Aging and Death and Rape

The Google life extension project will hurl millions against aging and mortality

Credit: Valleywag

Credit: Valleywag

At Valleywag, Nitasha Tiku says Google’s new project to fight aging is the ultimate tech company cage match: Google’s belief that death is not a feature of life, but a bug.

Casting about for somewhere to park a smidgen of its unimaginable riches, Google has founded a new company. Calico’s purview is “health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.”

The name “Calico” is not made up out of whole cloth. It’s an acronym confected out of “California Life Company.”  Art Levinson, at present Calico’s sole employee, has also cited the 9 lives of cats as an explanation.  (Calico cats have a patchwork fur pattern because they are mosaics, meaning that different genes are at work in different cells. Calico cats don’t have just one genome. And neither do we, as Carl Zimmer explained just this week. Synchronicity.)

The Calico plans are vague, what we are being told of them, and are said to have something to do with Google’s matchless ability to crunch near-infinite amounts of data.

Calico will be headed by Levinson, who is Chairman of Genentech, one of the first biotechnology companies to be established (in 1976!), and one of the most successful. Since it is said that he will remain Chairman of Genentech–and, unbelievably, Apple!–and as a director of Hoffmann-La Roche as well, you have to wonder if he isn’t spreading himself a bit thin. One hopes that he will not long remain the only Calico employee. And that he’s a skilled delegator.

It’s not bonkers to think that Calico, with its unlimited funds and access to very good brains, might accomplish fine things even if death remains with us. Howard Hughes left his wealth to a similar effort, and while the Howard Hughes Medical Institute hasn’t (yet) conquered death, it has contributed significantly to the life sciences. (And, as a side effect, to architecture.)

Claire Cain Miller and Andrew Pollack, writing in the New York Times tech blog Bits, report that Levinson says Calico might fund academic researchers but also set up its own labs. HHMI’s many successes have come out of a similar two-pronged strategy.

Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica says, “As healthcare and technology become more and more intertwined, expect more crossover projects like this. Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, recently started his own anti-aging company called ‘The Ellison Medical Foundation.’ There are a lot of very rich people out there that are getting older, and while it may seem like science fiction, ‘stopping death’ is getting more and more money thrown at it.”


Other anti-aging and life-extension news from high-profile sources

Elizabeth Blackburn got a Nobel Prize (physiology or medicine) for her work on telomeres, the caps on the ends of chromosomes that get shorter as people age. Dean Ornish is the well-known apostle of a rigorous lifestyle–very low-fat plant-based diet, exercise, yoga, meditation–as a shield against cardiovascular disease.

For the past several years these somewhat strange bedfellows have been research collaborators. They have just published a paper in Lancet Oncology showing that comprehensive lifestyle changes of the sort Ornish advocates increase the length of telomeres.

The fact that the relationship of telomere length to lifespan is not yet clear is one big caveat here. Another is that the study was very small: 10 men. And there are several other reasons for caution, including the controversial use of surrogate end points as a measure of a clinical study’s success. Larry Husten describes these and other reasons to reserve judgement about the telomere study at Forbes. He points out that the paper’s conclusions are modest, but that Ornish’s claims elsewhere–that drastic lifestyle changes can reverse cellular aging–are not.

Richard Knox adds other caveats in his post at the NPR blog Shots. For example, in 3 out of the 10 study subjects, telomeres got shorter, not longer. Ornish told Knox that’s because those men cheated on the lifestyle demands.

We await Calico’s word on telomeres.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Rape in Asia and around the world

Shocked headlines announced that a big UN study of 10,000 men in several Asian countries showed that 25% of them admitted that they had engaged in forced sex.  Alexandra Sifferlin described the rape study briefly at Time’s Healthland.

When I was reading about the Asian rape research a couple weeks ago, I wondered about the methodology. I looked for some discussion of the challenges of such an ambitious study, very large and involving cross-country comparisons, but I didn’t find anything.

Now comes Stuart Brown, a researcher at the London School of Economics, writing in The Conversation about the study methodology.  (His post was reprinted at The Atlantic.) Brown says, “The shocking headline figure that ‘25% of the men surveyed admit to raping a partner or a stranger in their lifetime’ appears to offer unequivocal confirmation that all Asian women are the victims of a deep-rooted, cultural problem. When the figures of the UN study are broken down, however, a different picture emerges.”

First, the survey covers only 6 countries, and they are enormously different–ranging from China to Papua New Guinea. It was data from two small countries that drove up the average. If they had been excluded, the number of men admitting to rape would have averaged out at 18%. Far, far too high, yes, but also not anything like the astonishing 59% reported for Papua New Guinea or even the 25% overall. Brown points out, “the extent to which a combined population of some 10 million people can swing our perception of an entire continent should be enough to prompt a little caution.”

He also notes that the study aggregated data from disparate countries with enormous cultural differences. When you combine independent data without weighting for factors like population size, he says, all you generate is statistical noise. He also points out–and this is the kicker–that similar numbers turned up in European countries in a 2007 survey of women.

Rape has also, of course, been a big issue in the US military. At Pacific Standard, Christie Thompson has provided a useful roundup of links to media reports on efforts to reveal the extent of military rape and deal with it.

India, where 4 men who raped and murdered a student were just sentenced to death for it, was not part of the Asian survey. But at Foreign Policy, Mallika Kaur says 1 in 4 Indian men have committed sexual violence too. She argues, however, that the furore over the case “has allowed a great wrong to be addressed inadequately and perhaps unjustly.”  This should have been a teachable moment about the realities of life for Indian women and girls, Kaur says, but the public focus on gory particulars of this case has ruined a chance to grasp the larger picture.

The Asian rape survey could have been a teachable moment too, especially if it was combined with data from elsewhere to show that violence against women, sexual and otherwise, is a global problem. This was in part a failure of science writing, a failure to look carefully at the Asian rape data and compare it with rape data from other parts of the world. We also lost an opportunity to take more seriously the question of what can be done about it. Instead, the way the Asian survey was presented gave smug Westerners the opportunity to be shocked! shocked!  And to sneer at the primitive inferior cultures of Asia.

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