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REJUVENATION AND THE PROLONGATION OF LIFE: SCIENCE OR QUACKERY? CHANDAK SENGOOPTA* Across the ages, human beings have tried to prolong life and evade senility by magical, religious, and scientific means. In modern times, the role of science has naturally been preeminent. For a time during the early decades of this century, scientists indeed seemed to have discovered a number of methods to conquer senility. Appearances, unsurprisingly , were deceptive, and the entire episode was soon forgotten. Neither scientists nor historians have devoted much attention to the topic, and only a few historical studies are available [1—2]. Contemporary scientists or physicians think of this subject, if at all, as part of the history of quackery or, at best, of the gullibility of scientists. Closer historical examination reveals this view to be simplistic. To be sure, rejuvenation research had its share of cranks and charlatans. Even the serious scientists in the area were frequently unsound in their methods and drew hasty, wish-fulfilling conclusions. It is unfair, however, to overlook that these flaws notwithstanding, much of this research was conceived along accepted scientific doctrine of the time. The history of rejuvenation research, like the history of science in general, reveals a complex interplay of rationality, gullibility, and sheer folly. I shall establish these contentions by examining the independent efforts of a biologist, an experimental physiologist, and a fashionable surgeon to retard or reverse human aging. The biologist is Elie Metchnikoff [Il'ia Il'ich Mechnikov] (1845-1916), the experimental physiologist is Eugen Steinach (1861-1944), and the surgeon is Serge Avramovitch Voronoff (1866-1951). I shall argue that Metchnikoff and, to a lesser extent, Voronoff approached the problem of senility from the standpoint of evolutionary The author thanks Dan Todes and Punam Zutshi for their assistance. *Institute of the History of Medicine, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine , 1900 East Monument Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21205.© 1993 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0031-5982/93/3701-0839$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 37, 1 ¦ Autumn 1993 | 55 biology. Their ideas on the subject will be contrasted with those of Steinach, whose approach was unrelated to evolutionary thought. In my analysis of this aspect of their work, I shall draw upon a dichotomy popularized by biologist and historian Ernst Mayr. Mayr argues that the biological sciences are generally divisible into those that deal with proximate phenomena and those that investigate ultimate causes [3]. Mayr uses the terms as disciplinary distinctions, physiology being the prototype of the former and evolutionary biology of the latter. I feel, however, that the distinction can also be of help in identifying differences of conceptual level between theories in one field as well as within the apparently homogeneous thought of individual biologists. Metchnikoff: Senility, Microbes, and Sour Milk Elie Metchnikoff shared the 1908 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Paul Ehrlich for his research on inflammation and the immune response. His work in these fields has been explored in detail by historians and immunologists [4—6]. Metchnikoff's ideas on the prevention of senility, however, have been treated superficially in these studies. This is unfortunate since Metchnikoff's studies on aging were grounded in his biological beliefs and constitute an excellent historical example of the use of evolutionary principles to solve a physiological problem. Metchnikoff's biological philosophy revolved around the twin notions of "harmony" and "disharmony." Disharmony, for Metchnikoff, was the central fact of life. Any anatomical feature that did not serve a clear and important function was an instance of disharmony. Organisms, especially humans, were fundamentally disharmonious in structure and function. Metchnikoff blamed this on the evolutionary process itself, which moved by piling one ad-hoc modification on another. Living forms, instead of being examples of perfect design, were jury-rigged from diverse, ill-adjusted components. At the best of times, the components managed to act together with some efficiency. More often, they did not [6]. Metchnikoff believed that evolution would, in the dim future, iron out all biological disharmonies. But the natural tempo of evolution being excruciatingly slow, the process needed to be speeded up by "science." Science was a harmonizing, ameliorative force, and the only effective weapon against disharmony...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 55-66
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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