Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist seeking a cure for human aging. He has recently published a book on the topic entitled Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime. He is open and supportive of his arrangements to be cryopreserved with Alcor Life Extension, and at the 7th Alcor Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona he discussed his decision to make it known in a presentation entitled “Is It Safe for a Biologist to Support Cryonics Publicly?”
The following transcript of Aubrey de Grey’s 7th Alcor Conference presentation has been corrected and approved by the author for publication. A low-quality mp3 of the talk is also available. To order the DVD set of the 2007 Alcor conference, visit Alcor’s website.
“I feel from experience that propounding a point-of-view that is extreme but is logically coherent is actually more productive in the long-run than propounding a point-of-view that is mealy-mouthed.”
Is It Safe for a Biologist to Support Cryonics Publicly?
Thank you all for showing up. I chose to give an off-the-cuff talk this time. I really didn’t want to bore everybody by saying things that you’ve heard before. So, this will be slightly disjointed, I suspect. It will be really a sequence of points, rather than really a reasoned sequence of arguments. But I feel that it’s a question whose time has come, a question that quite a lot of people who are supportive (at least privately, or perhaps even publicly) of complementary approaches to life extension are forced to think about and have an opinion on.
You might think, Well, the answer to the question is obvious: that it’s obviously unsafe for a biologist to support cryonics publicly. I think this is what occurs to most scientists when they consider the possibility. Cryonics obviously does still have an image problem. People are unwilling to take it seriously. Even though the public may sometimes laugh nervously, they still laugh when the subject comes up. This means, of course, that one’s scientific colleagues will find it embarrassing to support cryonics. An incident that I thought I might relate occurred four years ago when I was running the first SENS conference in Cambridge, England at Queen’s College, the third of which happened just a few weeks ago.
Jerry Lemler was a speaker, and shortly before, in fact very shortly before, his talk he asked whether it would be okay for him to publicize that I was in the process of signing up as a member of Alcor. I did decide that it was fine for him to publicize this, which he did. A couple of hours later I was involved in a meeting of the Board of Directors of the British Society for Research on Aging, which is the learned society, the equivalent would be the American Aging Association, for example. I was on the Board of Directors at that time. And, I only had about five minutes, because I was running a conference, but I came in and they immediately said, “Well, we’ve got a problem here. We don’t think much of the idea of being publicly associated with someone who is going to have their head frozen.” The upshot was that eventually we came to a sort of negotiated compromise whereby I actually removed from my website the information that I was on the Board of Directors of the BSRA. It was a curious, curious conversation, but it definitely left me with no doubt of the implications of the decision I had taken.
It’s pretty obvious that it’s a major decision for a scientist to make. I will talk about the situations I’ve fortunately found myself in. The feeling one’s politically sensitive colleagues may have is not restricted to private meetings of the sort I’ve just described to you. It also happens publicly. Embarrassed colleagues will tend to be a bit derisory and any attempts at reasoned argument will be shouted down. And, you know, the results will be, well, predictable. I’m sure most of you here are familiar with the difficulties that some cryobiologists in cryonics have had over the years in maintaining a mainstream position of prominence within the field.
Now, I have a lot to say, however. First, the danger of leadership: an elaboration of the argument for why it’s a bad idea for a scientist to go in and do this type of thing. But then I’m going to consider the other side of the coin. First of all, the dangers of being a follower, rather than a leader, which is certainly something that is close to my heart. Then, something about cryonics itself, I want to talk about three ways in which scientists need to take a lead. And in the last couple of sections of my remarks, I’m going to talk about the fortunate situation I found myself in, in terms of the relative invulnerability of my position. Starting with the danger of leadership. Well, essentially what I want to focus on here is the concept of peer review. As one of my hats, as many of you know. I am editor and chief of the world’s most high-impact gerontology journal, Rejuvenation Research. This means that lots of prominent scientists, many of whom are decidedly ambivalent about life extension in general, let alone cryonics, will send in very high quality manuscripts for publication, and I consider it rather a privilege to be in that position. Of course, the reason that journal is so well respected is because it is a peer reviewed academic journal. Every single manuscript that gets sent in is put before experts, and this is a great way of determining what to publish, by and large. We’ll come back to small qualifications of that later in my talk.
