The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Methuselah’s Moon Shot

published October 2016
Can science and Silicon Valley defeat death?
magazine cover

Toward the end of his life, in an essay entitled “Topic of Cancer” in 2010 in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens answered his own rhetorical query poignantly: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

The cosmos has never been particularly loquacious with its intentions, often requiring Brobdingnagian-sized ventures—from particle accelerators and space telescopes to genome and connectome projects—to tease out its deepest secrets. Can the same be done for death? A number of scientists and Silicon Valley billionaires think it can.

Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, for example, has given more than $430 million toward antiaging research because he finds the quiet acquiescence of mortality “incomprehensible.” XPRIZE entrepreneur Peter H. Diamandis co-founded Human Longevity, which, in conjunction with StartUp Health, launched the Longevity Moonshot, whose mission is “to extend and enhance healthy life by 50+ years and change the face of aging.”

Google co-founder Larry Page launched a biotech company called Calico, which aims to extend the human life span by a century. Calling it “a longer-term bet,” Page said he was confident they “can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people.” One of those people is Ray Kurzweil, the scientist and futurist (and now a director of engineering at Google) who thinks that if we can survive until the 2040s, we can “live long enough to live forever.”

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel created Breakout Labs to fund scientists and start-ups that include some working on achieving immortality, and he invested $3.5 million in the Methuselah Foundation, co-founded by Aubrey de Grey, the biomedical gerontologist whose Strategies of Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) treats aging as an engineering problem to be solved at the cellular level by reprogramming cells to stop aging. A tireless promoter of the belief that our generation will be the first to achieve immortality—or at least to live indefinitely—de Grey is on record claiming that the first human to live 1,000 years is alive today. If you’ve seen any television show or documentary film on aging, you’ve seen the inimitable Aubrey de Grey, with his waist-length ponytail and Methuselahlike beard and baritone British accent. I’ve met Aubrey and shared a beer or two with him (if there is a fountain of youth in de Grey’s world, it bubbles with beer) as he leaned in to bend my ear on the latest shields against the grim reaper’s scythe.

I like beer, but I have my doubts. First, the second law of thermodynamics is paramount in the universe, so entropy will get us in the long run, if not the short. As the renowned astrophysicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington noted in 1928, “If your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”

Second, extrapolating trend lines far into the future is problematic. Accelerating change may not continue at those rates nor apply to all technologies. Downsizing of computers from room size to pocket size is one thing; it is quite another to go from pocket size to cell size. Third, according to a 2007 review paper in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging entitled “The Aging Process and Potential Interventions to Extend Life Expectancy,” there is no single cause of aging and more than 300 theories for why cells deteriorate and stop dividing. The authors are thus led to conclude that “to date, no convincing evidence showing the administration of existing ‘anti-aging’ remedies can slow aging or increase longevity in humans is available.” And the SENS Research Foundation website admits: “No currently-available medical intervention or lifestyle choice has been shown to affect the basic human aging process.”

Still, hope springs eternal, and as Bill Gifford reported in last month’s Scientific American (“Living to 120”), there are some promising hints of antiaging properties of the diabetes drug metformin, which the FDA approved in 2015 for a clinical trial. If it helps more of us live healthy lives up to the ceiling of some 120 years, that would be welcome progress, but let’s not delude ourselves into believing radical life extension is around the corner. Our bodies are mortal, at least for now, but our genes are immortal as long as our species continues, so we owe it to future generations to create a sustainable planet and civilization.

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23 Comments to “Methuselah’s Moon Shot”

  1. Si Says:

    Good article. The search for immortality is the ultimate ego trip, either that or there is the whiff of a profit to be made from those who think they deserve to live forever.

    The holding position for those who are working on a ‘cure’ for ageing, is of course, the frequenting of the plastic surgeon’s office for fillers and lifts. Good luck with that. Just because those around them look like freaks, doesn’t mean they don’t either.

  2. Berry J. Prinsen Says:

    Would not life become boring after a few hundred years as `Plus que ça change, plus c’est la même chose`.

