very difficult or even impossible to do on your own or at all. You could throw in the towel, or you could muster up all of your inner strength and make the best of the situation. I’m not saying this is easy: I’m lucky enough not have any first-hand experience of it, but I’m sure it’s not easy at all. However, if you do manage to not give up, you might resolve that, although you can’t see any more, you still can hear, so fuck it, you’re going to become a musician. Maybe it’ll work out, maybe it won’t.
Say it does work out, and you become a great musician. Whose merit is it? Blindness’? Certainly not. Sure, maybe the thought of becoming a musician would never have crossed your mind if you hadn’t lost your sight, but you didn’t magically turn into Beethoven when the lights went off. You must well have put some effort into it to become a great musician, and it was that effort—not your disease—that took you where you are now. The merit is yours, not your disease’s. Couldn’t you become a great musician all the same, even without going blind first, had you put in the same effort? It certainly doesn’t take blindness to be a great musician, and not all people who go blind become great musicians. No disease is a default motivation for anything. It is up to you to find motivation to do anything. (Now don’t think I’m saying that in every situation you can find a plus side and it’s your fault if you can’t find any; I’m not. It may well depend on circumstances beyond your control.)
Give to Caesar what is due to Caesar: Diseases suck. They limit your independence, they make you feel like crap, and sometimes they even kill you. They’re not good, they’re not a blessing, they don’t give you super powers, they don’t make you wiser and they don’t hold the secret meaning of life. Whatever you may be able to accomplish despite your disease is your merit, not your disease’s. That’s why we have words like ‘despite’ in the first place.
People struck by diseases aren’t the only ones who may sugarcoat their condition. As said, article writers and the media in general do this fairly often. My guess would be that, perhaps, they’re trying to give a positive view and encourage people who suffer from debilitating conditions. Maybe they’re trying to show them that all’s not lost. I commend that, but there’s way and way of doing it. Don’t frame it as if the disease was the cause of somebody’s achievements. Don’t depict it as a blessing in disguise. That is disrespectful of the suffering of countless people, not to mention an outrageous lie. Instead, try to show how we can succeed even against all odds, if we put our minds to it. If you want to give people hope, remind them that science is working day and night to cure all diseases, and one day we will get there. Remind patients that, even as we speak, someone somewhere is working to understand their disease and find a cure to it.
I may have gone off at a tangent this time around, but only slightly. Remember that age-related diseases are as horrible, crippling, and lethal as some non-age-related diseases, and the reason not everyone realises this isn’t any different from the attitude I’ve described here. Calling old age the ‘golden years’, with all the many plagues that inevitably come with it, is the same as calling a spinal cord injury a blessing; attributing to ageing one’s wisdom and accomplishments is equally cheap and misguided. Biological ageing is no more, no less, than a vast set of diseases, and as such, there’s only one thing to do about it: Bring it under comprehensive medical control.
Ending Aging, the book by Aubrey de Grey describing how medical science will be able to fully treat ageing in the foreseeable future, has been translated into Italian with the title La fine dell’invecchiamento (literally, ‘the end of ageing’). The book was published by D Editore—an independent Italian publishing house foucused on transhumanism and related topics—and will be presented on December 1st, 2016, at 18:00 at the bookstore Libreria Cultora, located in via Ughelli 39, 00179 Rome, Italy.
If you’re Italian or speak Italian, you might want to attend. If you know any Italian or Italian speaker, you could help the rejuvenation cause by letting them know of this event. Probably, the most effective way of spreading the word is sharing the relevant Facebook event.
This was all just wild speculation, but then my girlfriend pointed out a series of studies about the influence of the majority’s opinion on individual judgement—the so-called Asch conformity experiments—which seemed to hint there might be some truth to what I conjectured. You can read the page I linked, or even look up the original studies, but here’s a brief account of the experiments anyway.
Groups of eight subjects were presented with two cards: One bore a single vertical line, while the other had three lines of different lengths labeled A, B, C. One of the three lines was the same as that on the first card, while the other two were clearly of different lengths; the subjects were supposed to say which of the three lines matched the one on the first card. Now, seven out of the eight subjects in each group were actually actors who had been given prior instructions on how they should answer the question in each run of the experiment, so that the number of actual test subject each time was in fact one. The seven ‘confederates’ were instructed to always unanimously nominate one of the three lines. In some cases they were instructed to give the right answer; in some other, they were supposed to give the wrong one. The point of the experiment was to see whether the test subject would dare giving the right answer even when all the other supposed test subjects gave the wrong one.
