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Is Middle Age Evolution's Crowning Achievement? 140

Posted by timothy
from the so-far-it-feels-sorta-ok dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Reproductive biologist David Bainbridge writes that with the onset of wrinkles, love handles, and failing eyesight we are used to dismissing our fifth and sixth decades as a negative chapter in our lives. However recent scientific findings show just how crucial middle age has been to the success of our species and that with the probable existence of lots of prehistoric middle-aged people, natural selection had plenty to work on. 'We lead an energy-intensive, communication-driven, information-rich way of life, and it was the evolution of middle age that supported this,' writes Bainbridge, adding that middle age is a controlled and preprogrammed process, not of decline, but of development. 'When we think of human development, we usually think of the growth of a fetus or the maturation of a child into an adult. Yet the tightly choreographed transition into middle age is a later but equally important stage in which we are each recast into yet another novel form' — resilient, healthy, energy-efficient and productive. 'The middle aged may not have been able to outrun the prey, but they were really good at working out where it might be hiding and dividing up the spoils afterwards.' Although some critics say that middle age is a construct of the middle aged, Bainbridge asserts that one key role of middle age is the propagation of information. 'All animals inherit a great deal of information in their genes; some also learn more as they grow up. Humans have taken this second form of information transfer to a new level. We are born knowing and being able to do almost nothing. Each of us depends on a continuous infusion of skills, knowledge and customs, collectively known as culture, if we are to survive. And the main route by which culture is transferred is by middle-aged people showing and telling their children — as well as the young adults with whom they hunt and gather — what to do.'"
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Is Middle Age Evolution's Crowning Achievement?

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  • Learning is an expensive process, the longer we're able to use those skills the better we're off as a group. I just think that middle age is not qualitatively different from old age, and it's just an arbitrary distinction.

    • by avgjoe62 (558860) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @11:37AM (#39756177)

      I am middle aged, nearing fifty. I (and my friends) can still hike a trail with my kids, keep up with them and show them interesting things, stuff I remember wondering about when I was their age.

      My Mom, however, is 77. She cannot hike those same trails at our speed and she has difficulty remembering things. She stays back with the great-grandkids and the octogenarian dog, baking cookies while we hike.

      There is a qualitative difference between middle age and old age, but that may not be readily apparent if you have nothing to compare to.

      • ...and the octogenarian dog

        That's an amazingly old dog.

      • by ankhank (756164) * on Saturday April 21, 2012 @12:33PM (#39756521) Journal

        It's a match made in, er, evolution:

        Little children love to hear the same story repeatedly, over and over, using exactly the same words.
        Old folks repeat the same stories over and over, and if they get the words wrong, the children correct them.

        Perfection.

        • by avgjoe62 (558860)

          You just described a night at my house during the holidays to a "T".

        • by Sulphur (1548251)

          It's a match made in, er, evolution:

          Little children love to hear the same story repeatedly, over and over, using exactly the same words.
          Old folks repeat the same stories over and over, and if they get the words wrong, the children correct them.

          Perfection.

          Just so, Rudyard is that you?

      • by Shavano (2541114)

        I am middle aged, nearing fifty. I (and my friends) can still hike a trail with my kids, keep up with them and show them interesting things, stuff I remember wondering about when I was their age.

        My Mom, however, is 77. She cannot hike those same trails at our speed and she has difficulty remembering things. She stays back with the great-grandkids and the octogenarian dog, baking cookies while we hike.

        There is a qualitative difference between middle age and old age, but that may not be readily apparent if you have nothing to compare to.

        If you're nearing 50 and can keep up with your kids, either you are either in hella great shape or your kids are crippled. Your kids are probably slowing down so you can keep up.

        My kids hop up mountains like goats after a full week of loafing in front of the computer and television. Youth is a wonderful thing. I wish I still had it.

        • by avgjoe62 (558860)

          I probably take better care of myself than most and I've always been blessed with good health (thanks for the genes, Mom and Dad!). Very few people that just meet me can guess my actual age, most giving me about ten years (unless they're ALL being very kind...). I know of damn few fifty year old men that are lucky enough to be able to do some of the stuff I do.

          Does this mean I could beat my daughters in a foot race? No way. I can't bench press the weight their boyfriends do. I can't swim as fast as I u

    • by Oswald (235719) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @11:37AM (#39756185)

      I would agree that any attempt to define middle age solely in terms of calendar age is bound to be arbitrary. But the summary hits the important distinctions with "resilient, healthy, energy-efficient and productive." At some point for each person (who lives long enough) the advantages of experience can't make for the physical decline, and we transition from "middle age" to "old age."

