Transhumanist Conference Raises Age-Old Questions

The Transhumanist Conference in Nashville explores the intersection of faith, science and technology with an unusual keynote.

Aubrey de Gray, Transhumanist Conference

Could we live to be 500? Will artificial intelligence be our friend or our enemy? Will your children be born on Mars?  These are some of the questions that will be discussed at the first-ever Christian Transhumanist Conference, to be held on Saturday  at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.

The conference will explore how science and technology are changing what it means to be human, and if there is a way for science, faith and technology to work together to create a better future, says Micah Redding, executive director of the Christian Transhumanist Association, a nonprofit he started in 2014.

Some have pegged the ideology behind transhumanism as one of the world’s most dangerous ideas, particularly the concept of freezing oneself to escape death. Redding contends transhumanism is the philosophy that biotechnology helps humans to be stronger, smarter, less prone to violence and live longer.

“Radical longevity is part of the Christian mission,” Redding says. “The Lord Prayer’s says bringing to Heaven to Earth at end of Revelations, ‘Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.’ It is not about whipping away to heaven when you die and leaving everything behind. It is about bringing life and goodness and God into the world to transform it.”

Redding also says in recent years religion hasn’t kept up, being reactive instead of proactive and younger Christians are filling the void with other means that has created a rise in hatred and inequality. “It has provoked a religious crisis,” Redding says. “This is about giving us meaning, a sense of purpose and a mission to help navigate the new world environment… If we don’t have a future that’s a better for everyone, then we don’t have a future that’s better for anyone.”

It’s also why Redding asked Aubrey de Gray, an English gerontologist  who is known as anti-aging pioneer, whose theories have sparked contentious debate within the scientific community, to keynote the inaugural conference. De Gray received a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Cambridge and later co-founded the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Foundation in 2009  to “reimagine aging” by studying the possibilities of how to treat age-related diseases and reverse aging in manner like the movie, “Cocoon.”

Here are de Gray’s thoughts.

Why do you see solving the issue of aging as the ultimate problem to solve?

It causes more suffering than anything else. Nobody would asked that question about Alzheimer's disease or malaria or anything, so it seems pretty crazy that anyone would ask that question.

Why did you start focusing on this issue in your late 20s?

I discovered that hardly anybody else was working on the problem. It has always been completely obvious to me that aging was the world’s most serious problem and causes the greatest amount of suffering and presumably everybody else felt the same. That biologists were going to be getting on with it and doing their best to bring it under medical control. It was only in my late twenties, when I realized that wasn’t true, which was a big shock. But eventually I came to terms with it and decided that I had no choice but to get into the field.

Do you see some connections between faith and religion, aging and diseases of old age?

A little bit. It all comes down to the suffering that I've already mentioned. Holy Scripture is fairly clear that what was about to be doing down here is to minimize suffering, therefore it seems pretty clear to me that it would be a sin not to be working on it.

How does technology play a role when it comes to radical longevity?

It depends what you mean by technology. I view technology as encompassing everything that humanity does that involves manipulating nature in our interests, so the whole of medicine is a subset of technology. So I view myself as a technologist.

I think about what we know about nature and how to create tools and use those tools for the repair of the damage that the body does all throughout life and putting people back into physically and mentally like a young adult.

How can you potentially solve a problem that might be unsolvable? How do you know if this is a truly solvable problem?

Well, sometimes they kind of fold out of what the definition of the problem is. We have this very complicated machine called the human body. It is very complicated, but it still a machine and consequences of damage effects its normal operation just as a car does or an airplane.

The function of any machine, whether it's living or not is determined by its structure and what it is made of. So if we do preventative maintenance on the car and get rid of the rust then the doors never fall off and that car keep going. That's why we have now have cars that are 100 years old even though they were only designed to last 10 years. That’s exactly the same for the human once we develop sufficiently comprehensive tools for the preventative ninth minutes—putting back the molecular structure of a body to how it was at an earlier age.

How far are we away from having these tools and slowing down aging?

This isn't a matter of slowing aging down. This is a matter of actually reversing it—putting people back into a younger than what the therapies come along. We genuinely call it rejuvenation, that’s what it is.

I think we've got a 50/50 chance within 20 years now of getting to the point where the preventative repair therapies that we’ve developed are sufficiently comprehensive to stay one step ahead of the problem. It won’t be 100 percent perfect by then, but we'll be able to take people who are already in middle age or older and rejuvenate them well enough that by the time they get to be biologically middle-aged again, we will have improved the therapies and we'll be able to re-rejuvenate them and generally keep one step ahead of the problem.

So it’s like the movie, “Cocoon?”

I don't remember the movie particularly well, but I do generally feel it has a reputation for being one of the more positive movies that have explores aging.

This work is exciting, but it is very much a stop-gap. It just does a little bit in ways we don’t yet understand well enough. A lot of these problems to try and understand the details of what makes a cell from the placenta or embryo somehow younger or more robust or more useful than from a cell from an older individual. And then the idea would be to manipulate the cells the older individual already has but make them behave in a younger way.

Why the long beard? Is it part of an aging experiment too?

There’s not really much of a story. My ex-wife [the Cambridge University geneticist, Adelaide Carpenter] campaigned for it for about five years. I grew it out in 1995. It grew 15 or 18 inches after two years. Since then it’s stayed the same equilibrium length. I don’t trim it or anything. It just doesn’t grow.