old age and civilization

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Anthropologist Rachel Caspari of Central Michigan University suggests that
old age made us human, writing that during the Upper Paleolithic period about 30,000 years ago, "there were twice as many adults who died after age 30 as those who died young:"

The Upper Paleolithic is also when modern humans really started flourishing. That's one of the times the population boomed and humans created complex art, used symbols, and colonized even inhospitable environments.

The change was not in our genes, but in our culture, Slate continues:

Something about how people were living made it possible to survive into old age, maybe the way they found or stored food or built shelters, who knows. That's all lost--pretty much all we have of them is teeth--but once humans found a way to keep old people around, everything changed.

Old people are repositories of information, Caspari says. They know about the natural world, how to handle rare disasters, how to perform complicated skills, who is related to whom, where the food and caves and enemies are. They maintain and build intricate social networks. A lot of skills that allowed humans to take over the world take a lot of time and training to master, and they wouldn't have been perfected or passed along without old people. "They can be great teachers," Caspari says, "and they allow for more complex societies." Old people made humans human.

The question, "What's so special about age 30?" is answered by the observation that "That's when you're old enough to be a grandparent:"

Studies of modern hunter-gatherers and historical records suggest that when older people help take care of their grandchildren, the grandchildren are more likely to survive. The evolutionary advantages of living long enough to help raise our children's children may be what made it biologically plausible for us to live to once unthinkably old ages today.

"We're now on the other side," it continues, "of the second great demographic change in human evolutionary history:"

The main reason lifespan doubled in the past 150 years is that infant mortality plummeted. Just as having old people around changed human culture profoundly 30,000 years ago, having infants and children survive has fundamentally changed modern society.

Parents knew they couldn't expect infants to live. [...] But overall, parents' relationships with their children were fundamentally different than they are in much of the world today.

"Children were the focus of many early public health drives," the piece continues--and of much legislation today:

After the increase in child survival, the other major demographic change to come from the doubling of average human lifespan is a robust population of old people. In 1850, the proportion of people age 60 or older in the United States was about 4 percent. Today they account for about 20 percent of the population.

Economists fret about declining birth rates in the developed world and the challenge of financially supporting large elderly populations. But old people are awesome. Having a high ratio of older to younger people isn't just a consequence of living in peace and prosperity--it's also the foundation of a civilized society.

"Things go horribly wrong," the piece notes, "in societies composed largely of young people:"

Old people aren't merely less bellicose and impulsive than young people. They're also, as a group, wiser, happier, and more socially adept. They handle negative information better, have stronger relationships, and find better solutions to interpersonal conflicts than younger people do.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on September 9, 2013 10:38 AM.

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