The Debate of the Ages: This House Wants to Defeat Ageing Entirely

This house wants to defeat ageing entirely was a fantastic public debate held last Wednesday (April 25th, 2012) at Oxford University. The two interlocutors were Dr. Aubrey de Grey and Prof. Colin Blakemore, who is a high-profile neuroscientist and science communicator as well as the ex-head of the Medical Research Council, UK’s largest funding body for biomedical research.

This house wants to defeat ageing entirely addressed both the feasibility and the desirability of bringing aging under comprehensive medical control. Moreover, one can claim it was quite a watershed event, since it was the first time that a bona fide grandee of the British biomedical establishment has risen to the challenge of describing publicly, in a forum where he can be challenged, why intervention against aging is not in fact medicine’s most pressing priority.

Now, I am not a scientist or a medical expert so I can’t judge the accuracy of the scientific details. However, from a logical or rhetorical point of view I have to say that Dr. Aubrey de Grey clearly won the debate. Thus it was unfortunate when the moderator didn’t even bother to actually count the votes accurately after the debate because I am willing to bet that Aubrey de Grey did win a substantial number of the audience as compared to their original pre-debate predispositions.

What annoyed me immensely was that Prof. Colin Blakemore not only took substantially more time to lay out his position than Aubrey, but also did not restrain himself to claim that “Aubrey had opinions beyond his expertise” while himself committing a number of logical fallacies such as appeal to authority, strawman, ad hominem, appeal to nature, circular reasoning etc. To sum up Colin Blakemore’s position in one sentence – defeating ageing can’t be done because it hasn’t been done before and shouldn’t be done because it is both a waste of resources and will lead to a global Malthusian apocalypse. I can’t resist using Colin’s own words against himself and note that he is clearly “beyond his expertise” when it comes to both economics and rhetoric.

Keep up the good work Aubrey! Your debate reminded me of President of the Royal Society Lord Kelvin’s 1895 statement that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible”. Less than a decade later two bicycle manufactures demonstrated that his Lordship was, in fact, totally wrong.

Part 1. The Debate of the Ages:

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Part 2. Audience Q & A:

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  • http://cmstewartwrite.wordpress.com/ CMStewart

    I, like Aubrey, was perplexed by Blakemore’s non-arguments. Perhaps he was secretly on de Grey’s side?

  • http://www.singularityweblog.com/ Socrates

    I wish you were right Cynthia, but I am afraid I am more inclined to think that Blakemore behaves like someone stuck in his own thinking just like the President of the Royal Society Lord Kelvin was in 1895…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=741675783 Joshua G. Kyle

    Yes,  Prof. Colin Blakemore’s position was:  We should let old people die because that’s what we are used to, and any change would inconvenience our pension systems and might cause ecological damage. What a nonsense.  Cowardly and intellectually lazy.

    Responding to the Malthusian Apocalypse Critique:

    Population is declining in every Industrialized country almost without exception.

    US population is only growing due to huge immigrant population influx.

    More broadly there appears to be a tipping point in development where families (women) no longer seem to want to have eight or ten kids. Development offers women other options for status and security than presenting their husbands with many children.

    As development spreads to other areas and lifts other areas as it is now lifting Asia, population growth will reverse. The UN predicts a population plateau but if developing countries follow the same course then population will actually decline in the coming decades more broadly.

    The crisis we are facing is not too many babies in the industrialized world but too few to support a large population of infirm elderly. Therefore regenerative breakthroughs will result in a better economic future rather than a more problematic one.

    Having doctors wash their hands before delivering babies has created a similar threat to the ecology by reducing infant mortality.

    In the late 1840′s, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was an assistant in the maternity wards of a Vienna hospital. There he observed that the mortality rate in a delivery room staffed by medical students was up to three times higher than in a second delivery room staffed by midwives. In fact, women were terrified of the room staffed by the medical students. Semmelweis observed that the students were coming straight from their lessons in the autopsy room to the delivery room. He postulated that the students might be carrying the infection from their dissections to birthing mothers. He ordered doctors and medical students to wash their hands with a chlorinated solution before examining women in labor.

    If we are really concerned about over population a more direct solution would be to prohibit doctors washing hands before deliveries. This is a similar suggestion to standing by idly while old age kills millions.

  • Carlos Pérez

    Amen!

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