Suppose you’d just discovered a practical method for extending your lifespan beyond Methuselah’s — literally, for a thousand years. But then you got hit by a truck, and you were paralyzed, and you had to spend centuries in a slow-moving wheelchair.
That’s what it’s like to read Jonathan Weiner’s Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality. Weiner takes a great premise — developments at the cellular level in the fight against aging — then fritters away most of it in digressions, repetitions, truisms and avoidance of his topic’s most intriguing aspects.
Weiner spends his second chapter on the startling revelation that humans have long pondered and desired immortality — imagine that — then puts off considering the moral aspects of aging until his concluding chapters. If we lived for centuries, he finally suggests, few of us would have children. We’d consume a disproportionate share of Earth’s resources and leave no one behind to pick up after. (But then it’d just be too weird, meeting elderly people who turned out to be your great-greatgrandchildren.)
Weiner’s narrative over-relies on Aubrey de Grey, a gerontologist who’s actually convinced humans can live for a millennium. (If we can just figure out how to remove seven kinds of molecular garbage, we’ll enjoy nearly perpetual youth.) Aubrey, however, comes off as a hard-drinking wack job with impractical ideas, which Weiner then takes far too long to summarize and evaluate. In fact, there’s a profile of Aubrey, “The Prophet of Immortality” (Popular Science, Jan. 2005), that reveals more about current issues in gerontology, in much less space, than did Weiner’s entire book.
In evolutionary terms, humans are just egg carriers and sperm conveyers — “Once we’ve passed on our genes, we’re trash,” as Weiner puts it — and we don’t appear to be wired for longevity. But menopause was selected for so that women would stop reproducing and start helping out with the grandchildren. In effect, evolution did start nudging us toward long lives.
Weiner highlights promising developments (like improved cellular garbage disposal), but slogging through his overlong setup sometimes feels like a misuse of the limited time we have left on Earth.