      Of course these terms are pathetically vague, and we need better ones that say what we mean, but the distinction itself is real.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The eventual death of every individual benefits the species. It ensures that packs don't overpopulate their territory, and that outdated knowledge doesn't persist for too long.

      Of course, this isn't of much benefit to the individuals who die, but they have no say in the matter.

      At least, not yet.

  • by sideslash (1865434) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @11:31AM (#39756137)

    Author David Bainbridge [wikipedia.org] is 44. And 25 years ago he wrote a book claiming that teenagers are the pinnacle of human existence.

    (OK, so it wasn't 25 years ago. But that would have been funny.)

  • Middle Ages (Score:2, Funny)

    by openfrog (897716)

    For a moment, I thought this was a libertarian article about the Middle Ages being the crowning achievement of human evolution, or civilization...

    I hope I am not giving them an idea...

    • Re:Middle Ages (Score:5, Insightful)

      by grahamd0 (1129971) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @11:56AM (#39756297)
      You seem to have a gross misunderstanding of libertarians.
      • Libertarians are illiterate anarchists. (Or Liberians with poor spelling skills).
      • by ultranova (717540)

        You seem to have a gross misunderstanding of libertarians.

        Really? Because the Middle Ages combined a weak central government with great personal freedom for the rich (the nobility) with low taxes and no support for the poor and weak. That sounds pretty much what libertarians have constantly stated they want. Even the idea that people tend to gravitate to positions they "deserve" was present; they called it "Divine Right".

        • by grahamd0 (1129971)
          I wouldn't call the absolute dictatorial rule of a hereditary autocrat a "weak central government" and I wouldn't call systematic pillage "low taxes", and setting people up in a life of privilege because they're born better than the common man is not a libertarian ideal. So yes, my original comment stands.
    • For a moment, I thought this was a libertarian article about the Middle Ages being the crowning achievement of human evolution, or civilization...

      I hope I am not giving them an idea...

      I had this thought, with the logical support that since the Middle Ages humanity has increasingly protected the genetically weak and infirm and thus stopped the "survival of the fittest" evolution.

      Of course, today we're selectively breeding by different criteria....

      • by kermidge (2221646)

        And what are the fittest? If memory serves, Darwin et al considered those most able to accommodate change as the most fit to survive. That is, in a given species' population, those individuals who can both adapt to changes and pass on their genes increase the likelihood of the survival of that species.

        Rather puts the "survival of the fittest" arguments in a different light, no? My observation is that the concept is mis-used or abused by people pushing their own agenda or trying to justify an otherwise in

  • Except... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gQuigs (913879) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @11:49AM (#39756257) Homepage

    My very limited understanding was that evolution really could only work if the survivors were of reproductive age. If they are great at surviving and making children then it would work, otherwise not.

    Ah.. fine I read the article:
    "The probable existence of lots of prehistoric middle-aged people means that natural selection had plenty to work on. Those with beneficial traits would have been more successful at nurturing their children to reproductive age and helping provide for their grandchildren, and hence would have passed on those traits to their descendants. As a result, modern middle age is the result of millennia of natural selection."

    So really it's grandparents that this article is really getting at. Middle aged for the purpose of having your offspring's offspring survive. That actually makes sense.

    • Re:Except... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Jessified (1150003) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @12:16PM (#39756405)

      So really it's grandparents that this article is really getting at. Middle aged for the purpose of having your offspring's offspring survive. That actually makes sense.

      That makes perfect sense when you consider menopause.

      Evolutionarily, when does it ever make sense for a species to "willingly," as it were, make oneself infertile? In our case, the advantage is that the females stop reproducing and focus the remainder of their energy on their current descendants, rather than produce babies up until death and spread the resources thin.

      • If limited resources were the main issue, I would expect andropause to have a similar "shutdown" phase instead of just being a decline. And having copious offspring to compete against other groups over limited resources would be advantageous.

        It seems more likely to me that the evolutionary advantage of menopause is from preserving the life of the female (thus allowing her to help her grandchildren survive). Older females are much less likely to produce viable offspring and much more likely to die in the pro

    • Interesting. One way of thinking about it is a progression. Surviving till your teens, you could reproduce but not transfer very much knowledge onto the next generation. Surviving into your 20's, more experience and information is transferred.

