Sunday, January 16, 2005

Pontin responds

Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of Technology Review, has responded to the accusations that he was unfair to Aubrey de Grey in his recent editorial. Here's the comment he posted earlier today in response to my earlier post on the matter:
Dear transhumanists,

Thank you for your posts to the site. I've

read them all with great interest. You're a passionate group!

Let me begin by writing: as many of you suggested, we will

invite Aubrey de Grey to reply to Dr. Nuland's article, the leader

"Be Sane about Anti-Aging Science," and my editorial "Against

Transcendence." You can read Mr. de Grey on early next week.

That said, when an editor so completely fails to express his

meaning to his readers, he may be tempted to try again. A few

notes to that end.

1. I recognize the anger in many of your posts, and apologize if I

have offended any of you.

When I called Mr. de Grey a "troll" it was of course a literary

device: a reference to a line earlier in my editorial where I

quoted the writer Bruce Stirling about the paradox that those

who were most intersted in using technology to transcend

human nature often lived circumscribed lives that seemed

anything but transcendent when viewed from the outside.

Stirling says that people who take transcendence seriously "end

up turning into trolls." This is my personal view. However,

neither Dr. Nuland's article, which I commissioned, nor our

leader on anti-aging, which I edited, made this point.

2. My list of the ways that Mr. de Grey seemed circumscribed by

his humanity was not intended as an ad hominem attack on de

Grey. An hominem attack seeks to discredit an argument by

attacking the person who makes it. As many of you noted, I did

not seriously grapple with Mr. de Grey's views in my editorial.

This is because my editorial was written as an introduction, by

the editor-in-chief, to the print edition of Technology Review.

An exhaustive list of all the reasons why I think de Grey

mistaken in his confidence that human cellular aging can be

reversed would have been redundant. The two other articles on

biogerontology, in addition to a synopsis of a scholarly

publication on the role of mitochondria in the diseases of aging,

expressed all I believe about biogerontology.

Those views, in short, are as follows: while I am fascinated by

the study of how and why human tissues age, I think it

exceedingly unlikely that human aging can be "defeated" in any

meaningful sense. All organisms--indeed, all things in

creation--age. I think it possible that we might one day extend

human lifespan significantly, and I am reasonably sure that in

the next 50 years we will "compress the morbidity" of the elderly

to a brief period before death. I have to note that most serious,

working, responsible biogerontologists published regularly by

peer review journals would agree with me--with the possible

exception of Cynthia Kenyon at UCSF, who entertains dramatic

hopes for human life extension, and who has significantly

extended the life span of nemotodes.

My editorial was about what it said it was about: it was written

"against transcendence." It was not written about Aubrey de


3. Finally, and I write this with a little trepidation, many of your

posts reveal a degree of misinformation about Mr. de Grey's

accomplishments and publications.

I would not accuse Mr. de Grey, whom I have never met, of

being a charlatan. But there is a certain vaguness in the

transhumanist community about his role in the Department of

Genetics at Cambridge University. Mr. de Grey is not an

academic biogerontologist. He is the computer support

for a research team in Cambridge's Genetics Department. His

formal academic background is in computer science. If you

consult Mr. de Grey's publications in a resource like PubMed,

you will see they vary more than glowing profiles of de Grey

sometimes imply. For instance, his contributions to Science and

Biogerontology are commentary and letters. His publications in

Tends in Biotechnology and Annals of the New York Academy of

Sciences were not, strictly speaking, peer reviewed.

That said, Mr de Grey's paper, "A Proposed Refinement of the

Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging," (de Grey, ADNJ,

BioEssays 19(2) 161-166, 1997) is, I am told, genuinely original,

and he is, obviously, a fascinating, charismatic, and provocative


My assessment of Aubrey de Grey would be that of the

biogerontologist Jay Olshansky: "I am a big fan of Aubrey. We

need him. I disagree with some of his conclusions, but in science

that's OK. That's what advances the field."

In sorrow and contrition,

Jason Pontin


Technology Review

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