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Audacious Folks are Curing Aging
A realtime archeological report on the inaugural Systems Aging conference by GRC
I tend to circulate groups of people doing audacious things. My most recent example of this before the subject of this post was a weekend adventure to Austin, where I hung out with a group of audacious folks who are rebuilding the internet.
Last week I hung out with what might be considered an even more heretical group. I attended a conference called: Systemic Processes, Omics Approaches and Biomarkers in Aging, and the unifying objective of the folks in attendance? Well, to solve the aging problem of course.
The conference was held at a remote ski resort in Maine, about 3 or 4 hours north of Boston, where many of the other attendees were from. I flew out from Saint Louis on a Sunday morning, and thanks to bus service from the airport was at the venue by ~6pm. The event opened with dinner and was kicked off with an address from the conference chairs and a few brief talks in the format that would lead the remainder of the week; ~20 minute presentations followed by 10 minutes of QA from the audience. An open bar followed the conclusion of these talks, and introductory conversations continued until well after midnight.
The next 4 days followed a relatively static format:
Breakfast proceeded by
Lunch, followed by
A few hours’ break for activities, resumed by
Poster presentations from researchers in attendance, leading to
Dinner and then finally
Another round of talks until about 9:30pm
Each evening concluded as late as the first, if not later. There wasn’t a night all week I made it into bed by midnight. On the fifth and final night, the stragglers went to bed early the next morning for a quick nap before the departing breakfast and bus.
One attendee put it as briefly as I could hope to on Twitter:
Something that I’ve recognized navigating the scientific community in the past is that almost everyone, call it the Pareto’s 80%, have subscribed to their own form of dogma. While no setting is free of people who are stuck in their own bubble, it takes a different kind of person to say they’re working on something like curing aging. I think this conference topic served as a sort of preselection to reduce the degree to which this was the case at this week’s event.
The people I spoke with who were the most interesting but also whose ideas struck me as the most intuitively useful and valid were the new puritans to systems biology coming from other fields like physics, computer science, anthropology, mathematics, neuroscience, and more.
They were people who'd seen things in their own field of expertise and got to know enough about biology to say, “What I know here would have a strong utility there if applied in this sort of way.”
I watched an interview with Kanye West once where he was being asked by the interviewer how he was able to be so successful in so many fields at once—music, fashion, art, etc. His reply was simply, “It’s all the same.” 1 So it goes that sometimes the most creative people to innovate in one way or another are pattern spotters and inter-disciplinarians.
Epigenetic clocks, methylation markers, mutations and damage accumulation that can be observed at the single cell level—these seem to be the broadly accepted areas of highest throughput innovation in this space. My biggest subjective criticism of these ideas are that while these markers are accurate, that's the extent to which their utility extends. It was a consensus perspective to those in attendance that the interpretability of these mechanisms is a functional blackbox despite their being so heavily focused on as promising areas of research.
So what’s the alternative? Through the podcast, I’ve had the opportunity to invite on researchers doing some very fringe things, from promoting the regeneration of severed limbs, to exploring intergenerational inheritance of memories and even suggesting that natural selection is the wrong model for evolution.
There were times when I brought up some of these characters in conversation for the sake of exploring a heretical perspective. Perhaps half the time, my reference to one of these lines of research would instigate the same sort of dismissive scoff one might expect from bringing up Ayn Rand to a social worker.
I have a hypothesis for why that may be, whether it’s a conscious dismissal or a subconscious one.