The reason it’s good is because, first of all, the person who actually makes the decision on whether a manuscript will be published has the benefit of opinions of people who may know much more about the field. And it’s much better than that. Even if the editor does decide that the expert opinion was incorrect, then the author can submit it to an alternative journal rapidly. And so, the rate at which the work gets assimilated does not necessarily depend upon the random vagaries of one or two people. But the situation is very, very different when it comes to grant applications. Nearly all money comes into the hands of scientists who do experimental research, certainly in biology, from research funding bodies that have a peer reviewed system, and that peer reviewed system does not work nearly so well. First of all, the people who tend to administer the peer review tend to know less about the subject than the editors of the journal do. There are fewer funding bodies than there are journals, and therefore, there’s less specialization. This means that the people who are in these positions have much less confidence in their ability to override the expert opinion that they are given. Moreover, the regulations and rules that are laid down, whether by government or the bequests that created a foundation, for example, will actually constrain the funding administrators with regard to their ability to mess around with expert opinion.
The process of getting funding for an ambitious research project is much less rescued by going somewhere else. It takes much longer to go through a cycle of applications for money. It seems to me that the nature of how almost all research is funded is a massive problem in biology for doing high-risk, high-gain work that may be controversial in any way. Indeed cryonics research, or indeed research by people who are publicly in favor of cryonics and have thereby made themselves controversial is the sharp end of that problem. This situation intensifies the argument in favor of the concept that it is extremely unsafe for any biologist to come out publicly in favor of cryonics.
I want to point out some contrary arguments. First of all, please raise your hand if you regard yourself as a professional scientist, if you are paid to do science in any form or another. A fair amount of the number of people in the room, but definitely a minority. Now, here is a question for you. Most people who work in science, they do it because they got into it by accident, to be perfectly honest. They did well in school and in college, and they got up to a PhD because that was the easiest thing to do. Ultimately, they got into it by default. It pays badly, but it’s actually an enjoyable life, because the autonomy that goes with being in academia is absolutely wonderful. No question about that. But, ultimately, the structure of the academic scientific career is very grim in one very important respect. You’re constantly writing the bloody grant applications to make sure you and your intellectual progeny, or flocks in other words, your post-docs and PhD students, actually have food on the table. Not to mention, obviously, the scientific equipment to do the work.
So, it’s a constant rat race, getting money out of the grant agencies. And that problem takes priority over what you would really like to be doing. The fact is, most people, even if they start off with science being fundamentally their vocation, it ends up being a career. In other words, a way of getting food on the table. People have to think that way. They have to think in this short-term politically conscious sort of way. It really ought to be that people who work in science do it because it’s their vocation. They don’t do it in order to have a career, to get their way to retirement and have a boring life. They do it in order to make a difference. Of the things that you can do to make a difference in the world, by and large, science is the biggest. This is a broad generalization, but as careers go, it’s a good one if you really want to make a difference to the world. It’s a risky thing to do in the first place. If you succeed in making a big difference, it will be inevitably at the risk of stepping on the toes of those who have established the existing orthodoxy, who are more senior than you and are more influential than you.
Plodding to retirement is not the point. If science is your vocation, as certainly it is mine, then this is something that you had better get used to. It goes with the territory. It’s an occupational hazard, something that should not dissuade you from actually doing science. If you are not getting into trouble, then you’re probably not making as much difference as you want to. Another thing is that leadership from scientists, because that’s really the focus of this talk, comes in a variety of ways. I want to focus on three things that are very much cryonics leadership. The first thing is just educating the general public. Cryonics, rather like the work that I do in extending the lives of people whose hearts are still beating, for better or for worse, is something that the public is rather fascinated by, so the prominent people in cryonics do actually get quite a bit of media exposure. That gives the opportunity, of course, to educate the public on a number of rather fundamental details that other people are not educating them on.
I’m pointing out a few things here that probably everyone in the audience knows about, but are nevertheless prominent examples of this. The fact that legal death defined as an instantaneous event is purely a convenience and not a biologically useful concept is something that the public just does not really like the idea of. Death is bad enough, but death being some sort of gray area makes it even worse. The closure that goes with the legal definition is something that comforts people. A lot of what scientific outreach is about is getting people to face up to aspects of the real world that are not comfortable. So, the fact that legal death is a convenience is something that we have a duty to get across to people. Ultimately, this is what science is about: it’s about changing the world.
