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Book Review: Long for this World, by Jonathan Weiner

Apr 2011 | Ilana 2,186 Comments

Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality

Jonathan Weiner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Beak of the Finch, which used Darwin’s Finches of the Galapagos to explain evolutionary biology, has turned his attention to the science of aging with Long for this World.  This book attempts to answer the questions “what is aging?” and “can we stop it?”

Weiner uses the story of Aubrey de Grey, a controversial aging researcher, to tie together descriptions of humankind’s ongoing fascination with aging and mortality, current research into the causes and mechanisms of aging, and attempts to slow or even halt aging.

De Grey is a self-taught biologist who is passionate in his belief that proper upkeep of the body can lead to immortality.  He bases this idea on the connected theories of Garbage Catastrophe and the Disposable Soma, which postulate that aging occurs because of the accumulation of damage to molecules and cells, which is not repaired because there is no selective pressure on post-reproductive events.

Weiner targets his explanation of these theories, as well as other descriptions of research, to a very general audience, which can make them frustrating to read for those with a stronger scientific background.  Metaphors are very plentiful in Long for this World, often with two or three needlessly describing each concept.  Mitochondrial ATPases are “turbines, windmill vanes, or airplane propellers”.

The book describes the early history of anti-aging research, including an interesting period when transplants of ape testicles were believed to keep men young.  Weiner discusses several current lines of research, including oxidative stress, calorie restriction, and the discovery of genes linked to aging, but they’re dispersed throughout the book and not explored in much depth.

There’s a rather strange digression into what Weiner sees as the main conflict in the field of biology, between “skin-out” biologists (naturalists, ecologists, and evolutionary biologists) and “skin-in” biologists (molecular and cell biologists).  This part of the book doesn’t seem to fit well with the overall aging theme and breaks up the flow of the narrative.

A more successful contrast is raised between the conventional field of aging research and the immortalists, like Aubrey de Grey, who believe that we can truly conquer aging and live forever (barring accidents) by finding ways to repair all the kinds of damage that accumulate over time.  This theme is explored in the last third of the book, which is much more philosophical than the earlier parts and explores questions of both the feasibility and desirability of immortality.  I found Weiner’s writing style to be put to best use in this section, compared to the “hard science” parts of the book.

Although Long for this World has an extensive citation list, this book falls solidly in the popular science camp.  Aging is a topic with the potential to interest everyone, especially as we begin to feel its effects ourselves.  Although MCB students are likely to be frustrated by the cutesy descriptiveness and lack of detail in Long for this World, non-scientist parents and friends may find this book both engaging and informative.

3/5 Eppendorfs

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