In his novel, The Revelations, neuroscientist and past podcast guest Erik Hoel personifies a character named Kierk. Kierk is a heretical thinker and neuroscientist himself who believes that with the successful adoption of a true theory of consciousness, the field of neuroscience will be dead.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of Momus’s indictment of Hephaestus; if not, you will hear it now. Momus was asked to judge a contest between Athena, Poseidon and Hephaestus, on who could construct the best artifact to present to Zeus. Poseidon bred a bull. Athena erected a house. But Hephaestus erected an entire mechanical man who could walk and talk. As the other gods clapped and congratulated him, Momus, the god of writers and tricksters, said—’Why Hephaestus, it is clear that you are a master craftsman. But what is also clear is that this is the worst present in the competition. You have failed in representing the fundamental nature of the thing. Would not this mechanical man have been vastly superior if upon his skull there was a window through which one could see his thoughts?” …
“Installing a pane of glass that lets you look at the gears, that’s the neural correlates of consciousness. It won’t tell us anything, just as Momus slyly pointed out. Francis Crick was wrong.” 2
Neuroscience, Kierk thought, was like the mechanical bull of Hephaestus. Useless insofar it cannot shed light to any new knowledge on the subject of man’s thoughts. And so to how this story element pertains to the dogmatic ideas in the field I describe above, I believe that should an alternative top down causal mechanism prove to be a more promising route to solving the aging problem, then the study of the mechanisms I mention will go the way of neuroscience in Kierk’s analogy.
So why was I, an undergraduate dropout, at this event? Despite my lack of accreditation, I continue to explore the mechanisms life in my spare time. Aside from the podcast as an outlet to hear and interact with cutting edge thinkers, I’ve been learning in an echo chamber since I left school. More than anything, I wanted to show up and see how my independent study has positioned me to hold conversations with people exploring the absolute forefront of the field. In short, I was not disappointed in myself, and left with a renewed vigor to continue on my current trajectory.
As I mentioned above, I was not alone in having come from a non-traditional background. At the event I had the opportunity to meet many people who I’ve admired from afar for quite some time for having traversed a similar learning gradient by the way of their own disciple. Chief among this category was one individual whose work I’d be remiss not to mention—@ArtirKel—who created The Longevity FAQ with the goal to…
…demystify what seems initially obscure, and to make available a summary of the current state of the art, the quality of the evidence available so far, and what promising avenues of research are being pursued at the moment.
Reading this FAQ and following complimentary work on Nintil.com was one of many things that inspired me to keep learning and eventually begin to explore in novel directions.
Slaying the Dragon
I believe deeply in the purview of aging research put forward by Nick Bostrom in his short story, The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant. In it, the dragon demands from all the people in a given kingdom, a sacrifice of food in the form of the land’s residents. As time goes on, the land’s people grow accustomed to this tragedy and accept it as part of life.
In his lessons from the story, Bostrom writes:
A recurrent tragedy became a fact of life, a statistic. In the fable, people’s expectations adapted to the existence of the dragon, to the extent that many became unable to perceive its badness. Aging, too, has become a mere “fact of life” – despite being the principal cause of an unfathomable amount of human suffering and death.
Finally however, a dramatic example shakes the people in the story out of apathy:
Failure to appreciate the urgency. Until very late in the story, nobody fully realized what was at stake. Only as the king was staring into the bloodied face of the young pleading man does the extent of the tragedy sink in. Searching for a cure for aging is not just a nice thing that we should perhaps one day get around to. It is an urgent, screaming moral imperative. The sooner we start a focused research program, the sooner we will get results. It matters if we get the cure in 25 years rather than in 24 years: a population greater than that of Canada would die as a result. In this matter, time equals life, at a rate of approximately 70 lives per minute. With the meter ticking at such a furious rate, we should stop faffing about.
It takes gall to put forward to others that you’re exploring a bigger than life problem such as aging. Having the opportunity to be in a setting for 6 days with a group that shared the same contemptment for the status quo, and the sense of urgency to change it as is outlined as necessary above put me at peace. I do believe it is a dragon that can be slain, and now I know that the best and brightest in the world are working on it.
Solve bigger problems.
Send me signal on Urbit: ~padlyn-sogrum
I was unable to find this interview when looking for it for this post, so if anyone out there knows what I’m talking about and can find the segment, please share!