Originally legal death was defined in terms of just when your heart was still beating, and now of course the concept of brain death comes into it a great deal. We will never have a precise assay for determining what biological death means, so legal death will always be a convenience. We all know the precedent of not just dogs but humans, especially young humans, having been cooled to a temperature where all electrical activity in the brain is arrested do not necessarily die. They can be brought back with little if any permanent impairment of function after having, for example, been underwater for an hour in a lake of ice through which they just fell. This is something that people need to be reminded about, even though it has been an established medical fact for decades and decades. It’s extraordinary that this sort of thing should need to be repeated again and again, but it does. And, as I say, being before the public, this is the sort of thing I have the duty and opportunity to do, to actually get people used to.
Brain death -, I think it’s important when we talk about things like information theoretic death to get across to people that information theoretic death sounds like the last possible definition of death, but actually, in many meaningful ways information theoretic death of most of the person, shall we say, may actually substantially precede legal death. I’m talking of course of the case of advanced dementia, where people are functionally dead before their heart has stopped beating or their brain has ceased in terms of electrical activity. As we all know, that’s the worst possible thing for cryopreservation for the possibility of restoring health in the distant future. It is something that, if people were a bit more educated about, they might end up realizing that it is something that makes cryonics a good deal more sensible. A lot of scientists say that ethics is not their business. It’s not their area of expertise. Well I say that’s bollocks. I say that ethics is functionally impossible unless the ethicists have the right information on which to base their deliberations, or “facts” to put it simply. Coming back to what I was saying on the previous slide, the fact that cryopreservation is not the idea of bringing people back from the dead, but rather is the idea of hoping we can save people’s lives, this is something that is rather fundamental to the ethical debate. It’s something that ethicists need to be reminded about. It seems like it’s obvious and goes without saying, but I don’t really think that’s true. I think that it is something that needs to be repeated.
Parenthetically, I want to make a point about terminology here. A number of speakers have mentioned that rather than talking about “cryopreservation” we often talk about “freezing,” and that’s a little bit politically incorrect. Perhaps we ought to talk more about vitrification. It seems to me that the audience we need to think about is generally the public: non-technical people. Non-technical people consider freezing to be the transition of a liquid into a solid, and whether that solid is crystalline or amorphous really isn’t a big deal. A lot of gerontologists get terribly exercised about the use of the word “aging” to mean the bad parts of aging. Well, I say that’s nonsense. Everyone in the real world knows perfectly well what you mean by “aging.” You mean the bad parts. You don’t mean getting more knowledgeable or anything like that. But I think that there is an example of terminology where the argument does go the other way, where we are not careful enough in our usage. I think all of us, not just in private but also, to be perfectly honest, when we talk to other people have a strong tendency to talk about cryopreserved people having died. And, sure, we know that you mean “having become legally dead.” But if you want to get across the fact that these people are not necessarily dead, which is after all what we’re about, then we have to start using terminology that adds up to that. When we talk about someone being in a coma, we talk about them having lost consciousness. I think that we ought to be a lot more rigorous in how we talk about people who are cryopreserved or being in suspension and to actually rigorously avoid talking about these people as if they were dead, because it kind of shoots us all in the foot.
I want to talk a little about the yuck factor, this wonderful phrase that was coined probably about 20 years ago by Art Caplan. There is certainly, for whatever reason, a yuck factor of cryonics. We have a moral duty to do something about it. As scientists, the way we can do something about it is not by shaking our fists and, you know, decrying people or having ethical arguments, but by talking down to earth concepts that people can understand. Science in non-scientific language. I like to use the word “demystification” for this. In my book, I have a whole chapter on demystifying aging. Insofar as the book is intended for the general public, that’s the most important chapter in the whole book, because it tries to prevent people from falling into this trap that aging is something fundamentally mysterious that will never be understood. It shows people that aging is a perfectly normal thing, just like the aging of a car, things like that. I think it’s the same with cryonics. If you can demystify the concept of death, the concept of regeneration, the concept of improvement of technology being something that we might be able to use in the future, then it becomes progressively harder to have such a yuck factor reaction. I know it’s not easy. Don’t get me wrong. I know that you guys have been doing this for decades, but I think the more that cryonics gets into the public eye, and it becomes possible for otherwise respected scientists to address cryonics publicly, the more that will intensify this demystification process.
