Jewish World Review August 3, 2004 / 16 Menachem-Av 5764
We might not be here but for the wisdom of the aged
Our society is obsessed with youth. Most of us would prefer to be thought of as young, or at least young-for-our-age, and we treat the prospect of getting older as a wholly unpleasant thing that must be staved off for as long as possible. No one, it seems, wants to be thought of as an old person these days, and euphemisms like "senior citizen" and "mature person" don't seem to soften the blow very much.
It has always seemed short-sighted to me (and I'm sure I'm not the only who feels this way) for a culture to minimize the importance of such a sizable demographic in this way, and I must admit the feeling gets stronger with each passing year. Although I don't quite qualify for the senior citizen discount myself as yet, I am already being warmed up for future indignity by adjusting to my recently acquired status of "middle-aged guy."
Now science has provided me and other true believers in the value of maturity with hard evidence that the success of our species was largely due to the presence of pre-historical golden-agers.
In a widely reported story on the "science nerd" newswire, researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of California at Riverside reported that a rather sudden "senior boom" that occurred long ago was a key reason why modern humans survived the rigors of natural selection and went on to cover the earth with Wal-Marts and fast-food joints.
Although the reason for the startling increase in the senior demographic at that time is unclear, one theory is that our ancestors had by then come to value the wisdom of their older family members and started doing a better job of protecting and caring for them. Once they did, the benefits of having more mature individuals in the tribe quickly became clear.
For one thing these "older" individuals continued to reproduce. Keep in mind that "old" is always a relative term, and in primitive times if you lived to be 30 you were quite the elder statesman. Back then people generally became parents around the age of 15, so it would not be unusual to be a great grandparent in one's 40s and possibly still be having kids of one's own.
Equally important is the fact that these mature cave-dwellers, although perhaps not as fleet of foot or sharp of eye as their younger counterparts, continued to contribute to the overall well-being and survival of the tribe. After all, one doesn't reach the ripe old age of 30 without learning a few tricks on how to keep from being eaten by a beastie and knowing which berries are safe to eat and which ones will keep you from seeing 31.
Sometimes there is no substitute for experience.
So ancient man learned that there was good reason not to abandon Mom and Dad, or Grandma and Grandpa for that matter, just because they were getting a little snow on the old rooftop. That's a lesson we seem to be forgetting today, much to our collective detriment.
It's enough to make you feel a little less optimistic about our continued long-term survival, or perhaps about our worthiness for same.
Bill Ferguson is a columnist for the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2004, Macon (Ga.) Telegraph Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.