Pioneer or sex pest? Harrow-educated scientist Aubrey de Grey’s work on human longevity made him the darling of tech billionaires who dream of living to 1,000. Now his reputation is in tatters amid tales of harassment, nude picnics and sexual free-for-alls
With his 2 ft long bushy beard and scraggy frame, British ‘immortalist’ Aubrey de Grey doesn’t just look like a medieval wizard, he talks like one too.
The Harrow and Cambridge-educated author and research scientist believes he can lead us to the fabled fountain of youth and a future in which we live for ever.
His astonishing claims about ageing being a disease that can be cured have transfixed the billionaires of Silicon Valley.
With his 2 ft long bushy beard and scraggy frame, British ‘immortalist’ Aubrey de Grey doesn’t just look like a medieval wizard, he talks like one too
Many of these vain egotists, painfully aware that a normal life span doesn’t give them nearly enough time to spend their obscene fortunes, have sunk millions into his research.
De Grey is an unrepentant hedonist who drinks beer at every hour of the day, likes to go on naked picnics with lovers and harbours dreams of putting his various girlfriends under one roof. However, he’s most famous for claiming that the person who’s going to live to a thousand has already been born. In his case, sadly, that prospect may no longer seem quite so enticing.
For the 58-year-old guru might have to spend his next 942 years on Earth batting off allegations that he’s a seedy sexual predator.
De Grey — who claims a ‘post-ageing world’ is imminent — has just been suspended by the California research foundation of which he is founder and chief science officer following allegations of sexual harassment from two women. Celine Halioua, the 26-year-old founder and chief executive of Loyal, a company developing drugs to make dogs live longer, claims that as a young student whose work was funded by de Grey’s research foundation, SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), she was ‘often paraded in front of their donors’ by executives who didn’t bother to hide the fact she was there to titillate much older men.
At one dinner, Miss Halioua said, she was seated next to Aubrey and told to ‘keep him entertained’. The Old Harrovian ‘funnelled me alcohol and hit on me the entire night’, she said in an online post.
In a hilarious 2014 documentary, The Immortalists, de Grey, left, and his biologist wife Adelaide Carpenter, 19 years his senior, right, were filmed writhing around on the grass on one of their naked picnic expedition
‘He told me that I was a “glorious woman” and that as a glorious woman I had a responsibility to have sex with the SENS donors in attendance so they would give money to him.’
She went on: ‘I left that dinner sobbing. It has taken me years to shake the deep-seated belief that I only got to where I am due to older men wanting to have sex with me.’
She claimed de Grey had long used his power and influence in the anti-ageing world to find victims and that ‘his proclivities are a long-held open secret’ in their field.
De Grey’s second accuser, Laura Deming, 27, a partner at anti-ageing investment company the Longevity Fund, published her online allegations on the same day.
She said she has known him since she was 14 and that, when she was still only 17, he wrote to tell her ‘he had an “adventurous love life” and that it had “always felt quite jarring” not to let conversations with me stray in that direction’.
She wrote: ‘I knew that there would be misunderstandings, but I didn’t expect a trusted mentor I’d known since childhood to hit on me so blatantly, and insinuate that it had been on his mind for a while.’
Miss Deming said she went public because she does not believe SENS will act to prevent de Grey from harassing other women in future.
‘It might be an open secret in the longevity community that this is a problem, but kids on the internet don’t have access to that information, and Aubrey is still mentoring minors,’ she said.
De Grey denied the allegations, saying the pair’s descriptions of their personal experiences were ‘decidedly incomplete’. He said: ‘My belief is that both Laura and Celine have been deceived into the view that I have done many things that I have in fact not done.’
Celine Halioua, the 26-year-old founder and chief executive of Loyal, a company developing drugs to make dogs live longer, claims that as a young student whose work was funded by de Grey’s research foundation. She has made allegations against de Grey
While he admitted that he had sent the email to Miss Deming which she mentioned, he said he wrote it ‘inadvisedly, for sure, and which I unreservedly regret’. He insisted, however, that it was not part of a ‘pattern’ of behaviour.
Allegations of dirty-old-man tawdriness are quite a blow to the dignity of a scientific field — or ‘pseudo-scientific’ field as its critics insist — that claims to hold mankind’s future in its hands in undertaking research that is both profound and noble.
Mainstream scientists tend to dismiss de Grey as a hopelessly naive dreamer with a gift for the gab — he likes to stroke his beard philosophically as he expounds — but with precious little evidence to back up his fantastic claims.
The renowned British neuroscientist Sir Colin Blakemore has said that the idea of reversing ageing is as silly as reversing gravity.
In a debate against de Grey at Oxford University, Sir Colin mocked his opponent’s theories as ‘dangerous snake oil’. Dangerous because, if anyone ever did manage to defeat ageing, the consequences could be catastrophic if the global population exploded because nobody was dying from old age.
