Middle Age: An Evolutionary Explanation

One area I have found of interest over the years is evolutionary psychology.  Friedrich Hayek first exposed me to the discipline, which at that time was known as sociobiology.  While it has certainly been criticized, it is often the only scientific explanation we have for certain human behaviors and to me it does a pretty good of job generally of explaining such behavior.   I recently came across this article, which sought to explain middle age from an evolutionary perspective.   As someone in middle age, I found it to be fascinating.  First, the physical changes in middle age make evolutionary sense:

As people get older, they no longer need spectacular visual acuity or mate-attracting, unblemished skin. Yet they do need their brains, and that is why we still invest heavily in them during middle age.

As for fat — that wonderfully efficient energy store that saved the lives of many of our hard-pressed ancestors — its role changes when we are no longer gearing up to produce offspring, especially in women. As the years pass, less fat is stored in depots ready to meet the demands of reproduction — the breasts, hips and thighs — or under the skin, where it gives a smooth, youthful appearance. Once our babymaking days are over, fat is stored in larger quantities and also stored more centrally, where it is easiest to carry about. That way, if times get tough we can use it for our own survival, thus freeing up food for our younger relatives.

Moreover, humans during the principal period of evolution often lived into middle age:

The evidence from skeletal remains suggests that our ancestors frequently lived well into middle age and beyond. Certainly many modern hunter-gatherers live well beyond 40.

What then was the function of middle aged people? Two of them: being “super-providers and master culture-conveyers.”

For example, hunter-gatherer societies often have complex and difficult techniques for finding and processing food that take a long time to learn. There is evidence that many hunter-gatherers take decades to learn their craft and that their resource-acquiring abilities may not peak until they are older than 40. . . . Thus, middle-aged people may be seen as an essential human innovation, an elite caste of skilled, experienced super-providers on which the rest of us depend.

The other key role of middle age is the propagation of information. . . . 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.

Thus, humans can be seen as members of an elite club of species in which adulthood has become so long and complicated that it can no longer all be given over to breeding. Just like farsightedness and inelastic skin, menopause now appears to be a coordinated, controlled process. It liberates women and their partners from the unremitting demands of producing children and gives them time to do what middle-aged people do best: live long and pamper.

I am not sure if any of this makes it easy to take middle age.  It helps to understand the function of it all, but I am not sure if it makes it any easier to deal with the obvious infirmities of one’s condition.  I suppose we should focus on the positive, and prize the fact that our brains still work so well.

The article is based on a book, which only seems to be available from the United Kingdom site for Amazon.

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on April 24, 2012 at 09:47:20 am

I like all of it except for the fat part. I doubt middle aged hunter gatherers were fat for two reasons:

1. They didn't sit on their ass all day, they walked... everywhere, all the time.
2. They didn't ingest the huge amount of carbs and processed sugars that contemporary humans do.

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