How to Live Forever or Die Trying, by Bryan Appleyard

Immortal longings meet fatal mistakes
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The Independent Culture

Bryan Appleyard says he is not qualified to assess the science of ageing research. In another breath, he says that science is telling us that death may no longer be the one clear fact of life. "It can be postponed indefinitely, maybe even be abolished." Appleyard admits slumping into depression on realising he is just not smart enough to understand the science of why we grow old and die. Then, in a flash of inspiration, he thinks it's not him after all, it's the science: "riddled with contradictions and disagreements."

All science is provisional in any case, says Appleyard. The new religion of "scientism" is offering us immortality, just as other religions promise everlasting life after death. In justification, Appleyard cites the example of an old car. Mechanics can effectively make a car immortal by replacing worn-out parts. "To suggest that we can't do the same for humans is to imply that there is something special about them," he says. You would, perhaps, expect such blind faith in science from someone who believes that it is just another religion. Never mind that science is the antithesis of faith - it is about the sort of intelligent questioning that is sadly missing in this book.

The reason, for instance, why the human body is fundamentally different to a car is complexity. Each and every cell of the body is millions of times more complex than a car, and we have many billions of cells in our bodies, any one of which can go awry, become a cancer and cause the entire system to collapse in death.

In any case, how many vintage cars are used for everyday city commuting - the sort of hard driving we put our bodies through just by the simple acts of eating and breathing?

There would be no sense in writing a book of this kind unless Appleyard could sell the idea that there really is genuine scientific research which suggests we may soon achieve what he calls "medical immortality". Appleyard gives the impression that many distinguished scientists - "immortalists" - believe we may be on the brink of achieving a lifespan of several centuries or even a thousand years.

In fact, the proponents of such outlandish ideas are far out on the fringe, even though they are routinely featured in colour supplements. Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge computer scientist, is the principal focus of Appleyard's interest. However, de Grey's belief in immortality - or "strategies for engineered negligible senescence" - are something of a laughing-stock among mainstream gerontologists.

Appleyard sums up de Grey's ideas in less than two pages. He promotes de Grey well above his status, and downplays the case for why de Grey is a million light years from achieving his stated goals of abolishing ageing and rejuventating the old.

Yet in all of his writings, de Grey fails to mention that none of his approaches has failed to extend the lifespan of any organism, let alone humans. In fact, a group of 28 distinguished scientists signed a joint letter in 2005 to one science journal condemning de Grey and the gullible journalists who fall under his spell.

"None of us... believes that plans to 'engineer' the body to prevent ageing indefinitely... have the remotest chance of success," they wrote. "Treating arguments and proposals that are not backed up by scientific evidence as though they were scientific ideas carries the risk of making them impressive to laypersons," especially when "presented to them by advocates whose style they like."

Unfortunately, for all his style, Appleyard fails to distinguish speculation based on evidence from speculation based on wishful thinking. No wonder he doesn't understand the science.

Steve Connor is science editor of 'The Independent'