  3. Stuart F Taylor Says:

    Our stories and writing can live forever. I grew up believing in an afterlife, but after recognizing our minds are part of brains not spirits, I still don’t want to give up showing up for longer than our short lives. Not here in this crowded earth, but as an astronomer I wonder if these planets we’re finding might provide good places to try recreating ourselves. These planets are too far away to heft heavy human bodies across light years to visit, but gram-space probes may be able to take information across the distances between stars. So recreated humans may be the only “human-like” explorers these worlds could ever see. What’s more, such a vision only requires we preserve our stories, rather than waste resources on unproven brain preservation. Leaving our stories behind is valuable for the sake of the knowledge they hold. What’s the difference between believing in an imaginary heaven, and believing we can be reborn on another world as an exoplanet explorer?

  4. Samuel Milligan Says:

    Given that I am soon to celebrate my 85th birthday, I don’t have too much time left. And there being no life after this one, I must make good use of what time I do have. That means spending time with my projects, my friends and my family.
    I just regret leaving the world in such a mess for the next generations to clean up. Apart from that, I am content, which should be good enough for any man.
    And to overextend one’s time on this planet seems a bit vulgar, somehow.

  5. George Hampton Says:

    if there is to be a cure for aging, yes I believe their is a cure for aging. There must be an aging gene in our bodies that is triggered at puberty that causes the cells to break down as we begin to age at that point. So the key to aging lies within the cells of pre pubescent dormant cells. If we can find what triggers puberty we will have found the secret to aging. I must contest the fact of spending your entire life filling your head with knowledge for the betterment of mankind only to die and have all that knowledge go to waste. I myself just turned 55. The body says one thing but the mind, the heart, the will, and youthful lifestyle says another thing.

  6. Mike Fraley Says:

    Immortality is a supernatural construct. What we are actually after is “indefinincy.” The idea that one can live as long as one choose too; or is as long as one is lucky or skilled enough to avoid the bus in the street. For me, I can’t imagine a time coming when I would not want to know what happens next. Should that day ever arrive, however, I could just wait for the next bus.

    Unfortunately, should indefinincy be achieved by the mega-corporations of the modern age, I have a hard time envisioning a future where those corporations just give the solution to the rest of us. More likely is the scenario of vastly expanding classism, where the have’s become “those who live” and the have not’s become “those who die”.

    Sounds like a good novel….

    Anyway… here’s hopin’ I’m wrong about that!

  7. amoron Says:

    I wonder if there is an objective (or species-survival benefit to indefinite lifespan on an individual level. Also, if men ever lived beyond approximately 120 years it would also disprove the entirety of the Christian Bible.

  8. Jim Stovall Says:

    Though we would hope to overcome sources of perseveration and reification, the odds that old age brings a penchant for locked in understanding of the world, it is likely to happen! Often needed change demands new generations. Therefore the old generations have to give way to new being and its capacity for new thinking. We have a chance to live one good, long life that will occupy a century or so. Then we need to move on for the sake of the future.

  9. Lane Rand Says:

    If our species doesn’t undo itself in the near term, I’ve little doubt that someone will figure a way to get the DNA replicator material, telomeres, to automatically extend rather than to be used to the point that replication begins cutting into the coded DNA material. That or some other discovery will be the undoing of aging. Then the real problem will be dealing with extant overpopulation. Perhaps an offer to extend lives until accidental death (inevitable) in exchange for not reproducing will solve the problem. Making moral judgments about the desire to avoid death is pointless. Happiness without harming others, for however long, is what matters.

  10. J. Gravelle Says:

    Marge: “Homer, what’s every parent’s dream?”
    Homer: “To outlive their children…?”

  11. Janis Eiler Says:

    As a recent retiree, I’m having enough trouble getting my head around the fact that my financial advisor says I need to ration my retirement funds as if I’m going to live to age 100. I can’t imagine 200 or more.

  12. Roy Niles Says:

    Life on earth has found evolving methods to remain immortal. Human lives do their part by reconstructing themselves as their children. It’s always possible of course that the earth itself will meet destruction, but I’m confident that it will take the destruction of the entire universe to wipe out life’s ever evolving and continuously surviving systems.

  13. Jay Says:

    The price of extreme age may be relative simplicity. Than what do you want to be older? With what kind of awareness and ability to communicate?

