I am sure to many of you this topic will sound problematic at the very least. Surely we are all aware that the process of aging is the natural progression to our inevitable deaths. Yet our bodies have very good repair mechanisms. We recover from most illnesses and our wounds largely heal. The biblical allocation of “three score years and ten” is now frequently surpassed.
Yet these repair mechanisms don’t come without a cost. To maintain our physical bodies there is a great expenditure. In order to maintain our bodies we need regularly to replace our cells. For example it has been reported that many of the cells lining our intestines are replaced every few days. The cells that line our bladders are routinely replaced about every two months. Our red blood cells are in turn replaced every four months. Similarly our protein molecules are continuously replaced. This comes at some cost to the organism because it is a significant energy investment. Even if you spend all day, every day lying in bed you need to consume about 1600 calories a day if you are a man or 1400 calories a day if you are a woman just to maintain your body.
So you students of thermodynamics, pay attention here – it is all a matter of energy balance! If, in the physical world, the main game for organisms as evolutionary theory would suggest, is the propagation of the species and the preservation of the genes, we need to consider this equation very carefully.
In essence there are two ways to further this agenda – either we preserve ourselves and our genes, or we create new life that carries our genes. Some animals have evolved so that they have offspring young and often. Such animals devote their energies to propagation at the expense of longevity. Mice, for example, are sexually mature in two months, give frequent birth to large litters, but live for little more than two years. But this is a successful strategy for preserving their genes.
Humans have evolved using a different strategy. They take a long while to reach sexual maturity; they have normally only one child and that child has to be supported for a decade and a half before they are likely to reproduce. As a result there is a greater incentive to ensure that there is likely to be a longer life for such a mammal than if they had been a mouse! There is the necessity to support such off spring for a very long time if they are to pass on the all-important genes.
This raises another issue. For most mammals the only imperative for the male is to inseminate as many females as possible and his genes will be ensured of survival. But this is not true of human beings. If the objects of the procreation efforts are vulnerable, then there is an imperative to try and ensure their long term survival. When a wildebeest gives birth on the Serengeti Plain, unless the off spring is mobile and able to fend for itself very quickly, it will more than likely be dinner for a lion or another predator.
The off-spring of other mammals once they are weaned, progressively learn how to feed themselves. Human offspring are provided with food by their parents for two decades (or more)! Successful rearing of our off-spring requires a far heavier investment than any other animal. This process is facilitated by having the father, as well as the mother, nurture and protect the offspring through this vulnerable period. This has caused other adaptations. Take for example the menopause experienced by the females of Homo sapiens. This phenomenon is not experienced by the female of other species. Scientists believe this could well be due to the fact that older women, unencumbered by the rigours of child-rearing can then contribute to the nurturing of other children in the tribe.
The reproductive strategy of humans, having fewer children than most other animals means we have reserves left to repair our aging bodies. Consequently we live longer than most animals as well. (The theory is demonstrated by other long-living animals that have few offspring, eg elephants and albatrosses.) Of course our longevity has also been assisted by developments in medical science as well as improvements in sanitation etc (New Delhi notwithstanding!).
Increases in longevity have also conferred evolutionary benefits. Before we had the means to record history, the collective memories of our elderly was a large and beneficial data bank. I read somewhere (I think it was in one of Jarrod Diamond’s books) of a village in New Guinea where drought had caused the villagers to lose most of their normal food supplies which the nearby rainforest had normally provided. They were saved by the recollection of an old man who was able to relate that once before, many years ago, the rainforest had been decimated by a cyclone. At that time the villagers had learned to eat other plants and fruits that were not normally eaten by the tribe because better fare was abundant. This knowledge enabled the villagers to survive through the drought. Without the old man’s recollection probably some would have died of starvation and others from poisoning when attempting to eat unsuitable fare. Of course the value of such recollected knowledge is now diminished because of the ability to store so much knowledge in books and electronic format. (It must have been nice to have had your recollections thus appreciated. Now younger folk grimace in derision when we begin a sentence with “In my day …..”!)