De Grey counters that nothing is as bad as 100,000 people dying every day from ageing which he says is ‘by far the cause of the greatest amount of suffering’. He used to be dismissed by fellow gerontologists — scientists of ageing — as too bonkers for them, too, with his insistence that even immortality is possible. In a book, Ending Ageing, he accused mankind of living in a ‘pro-ageing trance’.
De Grey’s second accuser, Laura Deming, 27, a partner at anti-ageing investment company the Longevity Fund, published her online allegations on the same day. She said she has known him since she was 14 and that, when she was still only 17, he wrote to tell her ‘he had an “adventurous love life” and that it had “always felt quite jarring” not to let conversations with me stray in that direction’
However, his star has risen as he’s achieved iconic status among some of the world’s richest people — the rulers of Silicon Valley — who share his passion. Amazon king Jeff Bezos, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Larry Ellison of Oracle have all invested in research into ‘life extension’. PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel donated £2.4 million to SENS and de Grey later received another £4.3million from cryptocurrency tycoons.
Sceptics counter that it says it all that de Grey’s main fan club is in California, home of flaky ideas and New Agey eccentricity.
And Aubrey de Grey is very, very eccentric. It’s not just the manic beard which, due to his habit of rarely conversing without a pint of beer in his hand, has a tendency to pick up a hoppy foam which then flies around as he talks. He says he never wears underpants as they ‘make no sense’. He refuses to use mobile phones which he dismisses as ‘anti-social, nasty things’ and has never learnt to drive as cars ‘can kill people without it being the driver’s fault’.
Despite claiming that his body is 20 years younger than his chronological age, he subsists on a regime of fried food, negligible exercise and lots of beer, which he says enables the brain to work at full capacity.
It’s hardly surprising to hear that his mother, the ‘formative influence’ on his life, was also very unconventional. An artist who lived almost as a hermit, she raised Aubrey, her only child, in Chelsea. His father walked out before Aubrey was born and he knows nothing about him.
He says he became fascinated with ‘curing’ ageing when he was at Harrow, a school he said he left as a ‘repulsively arrogant bastard’.
After studying computer science and then biology at Cambridge, he worked in developing artificial intelligence, including a stint with consumer electronics pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair. His mother left him £11 million when she died in 2011 (the proceeds of two Chelsea houses she bought in the 1960s and had rented out to send him to Harrow) and he invested most of it in setting up SENS.
His basic theory of stopping the ageing process hinges on the idea that it — and ultimately death — is caused by cellular decay.
He believes technologies being developed and those to come in the not too distant future will allow us to treat our bodies like a vintage car and ‘replace the parts, clean it up, keep it running smoothly way past its expected expiration date’.
De Grey, who has said he believes there’s a 50 per cent chance of such a breakthrough in his lifetime, thinks it’s not implausible to live not a thousand but a million years.
But if we live for ever, de Grey points out, that may mean having to dispense with social conventions like marriage and monogamy.
He’s already started doing that — in a hilarious 2014 documentary, The Immortalists, de Grey and his biologist wife Adelaide Carpenter, 19 years his senior, were filmed writhing around on the grass on one of their naked picnic expeditions. (Adelaide said they’d met at a Cambridge student party at which his opening words to her were: ‘Justify your existence’.)
But Adelaide unhappily explained that while their 23-year marriage was still a loving one, de Grey was having affairs with three other women. One was 45 and another 24, both somewhat younger than 68-year-old Adelaide. Still, such age differences will hardly matter when everyone lives for ever, added de Grey. Adelaide revealed that her openly polyamorous husband wanted all his women to live together with him. ‘It’s so not my scene,’ she said. They divorced three years later in 2017.
In the film, de Grey also said he saw himself as a ‘poster boy for future lifestyles’ in which immortality would mean big age differences between people, including sexual partners, would become far less important.
Like underwear, monogamy makes no sense, he insists.
‘What is so special about sex that it’s the one thing that you only do with one person?’ he said a few years ago. ‘If you have a regular chess partner they’re not going to complain if you acquire a second regular chess partner.’
Predictably, he’s hardly your average millionaire playboy.
He lives near his foundation, based in the Silicon Valley town of Mountain View (also Google’s HQ), in a chaotic ‘tumbledown’ home in the Santa Cruz mountains with no central heating.
It looks, said a visitor from the Financial Times, ‘exactly like the place you would expect a mad professor to live’, with an ancient electric hob in the squalid kitchen, a mattress on a stained carpet in the living room and a 4ft pile of rubbish at one end of a huge hall. In his spare time, de Grey is an obsessive player of the cerebral board game Othello (a legacy of his Harrow days) and claims he once entered the UK top ten in the game.
You don’t get to be the darling of Silicon Valley by not thinking ahead and de Grey has a back-up plan if he dies before someone has cracked the formula for eternal life. He will be frozen in liquid nitrogen, with instructions left to reawaken him when it is finally possible.
It could be a long wait, but Aubrey de Grey will no doubt think it more than worth the effort.
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