  14. Raymond Says:

    I agree with your point that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate we can cure or even significantly delay aging. However your argument regarding the second law of thermodynamics is flawed in the same way creationists misuse it because the human body is not a closed system. We can and do constantly expel entropy from our bodies into the rest of the universe. In my opinion the most significant challenge to tackling aging is the practical complexity of the process rather than any law of physics.

  15. Carson Says:

    Most of the comments here are same old boring expected reaction to trying to solve the biggest most important problem in all of science. I love this site and humanism but solving death is the most important problem to be transcended. Humanism is boring and outdated. I know I will die but I hope some future humans solve the death problem or at least get to live million years. Selfish people want everyone to die. Shermer is right but let’s try to March on at all costs and priority number one. Tired of reading same unoriginal comments from deathists. They only feel that way because there is no other choice so they make up rationalizations for death is good. It’s thing I like about Michael Shermer the most, he doesn’t list a litany of rationalizations why death is good just because it’s only option. It’s way it is but let’s not pretend it’s good.

  16. Violet W. Says:

    So, I assume we will keep reproducing all this time? Great news for the earth which has to supply all our survival needs. Remember the funny theory (psychic) that California will fall into the sea because it gets too heavy with all the people moving there? Well so each of us will be lucky to have one square yard of our own space with “science” creating delicious concoctions to substitute for all the food our earth can no longer provide??

  17. Garry L. Loucks Says:

    Wanting to live forever is simply a problem of ego. One cannot accept the fact that this “me” will someday no longer exist or as Steven Hawking said “…that is for people who are afraid of the dark”.

    Carson (above) seems to think we should see death as either good or bad…but I think it just “is”! Can we stop it? Maybe, but I’m glad I won’t be around to see the unintended cosequneces of that.

  18. Rick Baker Says:

    I wonder if a longer life would make humans treat life with more respect. Causing the death of someone if it had a 500 year effect might focus the mind. It would also be interesting whether religion would cope without having death as it’s main selling point.

  19. K C Froussios Says:

    A single cell (let alone more complex living units )that is able to maintain it self indefinitely under normal functioning conditions would be (to my mind at least) something like a new form of life on earth.

  20. Agamemnon Says:

    Life already defeats, not violates, the second law of thermodynamics (entropy) by use of energy. There are life forms on earth who, as individuals, likely can live for millions of years if not eaten or otherwise destroyed by its environment: tube worms for example.

    Then the human germ line is immortal. The propagation of thousands of generations has not ended due to the second law of thermodynamics.

    As long as there is an adequate energy source life can live and defeat the ultimate consequences of entropy.

  21. Eric Berendt Says:

    I really wanted to just post one of my favorite Gary Larson cartoons, but couldn’t find it. It was a wonderful, and very cynical, comment on Cryogenics. Please accept this description. The view is of a room with a freezer with a glass door. In the freezer are a number of vessels holding heads, each labeled with a name. Outside the freezer is a janitor, walking toward a door. His foot catches on an electric cord running from the freezer to a wall plug. He says, “Oops.”

  22. Dr Richard Wilson Says:

    Entropy has no bearing on lifespan increase until you get to billions of years in the future! You should know that living systems create a decrease in internal entropy balanced by an increase in surrounding entropy so there is, of course, no violation of the second law else we wouldn’t be here at all.

  23. kennwrite Says:

    I have explored the idea of eternal life at length, and came up with this idea. If information is contained in our DNA to the extent that if our DNA were reproduced after we die, say, 34 trillion years later, and there was some remnant of the galaxy Andromeda left, and in a world in this galaxy my DNA were to reproduce in the precise code it was in while I existed on Earth, then I would come back again and at some point touch myself and say, “hey, that’s me, I recognize myself.” But I’d have no connection to the previous me since all events and experience would be different. As a result, how could I really know it’s me?

    Alas, this is the best I could come up with, and it fails. Living an extra 50 years isn’t much better than what we have now, and 1000 still offers no hope, since after 960 years or so, there’s still the despair of dying. It’s back to trusting in the laws of thermodynamics.

    It’s true, “After the first death, there is no other.”

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