Did Mother Nature Intend for Us to Live So Long?
I’ve been thinking today about lifespans and life expectancy.
Probably because COVID has inspired conversations with friends and acquaintances about how best to stay healthy in order to live a long life. Obviously, the topic is fraught with discomfort as we muddle through a world pandemic. The questions of masks or no masks, restrictions or no restrictions, vaccines or no vaccines are tossed around for consideration like little ticking time bombs. Nobody wants to be wrong.
After all, you could die.
Which begs the question, how long were we designed to live in our natural state, prior to modern medicine, technological advancements, access to cleaner water and better hygiene? It’s interesting to contemplate. How long did our ancestors live? What killed them? How long did it take for human lifespans to increase? Why did they increase?
Now I freely admit that I have mixed feelings about living the long lives we often do today.
Although the average lifespan has been doubled, quality of life isn’t a guaranteed promise. I sit on the fence when it comes to going into old age physically or even worse mentally compromised. But then, I was raised to believe the world would end before I was 30, so I feel pretty smug to have lived as long as I have. I’m not begging or bartering to live to be one hundred,
I have this theory, however, that Mother Nature never intended for us to live so long which is fairly evident from our ancestral histories.
Our supposed amazing immune systems of our ancient ancestors were consistently overwhelmed by infections. When I look at humans as part of the natural world, the animal kingdom so to speak, I feel more inclined to believe that nature provided an instinctual drive to reproduce as often as possible because so many babies died soon after birth. In order for our species to survive, we had to have lots of babies, bury many of them, and coax a few to outlive us so that they could reproduce as many babies as possible, too. That was our mission.
Living a long life wasn’t part of the deal.
Multiple generations living together at the same time came later, much later. Life spans were completed around age thirty. A girl gave birth for the first time around fourteen and by the time her firstborn was fifteen, she was dead. Grandparents weren’t part of the picture at the time because people didn’t live long enough to be a grandparent. Women produced as many babies as their bodies would bear in a little over a decade’s time, then died. A goodly number of babies died as well. Nature insured the survival of the species through as many births as possible because the clock was ticking. The odds were that Moms and dads weren’t going to live long lives. Something would get them sooner rather than later, The modern belief in our magical immune systems insuring a long and healthy life is simply not founded in reality. Our immune systems weren’t enough for our ancestors and they still aren’t enough. Humans have had to contribute a lot of creative effort in order to beat that ticking clock.
How did that natural cycle change for us?
How did we lower birth rates but also extend life? Science and knowledge. The biggest changes have taken place in the last 200 years with the advent of antibiotics, vaccines, medical procedures, medicine, clean water and better hygiene. It took scientific endeavors to accomplish most if not all of this including improving our hygiene and the understanding of hygiene. After all, we had no idea bacteria or viruses even existed. In our not so distant past, we were still lighting fires and burning sage while making sacrifices to our many gods hoping to drive death from the village. A simple cut would get infected and in short order we’d die, but we had no idea why.
But the story of scientific advancements might not end with our average lifespan of seventy-eight.
Scientists are now predicting that there will be yet another extension of life in the near future. Only this one will come with quality. We won’t just live a lot longer, but we’ll live a lot better for a lot longer. Those immune systems we like to think we can control with diet and positive thoughts will instead be tweaked by science to actually enable enhanced longevity. Genetic predispositions and compromised immune systems, even the aging process itself will be altered. Future generations will look back on current times when people lived to be the ripe old age of seventy-eight and shake their heads. Gazing at their photos, how old and feeble we will appear to them and at such a young age.
How do I feel about that?
Mixed feelings once again. But then I worry that living longer and better will soon be taken for granted, leaving us to grapple with our inherited tendencies to fuck things up for one another. There’s little evidence that humans appreciate the fact that as recent as the first half of the 20th century science doubled the average lifespan. Instead, we have a growing body of citizens who want to return to burning sage while making sacrifices to their gods in an attempt to keep death from their doorsteps. And, although I realize that they have almost as little knowledge about the human body, bacteria, viruses, hygiene and clean water as our ancestors did, it’s apparent that they believe that their lives are being threatened by modern medicine not enhanced.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that science makes no mistakes.
After all, it’s a slow and tedious journey to progress and the scientific process is notorious for redefining even scrapping old conclusions with new and improved methods. And, yes, the medical world, especially when unregulated, has made many mistakes and even engaged in nefarious practices. That’s why we now have regulations and warning labels. They are there to limit humans and hold them accountable.
Yet, our lifespans have been extended and rather swiftly when we take into account how many centuries were steeped in ignorance.
I mean there was a time in the so distant past when epilepsy was considered to be demon possession. You can’t know what you don’t know and when we don’t know, we tend to make things up or someone steps forward making claims to know and we cast our lot with the shaman. It’s a predictable human behavior.
Pandemics bring all of this into focus.
The current challenges that societies are facing have produced many different responses. From anti maskers to those opposed to the vaccine, cooperation is almost impossible. Some even believe the vaccines are the mark of the beast, a Bible-based prophecy found in the book of Revelations about end times. Others are clinging to the belief that if they nurture their immune systems their bodes will beat the virus. Some choose to believe that the entire pandemic is at worst a hoax and at best overinflated and intentionally misreported. There are also those who resist the guidelines suggested by medical professionals on the grounds of personal freedom to make their own choices about their own bodies. This is a very short list of reasons that influence public perceptions.
The strife that has erupted between citizens is not an American thing but a world reaction.
There are two things we can count on. Pandemics know no boundaries and human behavior is predictable. The age-old conflict between competition and cooperation is alive and well in the modern world. We may have made huge technological and scientific strides but our social skills are stunted by comparison. In essence, we’re cavemen with cell phones. Our ancient ancestors successfully gifted us a set of basic instincts, which we tend to rely upon when under pressure. Our big brains fail us at this point as our emotions take over.
When it’s one individual risking their life because they’re misinformed, that’s sad, but not catastrophic.
A world pandemic calls for a plan of action, good data, intense research and a willingness to cooperate for the good of humanity. This won’t be our last pandemic. Scientists are warning us about what lies around the corner. They warned us about the current pandemic. What they are learning from this pandemic is the only thing that will save lives during the next pandemic. The knowledge gained is the driving force behind all emerging scientific progress.
Nothing else will offer the same promise of hope.
Prayers, vitamins, sunshine, positive thoughts, intuition, freedom to choose and denial will do nothing to increase our knowledge base. Thankfully, scientists will be even better informed when the next pandemic is unleashed. Just like with our ancestors, our collective immune systems, no matter how magical we think they may be, won’t be enough to save the day. Better understanding of what causes pandemics, how pandemics are spread, how to thwart pandemics, how best to survive a pandemic, and the development of treatments as well as vaccines will keep life expectancies across the globe from falling.
Maybe in the future we really will live longer and better, even longer and better than we now live which in and of itself is a kind of modern-day miracle. I predict that if that’s true, however, nobody will remember why people use to die as early as age seventy-eight.
Originally published at https://teresawriter.wixsite.com on April 3, 2021.