Laurie Taylor's interviews: Mortal fear: Laurie Taylor interviews Lewis Wolpert
Do we have to die? Biologist Lewis Wolpert talks to Laurie Taylor about the mysteries of ageing
For reasons that might only be evident to a neuroscientist or a Freudian I find that I’m thinking of Alma Cogan as I walk back to Belsize Park tube after my interview with Lewis Wolpert. Yes, I tell myself, she was known as the “girl with a chuckle in her voice”. But what was her big hit? I try humming it. Da da da dadadaada. Something to do with sugar. Sugar in the morning. That was it. Sugar in the morning. Sugar in evening. Sugar at suppertime. And the title? What else but “Sugartime”. And then other memories rushed in. It was the song that John Lennon used to parody to his mates but then there was the rumour that he not only went on to become friends with Alma but may even have had a brief affair with her. John Lennon and Alma Cogan. What a pairing.
These little memory games are the stuff of everyday consciousness but on that particular morning they had acquired a particular significance. They were no longer simple distractions to fill my walk down the long tree-lined avenue but had become tests of senility, ways of gauging my possible progress towards dementia.
It was all Wolpert’s fault. In his new book You’re Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old, he has a long chapter on ageing and forgetting in which he describes an increasing inability to remember names and faces as a inevitable consequence of living beyond the age of 70. In our interview he’d been only too ready to personalise this loss and its inevitability. “I meet people all the time and I have no idea who they are. And quite often they phone me and I don’t know who they are and I have to phone my ex-wife and say, ‘Who are these people?’ And she tells me. In fact it was getting so bad that I decided to mention it to my psychiatrist on my next visit. But on my way back home I remembered there was something I’d forgotten to ask him. And then I realised what it was.”
I wondered whether he wasn’t giving in too readily. Didn’t everyone forget the names of people and places from time to time? Wasn’t his concern about forgetting the names of people and places at least partly prompted by all those young people who were so inclined to sympathetically mutter “senior moment” when an older person forgot while conveniently managing to overlook their own frequent lapses of memory? I reminded him of an elderly friend of mine who immediately and vigorously challenged any such imputation of memory loss by saying that as he’d lived so long he necessarily had more things to remember, so that the loss of some memories was statistically insignificant.
Even though Wolpert had asked my own age at the beginning of the interview he was now generous enough not to draw attention to the self-pleading aspect of my argument. But he had little time for the argument itself. When it came to names and places age had certainly withered his memory. And now that he was in his eighties he only expected it to get worse and worse.
How then did he account for his ability to go on lecturing? I’d seen him in action on several occasions and never noticed any grasping for words or ideas. “I don’t have a problem there. Work-wise I don’t forget. In fact I was lecturing at UCL for two hours on bio-ethics only yesterday.”
So you have no difficulty keeping up with your subject? “I haven’t kept up with some of the molecular stuff as well as I should.” Because it’s now too difficult for you? “No, I don’t think so. If I really worked at it I don’t think there’d be a problem. But I just haven’t kept up with some of the very modern stuff. For example, I’ve just completed the fourth edition of my textbook with a colleague and I’m rightly being dropped for the next edition when a colleague of mine will take over. It’s not that I’ve fallen away but I know that my major ideas in my subject area were a long time ago, 40 years ago in fact. I did all my good science quite early on.”
I realised at this point that I was probably failing to do justice to his new book by asking so much about his own experience of ageing. For although You’re Looking Very Well does contain some personal material it is, despite its colloquial title (based on the customary way he now finds himself greeted by his ageing friends), a detailed and resolutely empirical tour of everything there is to be known about effects of ageing. Not unexpectedly, biology looms large. This means that we’re reminded early on that from an evolutionary perspective there really is no good reason for us to go on living once our reproductive work is finished. “Evolution doesn’t give a hoot about us as long as we reproduce and bring up children.” It also allows for some fascinating speculation about the biological possibilities of prolonging life, in particular upon the assertion by the English biologist of ageing, Thomas Kirkwood, that immortality is theoretically possible. Did he agree?
“Yes, I do. The reason I say so is because there is one set of cells that never age, and these are the germ cells. They have a mechanism to prevent ageing so if we understood precisely what that was, then in principle one could put that mechanism into all the cells and they would be immortal. Apart from accidents one wouldn’t age. That’s the remarkable capacity of germ cells. But even if you could find out how they did it, then you’d still have the problem of putting that into all the cells. And who would be the scientist who’s going to give us immortality? He would be in his forties already by the time he did it, so would he ever know if it worked? And always remember, as I was only telling students the other day, that however complex you think cells are, they’re always more complex. In fact they’re so unbelievably complex and clever that to change our genetic constitution in such a way as to ensure immortality would never practically be possible. Theoretically possible, yes. But practically, no.”
Although Wolpert gives space to such biological speculation, his book concentrates much more upon what might be done by way of research or improved treatment to make the existing life span a little less miserable for those who have to bear the pains of dementia, the common name for the group of symptoms which affect intellectual and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily functioning. He admits to being “staggered” by the news that this affects 20 per cent of the over-80s, and is clearly outraged by the lack of research money devoted to understanding the condition, as well as by the appalling state of many of our care homes and the lack of properly trained personnel. It is, he believes, an inevitable result of the manner in which the NHS gives far less attention to the problems of the old than it does to the young.
