Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Absurdity of Reducing Biology to Physics

Reading Dan Agin's latest blog post on The Huffington Post reminded my of a post on my old blog in which I enumerated five examples of books by author's who assumed that their "reputation" was an acceptable substitute for intellectual authority in the subject matter about which they were writing. In this case Agin has written a review of Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, by "Aubrey de Grey, Ph.D." (as it says on the book's cover), along with his research assistant, Michael Rae. I shall not provide a detailed account of Agin's review, because it is a real pleasure to read. Suffice it to say that the book is "about how to 'engineer' human immortality;" and, while Agin never says anything explicitly about distrusting any author who feels a need to display his doctoral credentials on the cover of a book, his account of the book reminded me of my own distrust in this matter.

What I would like to quote from Agin's review is his account of de Grey's background, because I think this is useful information for anyone who chooses to thumb through the book (at a bookstore or on a friend's shelf or coffee table) or linger at the page (possibly due to a recommendation link):

De Grey has a B.A. in computer science from Cambridge University. He has a Ph.D., but it's a degree peculiar to Cambridge, which has a rule that if you're a graduate of that university, you can offer a book you've published as a doctoral dissertation, and if you successfully defend the book as a scholarly contribution they will award you a Ph.D. without your attending any classes or passing any qualifying examinations in anything at all. De Grey offered a controversial book in theoretical cell biology (about mitochondria), a book he published in 1999, and he received his Ph.D. from Cambridge in 2000. Given that most graduate students in science spend four, five, or six years of sweat, toil, aggravation, and general misery in a stinking bench laboratory or coughing up chalk at theoretical blackboards to get a Ph.D., de Grey's feat at Cambridge is an item. I don't know anyone else in modern science who has accomplished this feat at a major university. If you know of anyone, please let me know.

But de Grey doesn't call himself a scientist, he calls himself an engineer. He says the fact that he's not a scientist means he can think differently than scientists and see scientific problems from an engineering perspective.

Having worked in communities of both scientists and engineers, I find it hard to believe that any engineering community would accept de Grey as one of them, let alone that "perspective" that he regards as his major asset in writing this book. A key aspect of engineering talent is the ability to scope out a problem in terms of its feasibility. We saw that at its best in the American effort to put a man on the moon. De Grey seems to think that the "engineering perspective" of the space program was a framing of the problem in a multi-step strategic plan. While this is a good start in characterizing that perspective, it does not go far enough, because the man-on-the-moon plan was constrained by reality checks involving the required resources (both physical and temporal); and those reality checks were imposed after (and often during) each of the steps of the plan. De Grey seems to think that such reality checks are minor details and that the plan is all that matters; and Agin cleverly undermines that assumption by concocting a plan of his own (for intergalactic space travel) that is free of any of the burdens of reality checking.

However, even before embarking of developing a plan, good engineers pay a lot of attention to the more general question of whether or not it makes sense to work the problem in the first place. Hubert Dreyfus (who is a philosopher, rather than an engineer) has pursued this question intensely in his critiques of artificial intelligence as either (cognitive) science or (knowledge) engineering. Dreyfus' favorite metaphor was that you could not get to the moon by coming up with ways to bounce higher on a trampoline. Now one of the comments to Agin's review suggested that de Grey was a "tinkerer," rather than an engineer; but if he is a tinkerer at all, then his strategy is one of trampoline-tinkering.

Personally, I agree with de Grey that he is not a scientist; but I would not call him an engineer either. He also seems to lack (willfully?) any ecological perspective of both the structures and processes of living systems (probably because the 1000+ pages of James Grier Miller's book on this perspective were too much for him), which would have been a good point of departure for the question of the sensibility of working the immortality problem at all. So I guess he is just another guy who writes stuff and then tries to figure out what to do to get people to pay to read it!

1 comment:

Dan said...

Just a note on PhDs on the covers of books. I have one on my book. I did not want it (like many other authors), but the publisher controls the cover (and design, and nearly everything else), and I had no choice. So I would not fault de Grey for any title on his book cover. In a "trade" book it's out of his hands. The publisher wants to sell copies, and their argument is the author's title helps.

All best,
Dan Agin