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Is Middle Age Evolution's Crowning Achievement? 140

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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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Re:BS (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Brad1138 ( 590148 ) <> on Saturday April 21, 2012 @12:08PM (#39756361)

    I'm 47 and I feel and know that I'm over the hill. Life's something that takes place before you're 30.

    REALLY? I am 45 and can still ski and hike with the best of them. I don't feel close to being over the hill. My son is 18 and skis like a maniac, but I can still wear him out. Old is a state of mind, and "middle age" or 40s/50s is definitely NOT old. My father played tennis into his mid/late 70's.

    I hope you are just trying to provoke conversation, if not, I really feel sorry for you.

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