He also has some interesting and positive suggestions about how the situation might be improved by allowing more sufferers to stay at home and be tended to by paid neighbours, but I find that I’m anxious to turn to more subjective matters, to the type of concerns that absorbed him in Malignant Sadness, that eloquent account of his own sudden descent into clinical depression. Was his present obsession with the pains of dementia partly a result of that biographical memory of how quickly and comprehensively one’s state of mind could change? Was he perhaps now monitoring himself more intensively because of that experience?
“I still don’t understand why I got depressed. I still take an anti-depressant every morning, so it’s gone on for 15 years and I still don’t understand it. In fact I have a bitter joke about depression. If you can describe it, you haven’t had it. You enter into a state that bears no relationship to anything you experience in your day-to-day life. When I’ve spoken to manic depressives they all agree. I was totally suicidal. I was hospitalised for three weeks. Yes, I was very suicidal.”
Did he think that age might have helped? His book certainly contains survey evidence that happiness peaks in older age. Was that true for him?
“Well, I’m not unhappy now. A bit sleepy perhaps. I’m certainly not unhappy with being old. No, not at all. I’m very fortunate though. I’ve got a reasonable pension so I’m not financially bad. I’ve got a partner who lives one street away. And I’ve got my six grandchildren and my four children so, yes, I’m relatively happy.”
What about the other consolations of age mentioned in his book? Did he agree, for example, that old age was a time when the problems of career and advancement receded and we could return to our original selves? Did he, for example, now feel that he had more of a license to cultivate and indulge memories?
“I think about the past a lot. I really do. Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about the past and particularly my home and my parents and how I didn’t behave well towards them. I really didn’t like my mother and I keep thinking, am I right about that? When I was young I wanted to get away from my home and South Africa and my parents. My mother was very Jewish-social oriented and I wasn’t that sort of boy. I can’t apologise for what I thought at the time. But I don’t think I treated my parents well. But they weren’t easy parents. Yes, I do reflect on it. There’s nothing much more you can do now but think about it.”
And had old age made him less tolerant, even more ready than before to speak his mind to fools and time-wasters? I reminded him that he’d approvingly quoted John Updike’s delicious contention that “senility, like drunkenness, bothers beholders more than the bearer.”
“No, I’m moderately tolerant. I don’t tolerate people who talk nonsense. I’m very against philosophy, for example. I regard philosophers as very clever at talking nonsense. I’m outspoken and I am a bit rude. I get invited to meetings specifically in order to behave badly towards philosophers talking about science. Only the other evening, an old friend said to me we have these philosophers of science coming to a meeting and we want to you to come along and behave badly and say your thing. I tell them that the philosophy of science is absolute junk and that Karl Popper and all that stuff is nonsense from beginning to end. And all those people who think that science doesn’t tell us anything about the world. All those lunatic postmodernists. I can’t take them seriously.”
I can understand if not wholly sympathise with Wolpert’s irritation. After a lifetime of innovative work on cells and the manner in which they acquire their positional value (how can it be that our limbs grow independently for more than ten years and yet are reliably of a similar length) it must be galling to be taken to task by whippersnapper sociologists of science who seek to throw doubt on the purity of the scientific method.
But then, Wolpert’s intolerance of philosophy is very much at one with his dismissal of religion and all its works. Although I’ve personally relished a number of public debates in which he’s scientifically demolished religious explanations of the origins and nature of the universe, I’ve sometimes come away with the sense that his view of religion is too restricted to accommodate its less literal and doctrinal manifestations and too dismissive of its capacity to provide comfort and consolation.
I decide to ease myself into this issue with some empirical evidence. “I couldn’t help but notice,” I say, “that you quote statistics in your book which show that religious people tend to live longer than non-believers.”
“Well, I do think religion does help people to behave quite well and not drink too much and not smoke too much.”
Did this mean that religion was not quite so dysfunctional as his friend and colleague Richard Dawkins might wish to claim? That it has its merits?
“Yes, I agree with that. I told Richard that the one weakness of his book is that he doesn’t consider how religion helps people. Religion helped my own son a very great deal. He became very religious, a fundamentalist Christian. But I never ever tried to persuade him not to be. It helped him a very great deal. And he’s fine now. He compéres comedy shows in the West End.”
It’s impossible not to enjoy Lewis Wolpert’s company. Even when faced by questions that he’d rather not answer or which, in his modest phrase, “fall outside my area”, he is always so formidably attentive that you can readily imagine the pleasure of being one of his students. He is still wonderfully enthusiastic about life. “I’ve just been re-reading Brideshead Revisited,” he tells me. “And the classics. Trollope and so forth. I can’t get over how brilliant they are.”
As the interview went on I found that I was comparing him more and more with his good friend Jonathan Miller, who not only shares his out-and-out intolerance of sociologists of science and postmodernists but also a face and a physical bearing which testify to a lifetime of critical thought and an intolerance of loose thinking.
There is only one question left. I tell him that it wasn’t too surprising to find an endorsement of euthanasia in his book. But I also noticed that he considered 75 to be a good age for people to decide to end it all. Now that he was in his eighties would he be revising this figure upwards?
“I’ll have to see. I certainly want the opportunity to die peacefully.”
Have you made any preparations?
“No, I haven’t. It’s quite curious. I must take that document, the living will sort of thing, to the GP the very next time I go.”
So you would either kill yourself or arrange to be killed by another?
“I think I would do it. Probably yes. But predicting one’s future is a very unreliable process.”
You're Looking Very Well is published in April 2010 by Faber