The third topic from the scientific community that I wanted to talk about was the science policy of leadership. Probably most of you have seen the film “Death in the Deep Freeze,” which was made with Alcor’s cooperation a year and a half ago, something like that. On that show there was one interview with a prominent cryobiologist called Arthur Rowe who indicated that this was basically a con, you know, extracting money from ignorant people. But he said at the same time, in the same breath, organ preservation for the purpose of transplantations, for example, is absolutely critical, something that cryobiology, especially vitrification, can in principle make a massive contribution to. Now, hold on, the last time I looked, the brain’s made out of cells and the stuff between cells, same as other organs are.
So, the idea that a biologist can go out and just assert ex cathedra that doing this for most organs is a wonderful thing to be researching, and doing it for the brain is simply outrageous, it’s just so exceptionally not true. But you have to ask, how you can get away with it? And the answer is, of course, he’s relying on the public’s yuck factor. What it means is that publicly funded scientists, you can’t trust what they say in fora that may influence their subsequent funding. If they say, at the moment that cryonics is reasonable because it’s reasonable for other organs, then they know they’re going to be in trouble the next time they try to get a grant application funded.
I don’t want to be too dismissive. In a real sense it’s not their fault. So, we have to take the lead and point these things out, and essentially help these people out of the trap that they find themselves in. Now, when I say “we” what I mean is those of us who, for whatever reason, occupy a position of unusual invulnerability. This is the kind of title that I hope to be giving for a talk a couple years from now: With a little luck the center of gravity for this debate will shift.
A lot of people say to me, “Well, hang on. It’s a hard enough battle as it is, trying to get this radical life extension field to work. It was a pretty damn controversial field as it stands. You know, supporting cryonics publicly as well, surely you’re making life even harder for yourself.” I respect this argument very strongly, but I feel from experience that propounding a point-of-view that is extreme but is logically coherent is actually more productive in the long-run than propounding a point-of-view that is mealy-mouthed. What I am trying to say in this slide is that you should not treat the battles that you fight, in terms of controversy, as being independent from each other. Expediency, the attempt to sound reasonable but to pull the wool over people’s eyes, that tends to get spotted these days.
Finally I just want to talk about the impact that people who are in this unusually invulnerable situation that for example I find myself in can help everybody else. I have the glorious position of being able to piss people off as much as I like with no repercussions. What I mean is, I never was an experimental scientist. I never was in this trap of trying to get grants every year to fund my research. I came into this field in my spare time and was able build up some considerable influence just by being able to go out and say things, some of which people thought, “I should have thought of that.” And others of which, people thought, “I would never say that in a million years, it’s very politically incorrect.” But, the fact is, I was able to stake out a position that was both individual and coherent; to draw the lightning, shall we say, and to be rather obviously invulnerable to it.
Now, that takes a lot of luck. I got into the position I was in by, first of all, marrying the right woman, who taught me biology over the dinner table when I was originally a computer scientist. Then by getting a job that gave me access to facilities one would have needed to get serious work done and paid enough for me to be able to attend a large number of conferences to which I was not back then being invited, of course, and generally make trouble. Most people are not in that position. The point that I wanted to make is that you don’t need many people like me for the wall of mainstream establishment orthodoxy to start crumbling. As time goes on, and as I’ve become more and more hard to ignore, and other people become more and more hard to ignore – people like Mike West, who gave the previous talk, is certainly one of the people that I very much look up to and in whose footsteps I feel that I am following – there is a tendency that interviewers, or politicians, or even just the general public will start off not from the default position that these troublemakers are simply wrong, but from the default position that there is genuine uncertainty about where things are going and where things might go. That starts to be a snowball effect. The arguments that those of us with radical views are putting forward are actually more coherent logically than the arguments to denounce people like me.
In summary, I have come to the conclusion that I made the right decision four years ago to go public with my cryonics membership. I have had remarkably little difficulty in maintaining the credibility that I’ve had and hardly ever been criticized on that basis. As time goes forward over the next few years, more and more people will find themselves, like me, in the position where it becomes, if anything, actually expedient to support cryonics publicly, relative to condemning it for reasons that don’t make biological sense. So I’ll stop there. Thank you.