The bird is fine, the bird is fine, the bird is fine, it’s dead.
Twenty years have passed since my first encounter with Aubrey de Grey, that man with the Methuselah mustache. He was already a True Believer in the quest to immortality back then. He wasn’t yet famous or well-known. ,, as he would soon be to his anti-aging fans. He wasn’t yet a man in dishonor.
He worked in those days as a computer programmer at the University of Cambridge in England. He was also trying to get into the small field of aging. Most of the scientists who worked in it–gerontologists–wished he would go away. They wanted to give people a few more years of good health. The last thing they needed was a Methuselah–or Rasputin–look-alike at their conferences, a fast-talking outsider who drank beer from morning to night and claimed we could live for more than 1,000 years. As it was, the science of longevity had enough credibility problems.
I’m riffling through the pages of my last book, Long for This World, to find the scene where we met. It was a bright morning in March of 2002. I picked Aubrey up from the Philadelphia airport and drove him to the Pennsylvania town where I was living at the time. Over the next few days, Aubrey tried to convince me that science could and should end aging. We often walked down the stairs to the kitchen to replenish our energy with beer. Aubrey, who was selling science to end aging, walked my sons past the refrigerator and told them that they had a good chance of living for many centuries or millennia. If they were lucky, they might even live longer. The boys were teenagers back then, 14 and 17. They felt immortal already. They enjoyed meeting a grownup who believed it was true.
Right. Now those two boys are in their 30s, and I can see 70 coming fast.
Just flipping through these pages (they’re 12 years old and already showing their age–definitely not acid-free paper) is making me cranky. I feel like a terrible curmudgeon just by skimming through them. I wasn’t a convert back then. Nor am I today. Aubrey, a True Believer, is convinced that he can win you over if only he gives his pitch one more chance. And here he is, scene after scene, trying again. In addition to all the usual writer’s regrets and the revisiting of the science of eternal youth makes me feel old.
If high intelligence is the ability of holding two opposing ideas in your head at the same time, then most people are geniuses about aging. We believe it will never happen for us. It might happen, but it will not reach us. We believe it is coming, but there is nothing we can do.
It was Seymour Benzer, a great molecular biologist, who first got me interested in the possibility that aging might be malleable. Benzer was a night owl. I was writing a book about him, and in the late 1990s he used to talk about aging in his Fly Room at Caltech in a hushed, conspiratorial voice, even though it was just the two of us and a thousand fly bottles at three in the morning. It was shocking to hear a serious scientist say We might have the ability to do something about this .
He wasn’t the only one to say it. Cynthia Kenyon, University of California, San Francisco was studying the aging of the worm C.elegans .. In 1993, she had announced the discovery of a mutant that lived about twice as long as the average C. elegans and looked young and sleek almost to the end. Lenny Guarente, MIT’s geneticist, was examining the genetics of aging yeast. He seemed to be making progress too. In 1998, when Benzer was 77 years old, he announced the discovery of a mutant fruit fly he called Methuselah. It could live for 100 days. The average fly in his bottles died at around 60.
I’ll never forget how startling it was to hear a serious scientist say, “We might be able to do something about this.”
Versions of many of those same fly, worm, and yeast genes are found in every animal under the sun, including us. Molecular biologists can study the clock’s workings by starting with the first few so-called longevity gene and following their connections. They might one day be able to slow down the hands.
On that hope, or hypothesis – which is still just a hypothesis today – the aging field exploded. In 1999, one year after Benzer’s Methuselah, Guarente and Kenyon cofounded Elixir Pharmaceuticals. They planned to investigate and exploit sirtuins, which are proteins that are involved in aging. In 2004, Guarente’s former student David Sinclair cofounded Sirtris Pharmaceuticals to race against Elixir. In 2013, Google started the R&D company Calico, with a budget that was rumored to be in the hundreds of millions. Calico’s vice-president of aging research is Kenyon.
Smart new talent poured into the field, including the prodigy Laura Deming. As a New Zealand homeschooler, she was eight years old when she became fascinated by the biology behind aging. Laura was sad to learn how much her grandmother suffered from her arthritic joint pain. At 12, she joined Kenyon’s lab at UCSF. At 14, she was accepted at MIT. She dropped out of college a few years later to become a venture capitalist. She founded the Longevity Fund. According to the website, Longevity Fund companies raised more than $1 million.
