review of Ted Anton, 'The Longevity Seekers: Science, Business, and the Fountain of Youth'

Standing in line at the drugstore a couple of weeks ago, I spied on the magazine rack nearby this month’s issue of National Geographic – conspicuous as one of the few titles without a celebrity on the cover. Instead it showed a photograph of an infant beneath a headline saying "This Baby Will Live to Be 120."

The editors must have expected disbelief, because there was a footnote to the headline insisting that the claim was not hype: "New science could lead to very long lives." When was the last time you saw a footnote in a popular periodical, on the cover, no less? It seemed worth a look, particularly after the septuagenarian in front of me had opened complex, in-depth negotiations with the pharmacist.

The headline, one learns from a comment on the table of contents, alludes to a traditional Jewish birthday wish or blessing: "May you live to be 120." This was the age that Moses was said to have reached when he died. The same figure appears -- not so coincidentally perhaps – at an important moment in the book of Genesis. Before sending the Flood, Jehovah announces that man’s lifespan will henceforth peak at 120 years. (I take it there was a grandfather clause for Noah. When the waters recede, he lives another 350 years.)

The cap on longevity, like the deluge itself, is ultimately mankind’s own fault, given our tendency to impose too much on the Almighty’s patience and good humor. He declares in about so many words that there is a limit to how much He must endure from any single one of us. Various translations make the point more or less forcefully, but that’s the gist of it. Even 120 years proved too generous an offer – one quietly retracted later, it seems. Hence the Psalmist’s lament:

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

Nursing homes are full of people who passed the fourscore marker a while ago. If you visit such places very often, as I have lately, “May you live to be 120” probably sounds more like a curse than a blessing. Not even a funeral obliges more awareness of mortal frailty. There is more to life than staving off death. The prospect of being stranded somewhere in between for 30 or 40 years is enough to make an atheist believe in hell.

Meanwhile, in science…. The medical and biological research surveyed in that NatGeo article promises to do more than drag out the flesh’s “labor and sorrow” a lot longer. The baby on the magazine cover will live his or her allotted span of six score decades with an alert mind, in a reasonably healthy body. Our genetic inheritance plays a huge but not absolutely determinate role in how long we live. In the wake of the mapping of genome, it could be possible to tinker with the mechanisms that accelerate or delay the aging process. It may not be the elixir of youth, but close enough.

Besides treating the same research in greater depth, Ted Anton’s The Longevity Seekers: Science, Business, and the Fountain of Youth (University of Chicago Press) emphasizes how profound a change longevity research has already wrought. It means no longer taking for granted the status of aging as an inescapable, biologically hardwired, and fundamentally irreversible process of general decline. Challenging the stereotypes and prejudices about the elderly has been a difficult process, but longevity engineering would transform the whole terrain of what aging itself entails.

Anton, a professor of English at DePaul University, tells the story in two grand phases. The first bears some resemblance to James Watson’s memoir The Double Helix, which recounts the twists and turns of laboratory research in the struggle to determine the structure of DNA – work for which he and Francis Crick received a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1962. Watson’s book is particularly memorable for revealing science as an enterprise in which personalities and ambitions clash as much as theories ever do. (And with far more rancor as Watson himself demonstrated in the book’s vicious and petty treatment of Rosalind Franklin, a crystallographer whose contribution he downplayed as much as possible.)

A practitioner of long-form journalism rather than a longevity researcher, Anton writes about conflicts in the field with some detachment, even while remaining aware that the discoveries may change life in ways we can’t yet picture. The initial phase of the research he describes consisted largely of experiments with yeast cells and microscopic worms conducted in the 1990s. Both are short-lived, meaning that the impact of biochemical adjustments to their genetic “thermostats” for longevity would register quickly.

During the second phase of Anton’s narrative, lab research involved more complex organisms. But that that was not the most important development. The public began hearing news flashes that scientists had discovered that the key to a longer life was, say, restricted caloric intake, or a chemical called resveratrol found in red wine. Findings presented in scientific journals were reported on morning news programs, or endorsed on Oprah, within days or even hours of publication. Hypotheses became hype overnight.

This generated enthusiasm (more for drinking red wine than restricting calories, if memory serves) as well as additional confidence that biotechnological breakthroughs were on the way. Everybody in longevity research, or almost everybody, started a company and ran around looking for venture capital. Models, evidence, and ideas turned proprietary information -- with the hurry to get one’s findings into professional journals looking more and more like the rush to issue a press release.

So far, no pharmaceutical has arrived on the market to boost our lifespans as dramatically as the worm and yeast cells in the laboratory worms. “The dustbin of medical breakthroughs,” Anton reminds us, “bears the label ‘It Worked in Mice.’ ” On the other hand, the research has been a boon to the cosmetics industry.

As it is, we’re nowhere near ready to deal with the cumulative effect of all the life-extending medical developments from the past few decades. The number of centenarians in the world “is expected to increase tenfold between 2010 and 2050,” the author notes, “and the number of older poor, the majority of them women,” is predicted “to go from 342 million today to 1.2 billion by that same year.”

But progress is ruthless about doing things on its own terms. Biotech is still in its infancy, and its future course -- much less its side effects -- is beyond imagining. The baby on the magazine cover might well live to see the first centenarian win an Olympic medal. I wish that prospect were more cheering than it is.

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Essay on defining 'alt-ac' for new Ph.D. job searches

The Alt-Ac Track

To do an alt-ac search, you need to know the possibilities that are out there, write Brenda Bethman and Shaun Longstreet.