While in the control group the error percentage was ridiculously (and understandably) low, in the remaining groups results varied: 36.8% of the real test subjects conformed to the (incorrect) answer of the majority; 5% of them always gave the same answer as the majority. One-third of all the responses were incorrect, matching those of the majority, and overall 75% of the test subjects gave at least one incorrect answer out of 12 trials. During the post-experiment interviews of the subjects, Asch spilled the beans and told them what the experiment was really about. He got some rather interesting responses, for example from the ‘independent’ subject who did not follow majority, who said: ‘I do not deny that at times I had the feeling: “to go with it, I’ll go along with the rest” ‘; and the ‘yielding’ subject, more prone to aligning with the majority, who said ‘I suspected about the middle – but tried to push it out of my mind.‘ Some of the conforming people gave the same wrong answer as the majority because they doubted their own judgement and concluded the majority had to be right; some others didn’t want to go against what the majority was saying, even though they knew what the right answer was. Even though the majority of subjects did not conform to the wrong answer just because it was what the majority of the participants was saying, it is still impressive that nearly 40% did. We’re not talking nuclear physics here: We’re talking about which line was longer than which other.
Before you complain that you don’t give a flying about the new Ghostbusters movie or which line is the longest, let me come to the point of this post. If people are hesitant to disagree with the majority even in cases where they could easily prove the majority wrong, I would imagine they are even more so when the majority is very entrenched and disproving them is not so easy, as in the case of people maintaining that ageing is a good thing and that all kinds of shit would hit the fan if we tried to change it in any way. The fact your health goes downhill as time goes by is something nobody is too fond of and probably not too many people like admitting that they’re not very healthy any more. Denialism is often the first reaction to something unwanted and inevitable, and while you can’t deny the fact you’re ageing, you can deny it is a bad thing and attempt all sorts of pseudo-philosophical acrobatics to convince yourself and others that ageing is a good thing after all. Since everyone has ageing, this reaction is exceedingly common, and we end up with seriously large groups of people all agreeing that ageing is good (despite the fact it makes you sick and kills you) and that if we stopped ageing we would be struck by all the catastrophes you can imagine—regardless of the total lack of evidence in favour of these claims and of all the arguments (if not evidence) against them. After all, often all it takes to make a lie true is to repeat it long enough and to get others to repeat it too. Considering that the issue of biological ageing is at least as old as humanity itself, the first attempts to rationalise and sugarcoat it are probably very old as well; therefore this cycle of communal reinforcement has probably been going on for centuries if not millennia, earning the alleged desirability of ageing a place in folk wisdom. As the Asch experiments suggest, even if some people may in fact privately think that ageing is not so good after all and they’d rather not age if they had the choice, there’s a good chance that in public they’ll stick to the majority opinion, no matter how questionable it may be. If you’ve ever tried to bring up the topic of rejuvenation with other people, you’ve probably seen this phenomenon in action many times. Before you know it, you’re covered in a tidal of overpopulation, eternal boredom, and everliving tyrants; then, when you start patiently dismantling each objection, the conversation is turned into an exchange of witticisms and eventually killed. Hardly anyone will ever dare changing their mind and admitting to it, especially in front of other people. The reasons may be several—fear of breaking from the majority, fear of appearing silly, fear of deluding oneself, you name it. Some people may be genuinely convinced of their position on ageing, but I wouldn’t be too quick to trust anyone who claims to think ageing is a good thing. Especially when you think about how people’s negative reactions to rejuvenation are all so quick—too quick, in fact, to believe they’ve actually given the matter any thought—and all eerily similar to each other, chances are good their wish to align with the majority has taken over. Just my two cents.
However, there were two clichés that really ruined the experience for me: the implied, groundless cliché that ‘living forever is not as nice as you think, it’s something only bad guys would want and it comes at a high price’ creeping up throughout the entire movie, and the inevitable ‘death gives life its meaning’ cliché. This is the sort of stuff that would generally fly me into a rage and push me to write a venomous, demolishing article about the movie, but not this time.