There are too many foundations and startups that focus on anti-aging today. Each one aims to take advantage of biomedicine’s latest tools–CRISPR and AI, Yamanaka factors (epigenetics, proteomics and metabolomics–and slow down that clock. Last December it was NewLimit, with more than $100 million in funding from the Coinbase billionaire Brian Armstrong. Altos Labs was the winner with $3 billion in funding. Jeff Bezos is believed to have been one of its investors. The Hevolution Foundation was founded by the royal family in Saudi Arabia and plans to spend $1 million a year on research to slow down aging.
Meanwhile, Aubrey de Grey kept banging the drum for the cause. Within what felt like five minutes after our first meeting in 2002, he became a secular guru, a prophet of immortality–to the intense annoyance of most of the scientists in the aging field. He cofounded the Methuselah Foundation, the SENS Research Foundation, to support research, education, conferences, and speed things up. “SENS” refers to his own plan for ending aging: “strategies for engineered negligible senescence.” This is the scheme he explained to me back in my old study 20 years ago. If we fix Seven Deadly Things, then our bodies will live long enough to allow medical science to advance in a timely manner and keep us alive forever. One of those Seven Deadly Things is cancer. You can cure cancer.
When the cryptocurrency crowd became interested in anti-aging science some years ago, many people liked the sound of the SENS. In the summer of 2021, a new crypto system called PulseChain raised $25 million worth of cryptocurrency in two weeks for the SENS Research Foundation. Although the foundation was small and frugal, it had been a steady stream of income. This was its biggest win in its history.
But Aubrey was fired by the SENS board at the same time as the PulseChain gift arrived. Celine Halioua was the young founder and CEO at Loyal, a biotech company that aims to increase the lifespan of dogs. Laura Deming, founder of the Longevity Fund, also had similar accusations. Deming wrote in a blog:
I have decided to not work with Aubrey de Grey and SENS in any capacity moving ahead.
I had one bad experience with him when I was 17–he told me in writing that he had an ‘adventurous love life’ and that it had ‘always felt quite jarring’ not to let conversations with me stray in that direction given that ‘[he] could treat [me] as an equal on every other level’.
He sent this from his work email, and I’d known him since I was 14 …
I’ve learned it’s a serial pattern he’s enacted with women over whom he’s in a position of power …
I almost left the field several times as a teenager because of stuff like this happening.
Deming didn’t respond to my requests for an interview. I spoke with Halioua who was happy to discuss her hopes for Loyal, but not to comment on Aubrey. She writes on her website that “for years he used his position in the aging field as a way to attract his victims.” These victims include me, Laura Deming and multiple anonymous women.” She also mentions harassment by another SENS executive, and claims that “every dollar that goes towards Aubrey holds back
Aubrey denies the accusations. He stated that he would fight the SENS board for his dismissal. He was so well-known by then, and the quest to find the Fountain of Youth so controversial, that the scandal made headlines for science journalists.
Back when science of aging wasn’t a mainstream field, I thought it was a smart idea to explore the subject with an immortalist like de Grey, even though it had many ambiguities and contradictions. Two decades later, and I am two decades older, I would rather be with the realists than all the hype and money.
Lately, I’ve been calling some gerontologists to check in. We can sense how much time has passed since our last conversation by just saying hello. Even our voices are getting older. What a time it is to be an old man. Surprisingly, many scientists couldn’t speak at all because they were dealing family medical emergencies.
I called Daniel Promislow (one of the directors of The Dog Aging Project), a huge study that may soon teach new tricks in veterinary clinics and human medicine. Steve Austad, a senior gerontologist who believes we can also learn from the lives and health spans that birds have, was my call. Many birds are able to remain healthy and fertile right up to the end, according to many species. Austad said, “Vets have an saying,” to me. “The bird is fine. The bird is fine. It’s dead I called James Kirkland, a Mayo Clinic doctor. Kirkland is currently conducting early-stage clinical trials for senolytics. These experimental new drugs attack and kill senescent cell, which appear to be fundamental to aging. Kirkland stressed that these are early days for senolytics. The drugs may or may not turn out to be safe; if they are safe, they may or may not work; even if they work, they won’t make anyone live to 120. He said that this is not what his patients were looking for. They are looking for help with their osteoarthritis and chronic kidney disease.
Most of these trials are going to fail, Kirkland said. Most trials do. “People should be dispassionate even though everyone has a stake.” I mean, every living person does.”
I called the biologist Martin Raff, who retired from University College London 20 years ago, when he was not quite 65. Raff was an expert on cell senescence. He said that he is ready to leave after a long, happy life.
