Forever young, a vain hope without God?
Review of Ageless: The new science of getting older without getting old by Andrew Steele
Bloomsbury, London, 2020
The subtitle of this book will be attractive to scores of readers for a variety of reasons—some interested in the science, but presumably many more wanting to find out how this could affect their life-span. The science-seekers are more richly rewarded than those looking to significantly extend their lives. It may sound rather obvious to state that ageing is the main cause of death, but the author considers that the “humanitarian challenge of our time” is to do something about it (p. 315); he believes that only 25% of lifespan is genetically determined (p. 230).
So, who is the author? Evolutionist Andrew Steele obtained a PhD in physics from the University of Oxford. However, he then changed direction to study computational biology, working at the Francis Crick Institute studying DNA, and using Artificial Intelligence to predict heart attacks from medical records. He recognises that many of the ailments of old age are rooted precisely in the senescence that inevitably accompanies old age.1 Much research is done in combatting sicknesses resulting from old age, and rightfully so. But what if we were to take a step back and ‘heal’ people before they get sick, Steele ponders? This is the thought that underlies the book’s thesis, hence its title, Ageless: The new science of getting older without getting old.2
Its 315 pages of text are divided into three parts. The first lays the groundwork and describes the problem. The second (in-depth) deals with things that we can do to treat ageing. The last part discusses more mundane matters, such as what steps individuals like you and I can take now, and how this topic can be put on the agenda. It also links to a bonus chapter (# 12) about the ethics of it all. There are also 57 pages of detailed notes and bibliography (although not especially easy to navigate).
Death, the card we are dealt?
From the Bible we know that death is an enemy that believers confidently believe will ultimately be destroyed by the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:26). Prior to Adam’s original sin, death was non-existent in God’s perfect creation. Nevertheless, ever since the Fall, death is a reality that comes to everyone, except for those found alive when Jesus returns (1 Thessalonians 4:15).
Andrew Steele relays the sobering statistic that our risk of death roughly doubles every eight years (see the blue data points in Fig. 1)—this is a rule of thumb. A few anchor, or ‘calibrated’, points (orange triangles in Fig. 1; not based on the doubling algorithm) paint a slightly more accurate picture between the ages of 65 and 80.
Steele’s main intention is to find ways to ‘flatten the curve’, not merely by delaying death, but by helping people to live healthy, vigorous lives, even at a ripe old age.3 He thinks this is possible. Interestingly, the main objection he receives to this proposal is not ‘How it could be accomplished?’, but ‘What would happen to the environment if more people lived longer?’ There are many people who would prefer to see the world’s population smaller, not least of whom is Sir David Attenborough (see the section ‘Populations’ in our article, Life on this planet is fleeting). However, Steele retaliates (to this and other objections), by turning the question back on the sceptics (p. 14): “Would you invent aging to solve one of these problems?”
Steele is pragmatic though, and his strategy to win over more people to his cause (laymen, but also scientists and politicians), is to help people become accustomed to the idea—hence this book.4
Readers of Ageless quickly discover Steele’s strong evolutionary worldview. He makes it clear that evolution is, “perhaps the only true universal principle in biology” (p. 34). And more strongly still, he states:
“If a scientist somewhere uncovers some fact about biology but it doesn’t fit with evolution, they’re going to have to rethink it” (p. 36).
That’s right! According to Steele, no matter what the facts might indicate, the evolutionary paradigm is supreme. He believes the particular ‘awkward’ scientific fact in question would have to be ‘rethought’ instead of rethinking evolution—a preposterous idea if you think about it. This is clear from the following:
“The alternative would be to rework the whole of modern scientific thought to sideline the most fundamental law of biology. There are so many lines of evidences, theoretical and practical, and so much of modern biology which does make sense in light of evolution, that it would take some truly extraordinary evidence to overturn it” (p. 36, emphasis in original).
How does the latter connect with Steele’s thesis? His strategy to “truly cure ageing” is to address the whole “complex system of components interacting in tangled networks” (p. 255). Keep in mind that this complex system is, he believes, cobbled together by a random, chance process. His is virtually a religious view of evolution:
“This is an oft-neglected biological miracle: we rarely step back to admire the exquisite evolutionary engineering which allows proteins to self-assemble into massive, incredibly effective teams” (p. 182)
Despite fallaciously attributing human characteristics to evolution as an intelligent entity,5 Steele believes that we need to lend evolution a hand:
“This is the fundamental reason for ageing—evolution’s inability to keep old animals fit because they are less likely to have children” (p. 42).
Natural selection is the requirement of differential reproduction. That is, an advantageous alteration to a gene—the result of a mutation—can become established in a population only if that individual has more surviving offspring (also carrying the beneficial change) than its neighbours. Any ostensibly-beneficial mutations occurring after an ageing creature has ceased its reproduction efforts cannot be passed to the next generation, and thus are irrelevant in the scheme of evolution.
DNA damage—central to ageing
A lot of Ageless contains terminology and discussion pertaining to medicine, parts and processes of the body, as well as damage to genes of the nuclear DNA, and mitochondrial DNA mutations. Let’s first focus on the latter.
Mitochondria are the site of formation of a lot free radicals (reactive oxygen species, or ROS).6 The latter can damage DNA, including mitochondrial DNA, so some researchers see anti-oxidants (free radical scavengers), which target mitochondria, as having real potential to prevent damage and extend life-span.
