Book Review: Long for this World

Jonathan Weiner. Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. 320 pages.

Immortality’s a tricky subject to write about. There are few people who wouldn’t be at least a little interested in the prospect of living forever, but since no one’s been documented doing it, there’s really not much to say about the subject. Extending human life, however, is another story,. Weiner summarizes how the average human lifespan’s been steadily increasing, and asks the question: why can’t this go on indefinitely?

In search of answers, he discusses the work and personalities of several scientists and enthusiasts working in gerontology. The most colorful of them, Aubrey de Grey, quite possibly has a messiah complex about the whole thing, and his personal affectations–wild beard, constant beer-swilling–make you wonder if it’s about the science or just a plea for attention by someone who whose day job isn’t setting the world on fire.

Yet there’s a real story here, one that Weiner tells with language so carefully balanced that it’s no stretch to call it beautiful. He does a wonderful job of conveying extremely technical details about aging at the cellular level in a way that’s completely accessible to the non-specialist, but not at all patronizing. The book is at its best when Weiner is talking to gerontologists or summarizing their research and theories. It’s at its weakest when Weiner combs through history, sharing excerpts of what physicians, philosophers, and scientists have written about immortality. This is the sort of material that would work well in an academic monograph because it demonstrates the incredible breadth of research the author has undertaken, but it doesn’t really have much relevance to what today’s scientists are doing.

In the penultimate chapter, “The Trouble with Immortality,” Weiner also offers–and appears to condone–a laughably weak argument against conducting research into gerontology: if advances in medical sciences allowed everyone to live to be 1,000, we’d have to worry about Hitler, Stalin, and Mao living for a thousand years, making it sound like living longer will inevitably lead to dictatorships. First, I would think this idea’s been historically disproved, since freedom has increased and despotism decreased greatly as life expectancies have gone up. Second, it’s setting a rule for everyone based on the worst case scenario. By this logic, we should abandon all medical science, since some of the people doctors save might become despots. I’d also expect that Matt Ridley (I’m currently reading his RATIONAL OPTIMIST) would have something to say to him about his claim that “we already overcrowd much of the planet,” but I’ll leave that to him.

In short, it’s an interesting subject, wonderfully written, with a few stand-out personalities. LONG FOR THIS WORLD is a good read about a subject that’s close, no doubt, to everyone’s heart.

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