Well, that is a short essay regarding the physiology of our mortality and the impacts of evolution on our longevity. I suppose the dilemma is that we overestimate the importance of this because of our natural tendency to identify with our bodies. What if we should look at our mortality from a spiritual point of view? What if we should look at a life, not through its incessant desire to preserve and propagate our genes, but as an opportunity for our essential “I-ness” (some of you would say “soul”) which for our natural life span is hosted in our bodies to experience individuality – a separateness from its mainspring and all such other “others”. The various religious traditions have varying answers. For some it is a trial which if successfully negotiated leads to eternal life. For others it is a learning experience and what we learn will inform new existences.
I have long been impressed by the British author, philosopher and interpreter of eastern religions, Alan Watts. He wrote a book (now out of print) which he titled “Beyond Theology”. The second chapter of the book was a rather playful essay which he called “Is It Serious?” Despite being somewhat tongue-in-cheek this essay is quite insightful. He proposes that it is worth the effort to contemplate a universe where life isn’t as serious as we normally think it is. He cites the dour pessimism of many of the conventionally religious.
“For them, as for many other Christians and Jews of all shades of belief, the Lord is an archetypal grandfather, who, because it is necessary to conceive him in the human image, has a fault which, in a human being, is insufferable: he has never done anything wrong, or, if he has, he absolutely refuses to admit it. The same is true of the usual conception of Jesus, The minister’s son who won’t go behind the fence with the other boys for a peeing contest. So they throw him in the pond, but instead of fighting back he takes on a nobly injured attitude to make them feel guilty.”
“Is God quite serious? To put it in another way: is this a universe in which there is the possibility of a total and irremediable disaster, of everlasting damnation or some equivalent thereof? Or is it a universe in which to be or not to be is not the question, since the one endlessly implies the other?”
“Why not ask, therefore, what might be the most aesthetically satisfying explanation for one’s own existence in our particular universe? It must be an explanation that will completely satisfy me for the most appalling agonies that can be suffered in this world. Upon what terms would I be actually willing to endure them?”
“We must therefore imagine a new kind of individuality in which there are two spheres with a common center. The outer sphere is the finite consciousness, the ego, the superficial individual, which believes itself to be the willing agent and knower, or the passive sufferer, of deeds and experience. But the inner sphere is the real self, unknown to the conscious ego. For the latter is the temporary disguise or dream of the former, and the real Self would not only be unafraid of entering into dreams of intense suffering; it would all the time be experiencing the process as delight and bliss, as an eternal game of hide-and-seek.”
“By now it will be obvious that my hidden Self could very well be imagining just this particular situation and personality in which I now find myself. The same would be true for every other individual, for in our hypothesis the inmost Self of each person is central to all persons. All otherness, all duality, all multiplicity is part of the play. Thus the lesson of this fantasy is that by a consistent thinking through of my fondest dreams for an explanation of this universe, and through an attempt to imagine as clearly as I can the nature of eternal bliss, I come right back to willing the place where I am. There is simply the proviso that all resentment for past and present suffering can be wiped out and turned into joy by waking up and finding that I, as the inmost Self, had deliberately dreamed it, and that it was an integral part of the delight which that Self enjoys through all eternity.”
In this scenario, death and aging are inevitable because at some stage we must wake from the dream.
However, before closing let me share with you an amusing little story related by Watts in this essay.
“I am reminded of the story of a dinner-table conversation in an English country house, where the guests were discussing their ideas of what would happen to them after death. Among those present was an elderly and somewhat stuffy gentleman, who happened to be a prominent layman in the Church. He had been silent throughout the conversation, and at last the hostess turned to him and said, “Well, Sir Roderick, what do you think will happen to you after death?” “I am perfectly certain,” he replied, “that I shall go to heaven and enjoy everlasting bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t discuss such a depressing subject.”