Biogerontologists' Duty to Discuss Timescales Publicly


Address for correspondence: Aubrey D.N.J. de Grey, Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EH, UK. Voice: +44-1223-765665; fax: +44-1223-333992.


Abstract: Aging is unpopular with the general public—but, it would seem, only up to a point. Treatments that claim (sometimes justifiably) to extend the total and/or healthy life span of elderly people, or even just make them look younger, are welcomed with open wallets throughout the world. If, however, one suggests to the typical nonbiologist—or even to the typical nongerontologist biologist—that we should therefore aim, in due course, to take this desire to its logical conclusion and bring aging under the same degree of control that we currently have over most infectious diseases, one is nearly always met with strong and sometimes strident opposition. I argue here that the prevalence of this outright irrationality is largely the fault of gerontologists themselves. Most people harbor a deep-seated fear of profound change in their lives and embrace it only after extensive soul-searching to convince themselves of its benefit. It cannot and should not be denied that a postaging world would be as profoundly different from today's as we can imagine. Hence, when given the opportunity to postpone sober consideration of its pros and cons, most people leap at that opportunity. It is provided to them by the nearly universal refusal of gerontologists to speculate about the timescales within which truly effective rejuvenation therapies may be developed. I suggest that this reticence, while appropriate in purely scientific fields, is hugely irresponsible in a biomedical discipline, because of its potential to delay the development of such therapies by denying them the funding that would be forthcoming if society had greater optimism concerning their foreseeability. Arguments that such funding, and/or the public's trust in scientists, would be short-lived if timescale predictions were not borne out are too flimsy to outweigh this. A further danger is the avoidable loss of life following the development of rejuvenation therapies that would result from inadequate ability to provide them universally; here again, scientists today can minimize this loss of life by agitating for forward planning by government, which will only occur when policymakers' minds are concentrating on timescale predictions.