I am really tired of hearing this false mantra being mindlessly repeated over and over. Books, movies, newspaper articles, people—everyone seems to be persuaded that without death, life would have no meaning. No one, though, bothers explaining why this depressing claim would hold true, and if they do, their arguments boil down to unconvincing, carelessly generalised hand-waving about how you couldn’t properly appreciate a good thing without its opposite. That’s like saying that in order to appreciate not having cancer, you need to have had cancer first. As I said in an admittedly much less diplomatic article, I appreciate how being mortal may make you see things differently from how an immortal being might see them, but that is not the same as death being mandatory to appreciate life.
So, please, stop. Stop repeating this dangerous and foolish mantra. Don’t let movies, books, or anyone tell you that death gives life its meaning. Don’t let anyone decide for you what is the meaning of life, or what gives meaning to it, because in general there is no such thing. Meaning is relative, not absolute, and you get to decide for yourself what gives meaning to your life, not an age-old piece of nonsense people perpetuate merely to sugarcoat death. Death is nothing special. It is not a monster. It is not a foe, no more than the status of ‘broken’ is for an inanimate object. Death is the name we give to the status of a biological creature whose body is too damaged to keep functioning. That’s all it is. Nothing more, nothing less. When our bodies function properly, we live. When they don’t—when they’re ‘broken’—we die. Like all living creatures, we like it better when we function than when we don’t. Species wouldn’t last very long if they weren’t wired this way.
I don’t know what gives meaning to your life, but I can tell you what gives meaning to mine. People I love. Things I like doing. Music I like listening to. Playing piano. Drawing. Writing. Learning new things. Having fun with friends. Discussing science. Enjoying a beautiful landscape. Wondering about the countless mysteries of nature we haven’t solved yet—and many, many other things. Maybe none of these things gives meaning to your life, and they don’t have to. As said, you can find your own—and if it turned out to be death, well, so be it, but find out for yourself, do not let others tell you that without death life has no meaning. That is not a universal truth, and quite frankly, it is a statement that is contradicted every day by our very actions.
We have hospitals to cure sick people. We have international organisations trying to save people in poor countries from starvation, to put an end to war and help its victims. Why all these initiatives aimed at preserving our lives, if death is what gives them meaning? If death gives meaning to life, why do Doctor Strange and his superhero friends strive so hard to save the lives of the people on Earth? Why deprive all those lives of their meaning? If you are struck by a fatal illness, why turn to doctors to save your life? Perhaps the time has come for death to give it meaning.
Do you see the nonsense yet? The very idea that death gives meaning to life, when we’ve tried so very hard from time immemorial to stave off death for as long as possible, is absurd—or perhaps, a hint that we don’t care that much for our lives to have a meaning after all. Does all that you do, feel, and care for, magically become worthless if you don’t die? Are the people you love dear to you only because one day you won’t have them any more? What about the things they have done for you, or the fact they understand you like no one else does?
No, I don’t think death gives meaning to life. Things I fill my life with give it meaning, and all my death is going to accomplish is taking those things away from me. (Or rather, it’s going to take me away from those things.) Ageing is the worst example of this: It gradually makes you more and more unable to dedicate yourself to the things that give your life meaning, thus making your life more and more meaningless. Eventually, it deprives you of life entirely.
So please, stop repeating the death mantra. Stop believing in this crazy nonsense. I understand where it comes from, and I understand our need to rationalise death, but it is time to move on. It is time to look at death for what it is and keep on refining our tools to stave it off indefinitely, so that people can live in perfect health for as long as they wish.
Stop repeating the death mantra, or progress of medical science runs the risk of being hindered by cohorts of people thinking that death is necessary and thus we should not cure all diseases. Think about it for a moment: Should we not cure Alzheimer’s disease, or cardiovascular diseases, or cancer, to make sure that something will kill us and give our lives ‘meaning’? Are we really going to put the brakes on medicine for fear that too long a life might be boring? How many more excuses are we going to make up?
Please, no more excuses. Please, stop.
SENS 2016 winter fundraiser
Thanks to a generous grant from the Forever Healthy Foundation, every dollar donated to SENS until the end of this year will be doubled, up to the first 150.000$. (As a side note, FHF has already pledged 10$ million to SENS and SENS related research. These guys are awesome.)
FightAging!’s new fundraiser
In order to encourage regular donations to SENS, Reason of FA! and Josh Triplett have put together a matching fund of 24.000$ dollars; for a year starting on November 1st, 2016 they will match the donations of anyone signing up as a SENS patron.
Make a difference—help SENS bringing ageing under medical control!
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. 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.