It is important to remember that Steele sees everything, especially biology, in the light of evolution.7 Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be surprised that he makes the following “outlandish re-engineering proposal” (p. 211):
“The question we really care about is… : could reducing the burden of mitochondrial mutations slow down or reverse the ageing process? The best way to find out, as ever, is to fix it and see what happens.”
His idea of a ‘fix’ is to somehow store a backup copy of the mitochondrial DNA information in the cell’s nucleus. He claims that “it’s actually finishing a job that evolution started, but has never quite got round to completing” (p. 211)! The ‘job that evolution started’ allegedly goes back one billion years, when a single-celled organism got into a symbiotic relationship with a completely different unicellular life form which it had engulfed.8 In other words, the DNA of that ancient unicellular organism later became the mitochondrial DNA of all multicellular life, including ourselves.9
As already indicated, a significant problem that underlies ageing is damage to our DNA. Thinking of our nuclear DNA, Steele informs us that “an average cell is thought to take up to 100,000 hits to its DNA daily” (p. 215). Without repairs, this would be catastrophic. Steele describes the repair mechanisms as “mind-blowing,” and says there are “hundreds of different genes to spot problems, cry for help and excise any damage, showing us without doubt that this is of serious concern to our bodies” (p. 215). This is quite true of course, but he does not explain how these surveillance and repair mechanisms came about over deep time by a random, goal-less process. Yet, he has no doubt that, somehow, these things did evolve!
Steele points out that many genetic mutations do not get repaired because the changes do not call up a different amino acid.10 These are called ‘synonymous’ (or ‘silent’) mutations and, until recently, most geneticists would have thought that Steele’s conclusion was right. However, it turns out, from very recent research (reported since Ageless was published), that these silent changes are not so harmless after all (see Mutations are more harmful than we thought). In any case, Steele offers no explanation for where that genetic redundancy comes from. It is not something that would develop spontaneously, especially as it requires forethought.
Life is precious
The book describes some experiments that not all readers will appreciate. Leaving aside those involving animals, the author’s seemingly callous view of unborn human life is sad, but typical of many ardent evolutionists. Much of the genetic approach to combatting ageing revolves around stem cells. In some trials, they believed that they had to use embryonic stem cells (as opposed to stem cells from the patients themselves). Steele comments, “The patients therefore needed to take immunosuppressive drugs to stop their immune system from attacking the new cells” (p. 162).
The more pertinent point is that his ongoing discussion reveals that he has no misgivings regarding the embryonic life involved. The following might initially sound positive: “Unfortunately, … [stem cells] can only be extracted from aborted foetuses at a specific stage in development;” that is, until you read why he feels it is so unfortunate: “[it] would severely limit the availability of this treatment”. CMI believes that all the scientists doing such research should source the required cells for their studies without the use of aborted foetuses. For much more on this ethically challenging and important issue, see here.
The end is nigh
Many people will be sceptical about stopping—or even slowing down—the ageing process. And Christians might also object on separate grounds from biology. As the Apostle Paul pointed out, believers ultimately look beyond this present world. It’s true that our physical body is ageing, “wasting away,” but “we look [forward] … to the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:16, 18). We look forward to the eternal reality when “what is mortal [is] swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 5:4–5).
Coming back to the biological objections, bear in mind that, prior to Noah’s Flood at least seven patriarchs lived well into their 900s. Ageless gives many lines of future research, with seemingly good prospects of making an extension to people’s lifespans. At no point, though, does the author mention biblical ages or considerations. While unsurprising, such things are surely vital to any discussion of human lifespans.
Still, Andrew Steele does end his book by providing a list of 11 things that will likely help expand our expected lifespan in the here and the now—most of it readily understandable and common sense, e.g.:
- Don’t smoke
- Don’t eat too much
Ultimately, a life without death is guaranteed for those whose name is in the book of Life (see for instance Revelation 21:27).
References and notes
- Senescence is the slow deterioration associated with ageing, more specifically, the loss of a cell’s power of division and growth, according to the Oxford dictionary. Return to text.
- Steele, A., Ageless: The new science of getting older without getting old, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2020. Return to text.
- What would we consider a ripe old age? Pretty much anything over 80 years old, assuming reasonable health (c.f. Psalm 90:10). Still, this is nothing compared to Jacob, whose age of 130 years intrigued the Egyptian Pharaoh (Genesis 47:9), and who went on to live to the then-impressive age of 147 years (Genesis 47:28). Even that was still very young compared to the pre-Flood patriarchs as well as many of Jacob’s post-Flood ancestors (see Genesis 11:10–22). Return to text.
- His website is andrewsteele.co.uk and he also has a YouTube channel. Return to text.
- A fallacy called reification. Other examples include, “Evolution will do the sums” (p. 47), “evolution has decided” (p. 89), and “evolution is cleverer than you” (p. 217, quoting biologist Leslie Orgel). Return to text.
- Explained in detail in Bell, P.B., The non-evolution of apoptosis, J. Creation 18(1):86–96, 2004. Return to text.
- He quotes Dobzhansky (p. 36) who said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Return to text.
- The theory (termed endosymbiosis) purports to explain the origin of mitochondria as major organelles of eukaryotic cells. Return to text.
- A mitochondrion is like a powerhouse, providing energy for the cell’s processes. For details on the endosymbiosis theory for the origin of mitochondria, see ref. 6. Return to text.
- Due to the in-built redundancy of the translation process, the last letter of a three-letter codon can in some cases change without calling up a different amino acid in the poly-peptide chain. Return to text.