Saturday, July 24, 2010

Early morning ruminations about Old Age

            Why do some people live to great age but not others?  Medical science focuses on such precursors to death as heart disease and cancer but are there precursors to long life?
            Two “thinkers” I have been impressed with over the years lived in excess of 100 years.  Hans Georg Gadamer was born February 11, 1900 and died March 13, 2002.  And George Kennan was born February 16, 1904 and died March 17, 2005.   Both men led lives that would strike most of us as stressful.  Gadamer lived and taught (philosophy) in Germany through two world wars.  George Kennan was one of America’s major experts on Communist Russia.  He worked in Russia for many years and created the strategy that historians view as enabling America to win the Cold War.  So it couldn’t be ‘lack of stress' that caused them to live so long.  It could be said they had “good genes,” but maybe they engaged in the sort of work that caused certain genes to trigger in such a way as to enhance “long life.”  Both men sought to impart "wisdom" to their fellow men.  Could that have something to do with it?
            Anthropologically we know that one of the “survival strategies” of homo sapiens is its old people.  Other species don't need "old people."  Canis Familiaris, the dog, gets by quite nicely living ten to twelve years.  Dog lovers attempt to extend that period, but longer-lived dogs are not important to their survival as a species. 
            Homo sapiens have a different survival strategy.  The family or tribe which could best teach its younger members to find berries and herbs, to make spear points and knives, to make clothing for protection against the cold, and to pass along what some earlier generation learned about cataclysmic occurrences would have a "survival advantage" over a tribe or family which did not have such old people. 
            Genetic studies have shown that genes are not all “fixed.”  Many, perhaps all, are malleable.  If something happens in a certain way a gene will be triggered to change or expand to enable an individual to deal with the event. This is the basis of stem-cell research.  The genetic material in an embryo has not had many "triggers" activated.  So if the untriggered material can replace material that has "triggered" Parkinson's disease, for example, perhaps that disease can be cured. 
            On the other hand, triggers causing our deaths will go off eventually.  No scientist is suggesting that stem-cell research will enable anyone to live forever.  Limited life-spans is also part of homo sapiens' survival strategy.  It was never good for tribes to have too many people.  It took a lot of work back for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to feed an entire tribe.  Tribal members needed to "pull their weight."  If an individual were able and willing to pass on his knowledge to younger people, a gene or genes may have been triggered to enable him or her to live an usually long time.  But if an individual did not carry his weight, or was done performing his or her task, it would be an advantage to the tribe for such individuals to die as soon as possible.  There would be no "survival advantage" to a tribe to support individuals who took but gave nothing back -- even if they made their contribution when they were younger.
            Someone might object to my ruminations by pointing out that teachers live no longer, on average, than anyone else, but do these teachers go on teaching until they die?  Or do they retire from teaching and then die?  In the case of my long-lived examples, they both "taught" by means of their writings and discussions well into advanced age.  They had wisdom they wanted to impart and they kept on imparting it. 
            Of course "natural selection" doesn't guarantee that a given individual will be a certain way.  Even if what I suggest is true and you began "imparting wisdom," that might not give you a longer life -- in less there is a trigger available to all of us.  "Natural selection" occurs over a long period of time, over many generations, to favor certain characteristics and not others.  In this case it may be favoring those best equipped to "pass on wisdom."  
            As opposed to such individuals as Kenan and Gadamer, we all know of people who are in a rush to die.  We know of drug-addicts, alcoholics, and people who have committed suicide.  It seems plausible that there might be triggers to shorten the lives of those who could or would not teach wisdom -- or even carry "their weight" during a normal life-span.  The "wisdom" I have in mind is whatever would comprise the modern equivalent of teaching the young to find berries, make knives and clothing, etc.  
            As to the opposite trigger, the trigger that activates a "short life," I can recall reading about a "personality type" that was prone to develop cancer.  The article suggested that "pessimism" was a chief attribute of this self-destructive cancer-prone personality.  I suspect it will be easier for readers to accept that pessimistic people tend to have shorter-than-average lives than that individuals who have wisdom to impart are enabled to go on imparting that wisdom during longer-than-average lives.
            Last night while falling asleep I tried to think of something in the Beatitudes that would support or oppose these ruminations, but I couldn't.  The Beatitudes are about the process of life -- how to live well, and not about how to live a long time.  We should be concerned about being "merciful," "pure in heart" and "peacemakers," and not about living a long time.  What good would it do us to gain the whole world, as it says some place in the Bible, and lose our souls in the process?  Or, to associate that idea with the subject of Old Age, what good would it do us to live to Old Age if we were not "merciful," "pure in heart" or "peacemakers," etc.?   On the other hand it seems unlikely that people like Kenan and Gadamer could live past 100 if they did not have most of those attributes -- at least it seems so to me -- at the present time -- during these early morning ruminations.

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