The Evolutionary Accident of Aging

The theory of evolution is often misunderstood to mean that anything that everything evolves with a specific purpose. However, sometimes its better to look at characteristics as the absence of something else evolving. Take aging.

During most of human history, we lived like animals, battled predators, lacked modern medicine, and were generally more likely to die tragic, early deaths. Since we have limited energy for our bodies to use, biological investment in repair mechanisms for the bodies cells would have been unwise. That energy was much better spent on characteristics that help avoid predators (like strength and eyesight). Any individual that spent energy on repair would have been more likely to have been eaten by a saber tooth tiger or stomped by a mammoth. Modern life spans, then, are a function of historical danger. This helps explain why women have longer life spans than men. Men were exposed to more danger and so invested less in evolving repair mechanisms.

This idea is very important because it highlights the fact that aging is not natural. We don’t age because its advantageous or nature wills it. Its simply because nature, until now, had no reason to do anything about it. Today, however, scientists are taking charge and developing the ability to increase human life span exponentially. Researchers like Aubrey De Grey are finally looking at aging as a very serious problem instead of an inevitability. That we can postpone aging is certain. The speed at which we develop these technologies, however, will depend on how quickly universities, scientists, funding boards, and the public adopt this same view on aging.

To those researchers tackling aging, this also means that there is likely no single or small group of causes for aging.  Aging isn’t a roadblock created by one inefficient system in the body.  No system of the body had pressure to create a perpetual repair mechanism and so every system of the body decays.  If we are fortunate, as Aubrey De Grey believes, and most of the body’s systems decay in similar ways, there may still be relatively simple ways to defeat aging across the board.

*This post inspired by Ray Kurzweil’s ‘The Singularity is Near’ and Jared Diamond’s ‘The Third Chimpanzee’

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~ by djstrouse on May 8, 2008.

4 Responses to “The Evolutionary Accident of Aging”

  1. Both Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil are speaking at our ‘Thinking Digital’ conference in the UK next week (21-23 May). Thought it might be of interest to anyone interested by your post.

    http://www.thinkingdigital.co.uk

  2. I’m going to have to leave a plug for MPrize.org and SENS.

  3. No, no. You live and age because I say so. Evolution is nonsense.

  4. L, R, you have to admit, G makes a pretty strong point there.

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