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Telomeric Theory - Those Damn Mice

Aubrey de Grey ag24 at mole.bio.cam.ac.uk
Fri Sep 11 09:35:03 EST 1998

Beverly Erlebacher wrote:

> You might as well pack it in, Aubrey.  These guys have latched onto 
> the telomere theory and have become True Believers.  They will defend
> it against all its Evil or Deluded Enemies, all contrary evidence, etc.
> They may not understand it, but they Believe it.
> You would be further ahead to just drop this and discuss science with
> people who understand what a theory is in science.  Dropping
> sci.life-extension from the newsgroups line might accomplish this.

Your view is of course shared by most specialists, but I respectfully
disagree -- especially with the last point.

First, I think that Tom Mahoney has made a number of very useful points
with regard to the current admissibility of a role for telomere loss
in determining lifespan.  As I mentioned a few days ago, my main area
of research has been oversimplified by many prominent gerontologists in
the past, leading to the popular but premature rejection of what I
currently consider to be the most likely candidate for the primary
determinant of mammalian lifespan -- namely, spontaneous somatic mtDNA
mutation.  I am thus a good deal more sympathetic than most to defences
of other implausible-looking theories, and more tolerant of lapses of
logic, especially when (as in Tom's case) they are interspersed with
genuinely good points.

Second, and more generally: gerontology is arguably the single field of
science in which the ignorance of the general public is potentially the
most dangerous.  I take the (still minority, but there it is) view that
we may well learn how to extend the healthy lifespan of model mammalian
organisms by at least two, by means that (unlike CR) would be attractive
to society as and when developed for humans, within twenty years: I put
the probability of this no lower than 10%.  That development has always
seemed to me to be the critical one from a sociological point of view,
since the successful transfer of that technology to humans is certain
to be seen to be imminent (even if it actually turns out not to be).
As such, it is then that policy-makers will have to be ready for the
public reaction, and twenty years' warning is none too much.  Therefore
I regard it as a major part of my work as a gerontologist to disseminate
reliable information widely, by way of helping to give the world as much
warning as possible.  sci.life-extension is by at least an order of
magnitude the most widely read of the various relevant newsgroups or
mailing lists; I thus feel that it can in no circumstance be ignored.
The current over-fashionability of the telomere theory among the general
public is a case in point; I think it merits tenacious analysis in a
popular forum.

Aubrey de Grey

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