      So it follows that, for a species that survives mainly on skills & know-how not instinctively known, the more information that can be transferred from older people to younger, the better.

      Therefore, the evolution of the *preference to have older people in your commu

  • Jesus said, "The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven days old about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same."

    --Thomas

    Hey, it's what I do here.
  • it's a good thing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by haemish (28576) * on Saturday April 21, 2012 @11:54AM (#39756279)

    As an aging geek, and as much as an aging body sucks, I wouldn't trade my wiser more developed brain for my younger body.

    • by Tablizer (95088)

      Even when you start forgetting what you installed Linux on?

    • by timeOday (582209)
      Would you voluntarily skip the next 15 years of your life (if you could still accrue the wisdom) to get wiser even that much faster? Of course not. As it is you have the present AND the future, how is having JUST the future any better? Hence being young is strictly better, QED.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Sure, without middle age there could be no MILFs. Therefore, middle age is evolution's crowning achievement indeed. QED.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Sarah Palin is a GMILF, so she represents an evolutionary breakthrough.

  • Crowing achievement? No. That would be Calvin [gocomics.com].

  • by erroneus (253617) on Saturday April 21, 2012 @12:35PM (#39756535) Homepage

    Without the more aged and experienced to teach the next, there is no perpetuation of knowledge, experience and wisdom. Without it, we only have instinct.

    • by Wraithlyn (133796)

      Using pretty absolute language, aren't we?

      We haven't had to rely exclusively on direct verbal perpetuation of knowledge/experience/wisdom since the invention of writing. One may make qualitative arguments of course.

  • How does being fat, weak, wrinkly, and near-sighted aid in information transfer? Insofar as it doesn't, it appears he really means that man's longevity, even taking into account such problems, provides a benefit to the species. This has nothing to do with the problems of aging, which if anything, inhibit information transfer. You can't teach something you can't remember.
  • ...But do not have opposable thumbs, I thought that's what made us special. I would assume that humans are going to have to survive as a species several more millenia before being crowned as the most successful on an evolutionary scale. If we don't, then perhaps "middle age" will be determined to have been what doomed us.
  • >"dismissing our fifth and sixth decades"

    Middle implies the center of a group of three or more. To me "middle age" is the period around the middle of average lifespan. So I think middle age is probably more accurately ages 30-50.

    50-70 ("fifth and sixth decades) are not middle age, unless one thinks the average lifespan is 120...

    Who makes up these strange definitions?

    • First Infant, then child, then youth, then young.

      Is 18 0% of 80? Is 20 young?

      That said 70 is not middle age. But 59? Depends on the person, everybody loses it at a different age. BTW your first decade is 0-9, second 10-19, third 20-29...sixth 50-59.

      Losing it?

  • Exactly what? The authors don't offer a testable prediction of their hypothesis. For example, one would think that biological limits to maximum lifespan would be affected. What phenotype emergence mechanism is being proposed? This sounds like group selection, which has specific testable, limitations as well. Alll in all, I would really hesitate to use the term "scientific findings show" to describe this hypothesis.
  • I always wondered why women stopped being fertile in middle age, yet live longer than men, if their only (evolutionary) purpose is to squeeze out progeny. So obviously, evolution has indicated something more for them. That something is probably assisting the health of the herd, allowing more members to thrive and procreate, assisting the herd in making decisions that increase its health and/or numbers.

    The same would apply to males who become decrepit yet hold on for decades.

    When understanding human evoluti

  • "And tell those neanderthals to get off my prairie!"

  • Not plagued by youth stupidity and desire to hump everything, still able to hump everything with cold mind, rich, lot's of free time to explore world, give back to humanity, ability to support higher education for children.

    I am 45 and I am living the best time of my life.

  • by frisket (149522) <peter.silmaril@ie> on Saturday April 21, 2012 @07:36PM (#39759081) Homepage
    That's why a senator is called a senator ("senex" is the Latin for "old man"). Used to be that a senate was a body of older, wiser, experienced heads who could advise on what to do because they had likely seen it all before, and remembered how to handle it. The last thing you want in a senate is young people with no experience.
  • ... will overcome youth and skill
  • by Snaller (147050)

    "We are born knowing and being able to do almost nothing. "

    And most die that way.

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