Today, the field that Benzer saw in his Fly Room in the past century is being considered seriously by Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Riyadh as well as at the National Institutes of Health. It is becoming more mainstream in research medicine and is one more program that can be pursued.
The idea, of course, is to add good years to our lives without drawing out the number of bad years at the end.
The study of the clock really may teach us ways to slow down some of the fundamental deterioration we call aging, to treat whatever it is that leaves our bodies increasingly vulnerable to chronic diseases as we get older–senescent cells, for instance. According to the geroscience hypothesis, if we can do this, we can fight all chronic diseases simultaneously: arthritis, atherosclerosis (cancer), deafness and dementia, osteoporosis, diabetes, stroke, and cancer.
The idea is to add good years to your life without reducing the number of bad ones. This is known as the compression of morbidity. It is impossible to know if it is possible, so the compression morbidity is a hypothesis on top. That is what most centenarians can do. They stay healthy two or three decades longer than the rest of us, and many of them feel quite well at the age of 100. “The bird is fine. The bird is fine. It’s dead
But we’re still mortals and our kind will live on for a long time.
I Zoomed with a Canadian writer and academic I know, Andy Stark, author of The Consolations of Mortality. Andy said that it was sour grapes but he believes we are better off being mortal. His book discusses many of the downsides of eternal life, such as the terrible problem that boredom can cause. How many times would it be worth your while to ride the roller coaster? Long For This World I also discuss other problems, such as the sixth extinction, which is a planetary catastrophe that is occurring around us, caused by the fulfillment so many human wishes. How much of this disaster would you want to see?
Andy Stark spoke at a symposium a few years back about the science and practice of longevity. Aubrey de Grey was there. Aubrey de Grey was in the audience when Andy was finished. If I offered you an extra 30 healthy years, Aubrey said, you’d take that, wouldn’t you? And after that, wouldn’t you take the next 30 years, and the next 30? And so on.
Andy stood his ground, and he was right. There is an infinite difference between a few years of eternal life and a few years of healthy living.
I called Aubrey too. He now lives at the Silicon Valley edge. He seemed more optimistic than ever. He was planning to host a kind of comeback conference in Dublin. It would be a great place for beer. He invented the term, the Methuselarity. This is the moment when medicine can more or less stop ageing. He now thinks there’s a 50% chance that the Methuselarity is 15 years away. He said, “That’s pretty great.” “I used to say it was 25 years away.”
Q: How do you feel about mortality personally, all these years on?
A: I’m doing fine. I’m not showing any signs that I’m getting older
. As we zoomed, I could see that this was true for Aubrey more than it was for me.
“But I’ve always done this for humanitarian reasons,” he said, just as he used to say 20 years ago. It is a fact that aging can end the lives of millions every year. It doesn’t matter if the Methuselarity arrives soon enough to save Aubrey.
“What about you?” he inquired.
“Well, Aubrey, I’m 10 years older than you are. I am accepting the fact that I am mortal. I’m looking for the consolations of mortality.”
He rolled his eyes.
We’d had this argument so many time before that I stopped writing down our words.
He said, You’d take a pill that gave you 10 more good years, if I offered it to you now …
(My older son is still very much in the immortality camp. It hurts and angers me that I would turn down a project that could yield us near-infinite benefits. It seems to him that I am giving up on my life. )
Seymour Benzer wouldn’t have liked the crowded aging field. It was small that drew him to it. He felt he was no longer able to think after a new science was established. There were rafts research to be done, journals to read, conferences to attend, and a lot of journal articles. He moved on to another project.
For more than 60 years, the span of his long career, that strategy worked to stave off boredom. He was one of those mortals that showed you how rich a finite existence can be. In his 20s, his work in physics helped lead to the invention of the transistor. In his 30s and 40s, his work on the fine structure of the gene helped launch molecular biology. Then came neurogenetics. The modern science of aging was then created. Even in his later years, he was still curious: always looking for the next field, the next experiment. I would take a pill to do that.
Benzer died from a stroke in November of 2007, at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, California, at the age of 86. His family and friends told me that he was a cheerful worker in his lab until the very end. Just before he fell into a coma at the hospital, he was alert enough to say, “I have two …”
questions And that was it. Jonathan Weiner is an author based in New York City. He won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999 for Time, Love, Memory, his book about Seymour Benzer. He is a Columbia Journalism School instructor.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.