L. Walford, M.D.
A Tribute by Max More
With the passing of Roy Walford,
the bright glow of our species flickered and dimmed. Roy was one of many thousands
of human beings whose lives terminated on April 27, 2004. But he was not "just"
one of the many; Roy was a true individual, a character, and a champion of values
we hold dear.
Roy was an expert practitioner of Nietzsche's great and rare art of giving style to one's character. No one would describe him as a loud-mouth or show-off, yet his distinctive way of living and looking at the world made an impression on others. When you think of Roy, you might think of his academic research, or his pioneering and unrelenting advocacy of extending the human lifespan. Or you might think of the impressive mustache he sports on some book jackets.
If you had the good fortune to know Roy more personally, quite different impressions might come to mind: Perhaps you think of Roy the frequent global traveler and natural anthropologist, or as a gentle but powerful magnet that drew attractive, younger women into his orbit. You might wonder how someone could be a widely respected scientist and simultaneously display in his bathroom a poster that made broadcast its message in such a painfully pointed way. You might puzzle over Roy's capacity for welcoming and enjoying the hedonic aspects of life and advocating rigorous caloric restriction.
In describing (or eulogizing) the great and rare art, Nietzsche made explicit the conditions of giving style to your character, of shaping all your strengths and weaknesses into an "an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason". Those who succeeded "enjoyed their finest gaiety in such compulsion, in such constraint and perfection under a law of their own". Most of us aren't good at living under a law of our own, walking the line between tyrannical discipline and reckless or irresponsible dereliction. Roy was a law of his own, in the demanding and complete sense intended by the German who philosophized with a hammer.
Not only was Roy a paragon of self-definition, he exemplified agelessness. I have long thought that if there were an award for Most Ageless Man, I would vote for Roy Walford. Around five years ago, as I was thinking that very thought, the degenerative process of ALS was not yet evident. Roy had been increasingly bothered by back pain, but attributed it to damage sustained during his two years in Biosphere 2. Even as the disease began to advance on the cellular battle field at a monstrous pace, Roy lived life as if age was an illusion to be dispelled through living.
At that time (the late 1990s) Roy, in his seventies, had recently told me about a interview he had done. A TV crew wanted to film him in an eye-drawing location while picking his brain as one of the world's foremost experts on aging. There he was working out at World Gym in Venice, California surrounded by massive hulks of both sexes–hypermuscular monsters here in the Mecca of bodybuilding, a gym frequented by Arnold Schwarzenegger. "What the hell is this!" said their expressions as the camera crew focused on the fit but only human-sized septuagenarian. "Take a look at me! Look at my biceps. Check out my delts!" silently they seemed to scream. But the cameras in this home of hypertrophy -- this veritable palace of protein -- had eyes only for Roy.
Roy Walford seemed to me to foreshadow the ageless posthumans we expect to develop out of the human condition. He defied age-related stereotypes, just as he defied convention throughout his life. During several decades involved in the forefront of aging research at his UCLA laboratory, Roy never stopped adventuring. In his seventh decade he entered the sealed environment of Biosphere 2 for two years, serving as the team's medic and nutrition specialist. He mentioned to me at some point, that he liked to do something really unusual and memorable every ten years or so. These experiences acted almost like chapter beginnings, marking the episodes of a long life.
After Biosphere 2, Roy gradually shifted his focus from aging research to an entirely different field: video art. In his eighth decade, when most people still expected to be retired, Roy was tirelessly mastering Photoshop and Director and exhibiting his videos in art galleries, on top of working on at least two books. He continued traveling for as long as the progressive deterioration allowed. If the ALS had not happened, he would have been off to Africa for a couple of months. He also wanted to run for the US presidency on a platform constructed of wry, penetrating, satire – satirical political performance art, best compared to Swift's "A Modest Proposal". From what he told me, I expect that a few years from now, he would have changed fields again, this time to become a mathematician.
For most people, we might dismiss this plan for the future as whimsy. But not for him. (Unless we can talk of "serious whimsy".) Roy stayed flexible, inventive, and life affirming. He played havoc with age stereotypes. I will always remember Roy's character as just the kind we need if we are to thrive as we extend life spans over the centuries. We know that many people fear the uncertainties and open horizons of an unlimited human life span. They cannot imagine how to live a life that has not been stamped with an expiration date. If they only knew a man like Roy Walford, they would have an answer.
I want to scream in rage when I think about the way nature robbed this ageless man of his physical vitality (but could never touch his ageless spirit). I want to scream in rage when I think of those, like Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama, who act as apologists for the barbarous, lethal aspects of nature. Let us honor the memory of Roy Walford by redoubling our efforts to master human biology and to eradicate disease, degeneration, and involuntary death. As Miguel Unamuno wrote in The Tragic Sense of Life, "Nor should we forget that the supreme sloth consists in failing to long madly for immortality."
Max More, Ph.D.
Chair, Extropy Institute