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Professor Killed While Leading Student Trip to Nepal

Betsy Palmer, an associate professor of education at Montana State University, died Monday from injuries from a landslide in Nepal, where she was leading a group of 16 students on a course offered by the university's honors program. The university said that the students were not injured in the landslide, but the university is working with U.S. officials to bring the students home.


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Irvine Names Provost Opposed by Some Professors

The University of California at Irvine on Monday named Howard Gillman as its next provost and executive vice chancellor -- despite opposition from some faculty members. Gillman was formerly dean of the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California, and Irvine's announcement praised his role in helping to enhance departments at USC. But the Irvine Faculty Association, citing discussions with some professors at USC, last week issued a public letter -- upon learning that Gillman was a finalist for the provost job -- urging that he not be appointed.

The letter questioned the way he has interacted with faculty members, and specifically said that faculty members in American studies and ethnic studies did not feel he had treated them fairly in tenure reviews. On Monday, a student-faculty group also issued a letter questioning the appointment. Irvine released a Q&A with Gillman in which the university characterized the criticism as coming from "a small group of faculty members," and asked him about the concerns. He said that the criticism "is not based on facts."

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Australian university fined for using finances as excuse to fire whistle blowing professor

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Australian court threatens $2 million fine for university after concluding that it used finances as excuse to dismiss a professor for complaining about bullying tactics by her supervisor.

Colleges start new academic programs

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SUNY to release long-term restructuring plan for Downstate Medical Center

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The State University of New York changes its mind about closing one of its hospitals, but some unions fear the cutbacks could be equally painful.

No Apology for Controversial Harvard Dissertation

"I don't apologize for any of my writing," says Jason Richwine, whose 2009 Harvard University Ph.D. dissertation has received much scrutiny over the last 10 days. The dissertation argues that there will be a long-term gap in the IQs of Latino immigrants and their offspring, and critics at Harvard and elsewhere said that he lacked evidence to back his theory, and was providing intellectual support for racist ideas. Richwine was the author of a Heritage Foundation report on immigration, and critics of the report pointed to the dissertation to raise questions about why anyone was listening to Richwine and whether he deserved a Harvard Ph.D. On Monday, National Review published an essay by Richwine reflecting on the controversy. He said he regretted that the controversy over the dissertation took attention away from the Heritage report.

As for the dissertation, he defends it. "I realize that IQ selection rubs some people the wrong way, but it can hardly be called 'extremist.' Canada and Australia intentionally favor highly educated immigrants. My proposal is based on the same principle they use (pick skilled immigrants), but it offers a much better chance for disadvantaged people to be selected. If the dissertation were taken seriously, its real contribution would be to open a forthright debate about the assimilation challenge posed by the post-1965 immigration wave. Because regardless of what one believes IQ scores really measure, or what determines them, they are undeniably predictive of a wide variety of socioeconomic outcomes that people care about."

Numerous letters and petition are circulating that are critical of Richwine. One -- called Scholars Against Scientific Racism -- says: "We are a group of 1000 scholars (and counting) opposed to scientific racism -- the use of science or social science to argue that a racialized group is inferior. Jason Richwine’s dissertation is an example of scientific racism and this work has no place in twenty-first century academia."


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Academic Minute: Infant Perception and Parental Arguments

In today’s Academic Minute, Phil Fisher of the University of Oregon reveals infants' ability to pick up on the tone of conversations around them. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.


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MOOC Skeptic Proposes an Anti-MOOC MOOC

Here's a course topic not currently offered by any of the providers of massive open online courses: "The Implications of Coursera’s For-Profit Business Model for Global Public Education." The course was proposed last week by Robert Meister, professor of political and social thought in the department of the history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz and president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations. He sent a letter with his idea to Daphne Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford University and co-founder of Coursera, and then published his letter on the blog of the American Association of University Professors.

Among the topics Meister proposes covering:

  • Why venture capitalists "are willing to provide an even greater abundance of knowledge in the service of greater economic and social equality than is the State of California, which clearly has the means to spend much more than it has cost your company to reach a worldwide enrollment in the millions."
  • The way "free MOOCs weaken the link between scarcity and quality on which the business model of all higher education, both public and private, unfortunately depends."
  • Teaching students to "think financially about the socio-economic spreads created by our public educational system as a potential source of private profit."
  • "[T]hat the for-profit logic of their online educational empowerment depends on the fact while they are consuming information, they are also producing information that Coursera can correlate with other data to predict what prices students with particular profiles would eventually pay for courses they are presently consuming for free."

The piece ends by asking Koller if she would co-teach the course, saying "I’m sure that together we could reach a very large audience indeed."

Via e-mail in response to an Inside Higher Ed question, Koller indicated that potential students might not find the course listed in the Coursera list of offerings any time soon, and that she does not consider that she was really being invited to co-teach it.

"If you've read the (rather long) letter, you'll have seen that it's not actually an invitation to co-teach a course, but rather a thinly veiled attack on Coursera and the whole MOOC model," she wrote. "When we launched Coursera we introduced a completely new model for providing learners everywhere free access to a great education. It is not surprising that a model this transformative brings out skeptics and critics, and, indeed, some caution is appropriate whenever the world changes this quickly. I am happy to respond to concrete criticism of our actions or words, but Mr. Meister's letter criticizes the model not based on what Coursera has done, nor even on what we have said we would do in future, but rather based on a speculative trajectory of his own construction. Our mission, to enable anyone around the world to have access to education, and to do what's best for students, remains clear today and will not bend in the future."


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