Death may be difficult to accept, but it is a clear state of affairs: when an organism no longer lives, it has died. Aging, however—wrinkling, weakening, deteriorating and the rest of the assault—seems less self-explanatory. Why does it take place? Do all living things go through it?
Not all species do. The paths that organisms follow after maturity vary enormously. Some plants live for one year only, others come back every season. Bacteria clone themselves and don’t die from age at all but from hostile organisms or conditions in their environment. Seabirds age very slowly; as long as they can fly, they can stay ahead of most predators. Lobsters don’t age; they can continue to grow and remain fertile for 45 years or more in the wild, dying only when they can no longer molt and grow a larger shell.
How and why the declines of aging are included in the final phases of some species’ lives is complex. Wikipedia’s “Senescence” introduces the range of theories and uncertainties. Here are three insights from the evolutionary perspective that make sense to me.
One is that certain harmful genetic mutations switch on later in life after the end of an organism’s reproductive period. Many cancers in humans do, for example. Because they don’t impact the number or health of the offspring, such genes do no harm to the persistence of the species and so they are unlikely to be lost over the generations. The diseases of the elderly get passed along by the young.
Even more unfortunately, some mechanisms in our bodies boost our health when we’re young and then come back to bite us when we get older. Digesting calcium, for instance, builds strong bones early on but helps clog and stiffen arteries decades later. As long as such a function improves our fitness to make and raise babies, whatever damage it does later on doesn’t matter much in the very long run.
A third way in which selection seems indifferent to the pains of aging is statistical: even if natural selection did reduce the ravages of aging and prolong the fertile period, the population of such organisms would still decline with age as accidents and predators took their inevitable toll. The body invests its resources where they are the most effective for the future, in youth and early reproduction, not in a comfortable old age.
In these ways and others, aging is linked to the importance of reproduction and the dangers of predators and other external forces. For primates, including me, we reproduce early because the big cats—leopards, jaguars, cougars, tigers—stalked us for millions of years in the forests and grass lands. And for most other species as well, the safest bet for continuity is simple: reproduce early. Still, the exceptions are fascinating. Lobsters in their suit of armor run little risk from ancient predators, so they can reproduce throughout their lives without ever aging into genetic irrelevance.
So, armed with such insights, do I experience my weakening muscles, declining sexuality, distracted thinking, and dulled senses with any less resentment? Yes, a little. Knowing that the decline has its place, even though it’s a melancholy one, in the evolution that brought me to being in the first place is some consolation.
Although my body is showing some signs of aging, my spirit feels younger than ever. I want to stay alive as long as possible to try to connect more with the Ground of Being and less with the ego. I am fortunate to have a favorable incarnation–so I want to make the most of it.
Hi Myrna. Thanks. I’m thinking about what common ground there might be between our different views without minimizing that difference. Perhaps the commonality is only the obvious one, the desire to connect with what we believe is larger and more enduring than us. And the sense of affirmation that that connection brings.
Perhaps aging is the other side of growing.
Birth, development, maturity, decline, death stages not always acheived by many. How rare to be born, to be born a human, in this timeframe , and for some of us, to be born into a place of security. Since life feeds on life, I don’t always feel comfortable with the exchange. I eat living things, they eat us. Thus aging feels more like a gift of survival. Losing one’s powers and facilities is perhaps akin to seasons. Some are a sprouting spring, some a thriving summer, some a fading fall, some a dead winter. Being senescent, I muse at all the other ages- mewling babies, jittery adolecents, ecstatic lovers, wheel chaired elders and the towering dead. In the crowd is all humanity. Mutated in our differences. Destined in our demise. Unlike many, I find no spirit separate from protoplasm. I prefer it this way. I embrace my biology and its impermanence. To be and to not to be is enough. Decline is uncomfortable. So is early death or a life of horrors. The wild idea that we even exist in a hostile universe might be recompense enough.
Thank you so much for this, Mark. “Aging feels more like a gift of survival.” A powerful reframing that I’ll try to keep in mind, Darwin-oriented as I am. In the same vein, the idioms shared when seniors check in with each other on how they are faring, carry weight: “I’m above ground and breathing,” “it’s better than the alternative.” Survival. Although when pain is chronic, “the alternative” may look better.
The seasons are similar to our stages of life in some ways and not in others, it seems to me. The big difference is that the seasons are a cycle, and we are not. Imagine that somehow the planet will come to an end at some point in December, and we all knew it. In such a case, autumn would be a colorful, shriveling horror show. And perhaps the climate crisis makes such a scenario less than fiction. I was just reading a reference to Earth at this rate becoming uninhabitable for humans in 250-300 years.
Meanwhile, thanks again.
It feels horrible to be trapped in a body that seems irremediably condemned to senesce! But I think there is something awfully wrong about the more-or-less conventional 3.8 billion year biological scenario you revere here.
I feel excited by reading David Wilcock’s “The hidden science of lost civilizations” although I don’t entirely agree with that book. I am not a creationist either. Understanding what Wilcock terms “the Source Field” and its driving role throughout the history of life on Earth will probably change the way we view senescence and evolution, and may in fact be what changes senescence and evolution for us humans, and gives us the right form of (more or less) bodily immortality.
Dying, leaving your physical body, may not necessarily be unpleasant, I would suggest. We all have an eternal soul. Senescence is unpleasant, though, and a blow to one’s ego. I don’t like becoming biologically and socially obsolete! However, I think that senescence can be avoided, at least in principle, even without resorting to nanobots, to parabiosis, or to the sort of biomedical rejuvenation therapies proposed for the near future by Aubrey de Grey, Kurzweil, etc… These methods ignore the existence of the subtle energy body, the etheric template, and its interaction with the more physical body. The -until now- very few masters who have learned the conscious techniques of properly regenerating the body taking into consideration things like the (probably subtle) energy rings around human cells, have to a large extent avoided senescence. I haven’t met such masters yet, but I have met a person who met a mistress of “indefinite” age and her youthful-looking (but seemingly old) monastic adepts, and as a group this little monastic brotherhood had seemingly mastered these techniques of avoiding senescence. This person I know, together with that mistress and her monastic adepts, achieved partial levitation. This person I know also says he has met a being made mostly of light: a very evolved and benevolent extraterrestrial. I am at this moment 95% convinced that what this person I know has reported is true.
Thank you for your clear explanation of your basic beliefs on this issue. My central disagreement, I think, is that my self is not separable from my body, so “I” don’t feel “trapped” in it. However, my body (brain included) like most people’s, works hard to stay alive and I’m not surprised that many find a way to imagine their consciousness as separate and, under the right circumstances, longer lasting.
I read a little about the sources you mention. I’m skeptical about predicting the future of these issues. Wilcock’s work seems based partly on the complexities of quantum physics, which I often hear about as the basis for hopeful, quasi-spiritual mysteries such as a cosmic consciousness and another life beneath our molecular organic one. To me it is important (and often difficult) to separate what we hope might be real based on new discoveries, from what consistent studies tell us is almost certainly real.
But thank you again and I wish you the best in your pursuits.