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A Means to an End: The Biological Basis of Aging and Death

American Scientist; Research Triangle Park Vol. 87, Iss. 5,  (Sep/Oct 1999): 468-469.

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A Means to an End: The Biological Basis of Aging and Death. William R. Clark. 240 pp. Oxford University Press, 1999. $27.50.

Aging and death have fascinated and frightened humanity at least since the inception of recorded history. Very, very recently, however, science has offered a glimmer of hope that we might truly understand-and possibly control-aging.

Most modern gerontologists know too well that despite remarkable recent insights into the genetic and environmental bases of aging, controlling aging, much less reversing it, remains an elusive yet optimistic goal. We now understand that aging is complex, but probably not so complex as to be intractable and that evolutionary forces may constrain the extent to which we can control or reverse aging. The lay public, unfortunately, is largely unaware of the complexities of many biological processes, especially aging. Consequently, they are vulnerable to claims by pop cultists and commercial enterprises that aging can be reversed and life span extended to mammoth extents and by simple interventions.

There is a real need for books that can educate the pubic about complex biological processes and present the promise of modern aging research with all the hope that drives contemporary gerontologists-and with all the caveats and unknowns that temper their optimism. In this respect, A Means to an End is largely a success. Much to his credit, the author does not shy away from biological complexity. He clearly and concisely explains basic facts and concepts so that complexities can be understood and appreciated. Occasionally he errs on the side of oversimplification and assumes a bit too much. But the final product is, in all, an illuminating and honest description of the biology and genetics of how and why we age.

One of the major strengths of this book is that it doesn't promise anything. Rather, it...