Not a Day Over Infinity

Abraham Verghese in The New York Times:

Vergese-popup In his remarkable Pulitzer Prize-­winning book, “The Beak of the Finch,” Jonathan Weiner followed Peter and Rosemary Grant, biologists who had spent years studying birds in the Galápagos Islands. Their work showed that finches evolve rapidly in response to changes in the food supply, a discovery that ran counter to Darwin’s idea that natural selection operates only very slowly. Weiner’s portrait of this scientific couple worked well as a narrative portal to that story of evolutionary biology.

In his new book, “Long for This World,” Weiner makes similar use of another brilliant theoretical scientist, the English gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, a tireless proselytizer for radical life extension. But unlike the Grants, de Grey emerges on the page as someone who can be taken only in small doses. “Medievally thin and pale,” as Weiner puts it, with a luxuriant beard that recalls “Father Time before his hair turned gray” or “Timothy Leary unbound,” he is given to provocative statements that can turn into sermons. Nevertheless, with de Grey as his main character, Weiner explores the fractured, fuzzy science and pseudoscience of immortality.

“This is a good time to be a mortal,” Weiner writes, noting that life expectancy in the developed world is about 80 years, and improving. Yet evolution has equipped us with bodies and instincts designed only to get us to a reproductive age and not beyond. “We get old because our ancestors died young,” Weiner writes. “We get old because old age had so little weight in the scales of evolution; because there were never enough Old Ones around to count for much in the scales.” The first half of life is orderly, a miracle of “detailed harmonious unfolding” beginning with the embryo. What comes after our reproductive years is “more like the random crumpling of what had been neatly folded origami, or the erosion of stone. The withering of the roses in the bowl is as drunken and disorderly as their blossoming was regular and precise.”

More here.