Desiderata #10: links and commentary
Book launch response, longevity researchers who don't age, EA criticism goes overboard
The Desiderata series is a monthly roundup of links and thoughts, as well as an open thread and ongoing AMA in the comments.
1 of 12. Since the last Desiderata, The Intrinsic Perspective published:
Video! Game! Addiction! A guide for navigating a world of infinite entertainment.
(🔒) If serotonin isn't linked to depression, why do SSRIs even work? On the paradoxes of biology.
Remote work is the best thing to happen to families in decades: Yet commentators and politicians keep missing it.
INTRODUCING: The World Behind the World: Consciousness, Free Will, and the Limits of Science.
(🔒) The Intrinsic Podcast #1: Can science escape academia? Guest Adam Mastroianni is a psychologist and writer.
2 of 12. The big news of the month here at TIP is the launch of my new book The World Behind the World. I won’t be coy, I’m excited and trepidatious all at once, for this book is the scientific magnum opus of my short life—and hopefully also a lot of fun to read. A huge thank you to everyone who preordered it, as you all bumped it up to the top of a couple Amazon categories! (All preorders between now and launch really help out, as they all count as sales that first week.) My publisher’s publicists are happy. In case you missed it, here are the options for preordering so far:
The reaction behind-the-scenes has been interesting, and certainly different from the first time I published a book. Some major outlets, like TIME Magazine, suddenly want me to write pieces for them, although to this I return only a desolate and husking laughter. In all honesty though, it was great to see the response, not just from readers, but also potential reviewers. Apparently there are TIP fans sprinkled throughout many of our major media organizations, acting, in my imagination, much like double-agents, and these moles—who could be anyone, anywhere—are prepared to help the book through the subterfuge of. . . receiving advanced copies so they can write a fair review. But! Just know that if you are at The New York Times, you are never safe, for a TIP reader might be your colleague, your spouse, your very child. Maybe they could even be you.
3 of 12. I was struck by old photos of the microseconds after a nuclear bomb goes off, capturing exactly when the Lovecraftian horror begins force its way into this universe from another.
4 of 12. Taking a moment to look at science’s better side, a new blockbuster paper by longevity researcher David Sinclair was published in Cell. He and his co-authors’ theory is that aging is a function of your epigenetics, the little molecular tags like methylation and acetylation that can essentially flag various parts of your DNA for activation or suppression. But as you get older, your little epigenetic flags shift around as DNA is repaired, and your cells eventually forget where they put the flags originally. Sinclair and co. think that this is the primary cause of aging, meaning that aging is just a failure of memory. Your cells forget how to be young.
As usual with research on aging, I care not at all for little linear regressions involving Horvath’s clock or whatever. Just show me the pictures! You made progress on aging? Then I want to see an old rat next to a young rat from the same litter. I want photographic evidence. Where’s the picture, David? Where’s the picture? Oh, there it is.
Ok, looks good. Suspiciously good, in fact. Likely because the researchers actually made one of the mice older, rather than making one of them younger. That’s a lot easier to do. Sure, they can also reverse this extra aging, which is something, but it’s a lot easier to reverse aging that you caused instead of real aging. So I wouldn’t put this particular paper in the major breakthrough category. I’ll wait until I can see two old mice, one of whom looks young due to Yamanaka factors (and who better not have cancer). Supposedly this sort of gene therapy has been done and the mice live longer—109% longer, in fact. But I can’t find any pictures, just graphs, which makes me suspicious. I literally will not believe any of this until you show me the mice. Show me the mice people! Or, even better, show me the monkeys.
While it’s not there yet, the field of longevity certainly feels like it’s making progress, a substantial portion of it using Sinclair’s approach. In many ways, it’s doing better than a lot of areas of biology. I know that Sinclair is very popular, which makes some people innately distrustful of him—and he was definitely wrong about sirtuins being important—but I actually think he’s one of the best researchers in the field. Not to mention that David Sinclair is doing exactly what I want from a longevity researcher, which is not aging. Here is David Sinclair as a graduate student in 1998 with his mentor, Lenny Guarente:
And here’s a photo of the two of them in 2019, twenty years later:
David, I cannot help but note, appears essentially unchanged. Now that is the longevity researcher you want on the case.
5 of 12. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a now-mostly-forgotten philosopher, was a pupil of Kant. He was described as being “the most able of his pupils” and also as “dangerous” and that “he could have become a Mohammad” except that he was born in the Germany of the time “so his fate was to be a university professor.”
What struck me after reading this was that I couldn’t think of a contemporary philosopher who, had they been born in another life, “could have been a Mohammad.” I came up short. Which speaks, in some way, to the distance of academic philosophy to lived life, and, perhaps, to a lost fieriness of disposition that used to be common in scholars of even the most abstract subjects.
6 of 12. Perhaps inspired by the recent finding that bees will take time out of their day to playfully roll around wooden balls (which made it onto Desiderata #7), researchers left out a hamster wheel in the forest and found an entire menagerie took a turn. Mice obviously liked it, but so did rats, shrews, frogs (?), snails (!), and slugs (!?!?!?).
Of course, some perhaps were simply trapped on the wheel (I could imagine it being a fiendish contraption for a slug), however:
Some animals seem to use the wheel unintentionally, but mice and some shrews, rats and frogs were seen to leave the wheel and then enter it again within minutes in order to continue wheel running.
Who knows? The slugs certainly spent a lot of time on the wheel. Maybe they liked it, but, being slugs, it was simply too much bother to get on it again.
7 of 12. The effective altruism movement has been struggling lately under a wave of criticism. I would link to a bunch of the articles, but I’ve lost track of the tsunami. As I originally wrote after the FTX scandal in “FTX: Effective altruism can't run from its Frankenstein's monster:”
. . . I think EA never recovers. Oh, many EA charities might be active in ten years, I don’t doubt. I certainly hope so, as in their outputs they often do a lot of good. But the intellectual and cultural momentum of EA will be forever sapped, and EA will likely dilute away into merely a set of successful institutions, some of whom barely mention their origins.
Since I am a critic of EA’s utilitarian leanings, and have hammered the drum on how the utilitarianism from EA organizations and leaders did indeed likely impact the risk-taking behind the FTX implosion, and since I predicted its eventual dissolution, you might expect me to gloat about its fate. I’m not, and won’t. For as I also said:
Most people in EA, even the EA leaders I’ve been hard on here, like MacAskill, have simply been trying to do good.
To give a bit more context: When I was writing some of my original critiques of the EA movement, it seemed to me that it had been a while since anyone had really criticized the actual ideas behind EA (it probably felt different from inside the movement, but that’s how it appeared to me from the outside). The movement also seemed ascendent, and I was worried that utilitarianism would, through EA, become a prominent contender for secular morality. This would be very bad, since utilitarianism is, well, immoral, even though it is also extremely attractive intellectually at first.
In fact, I only started writing my critical pieces as a response to a contest, a call for criticism of EA by an EA organization. To be perfectly frank, I think it will be rare for EA to get good press from now on—it is being ripped into by many of the exact same organizations that wrote glowing profiles just months earlier. So here’s why I think the pendulum has probably swung toward too much criticism of EA: