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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 70 – November 2001
These days, if you scratch a biologist you are likely to find a mechanical engineer or, as a bonus, a genetic engineer. Jay Olshansky, Bruce A Carnes and Robert N Butler illustrate the point. They are authors of an article entitled If Humans were Built to Last, published in the March issue of the Scientific American magazine. It contains several illustrations showing alleged flaws in the design of our human frame, and the ‘fixes’ offered by our boffins.
When I saw the drawings depicting the so-called improvements, I first thought that this article was an April Fools’ joke. Here was a strange creature, short in stature and limbs, seriously stooped, with big and pointed ears, a curved neck, supernumerary ribs and backward-bending knees. My mind boggled, but no, it was not a joke: this was a March issue and my diary confirmed that we were indeed in March, and not April.
The gist of the Scientific American article is that our bodies “were not designed for extended operation” and that “we push them to function long past their warranty period”. As a result, they deteriorate quickly once they’ve passed their reproductive years. This pessimistic vision of the human design and frame is not a new one. In 1903, a book was published entitled The Nature of Man. Its author, Elie Metchnikoff, devoted the whole of Part 1 of his book to ‘Disharmonies in the Nature of Man’, where Man was compared to “…a kind of miscarriage of an ape” who, owing to a fundamental flaw in his constitution, could not develop normally but ended instead in premature and pathological old age and death. Among our supposed flaws, uprightness and bipedalism often get the blame for many of our ills.
Thankfully, not everybody agrees with this depressing outlook. To quote only one among many optimists, Dr Munroe, a renowned English anatomist, said that “the human frame as a machine is perfect; that it contains within itself no marks by which we can possibly predict its decay; it is apparently intended to go on forever.” Maybe not forever, but for a long time. Animals, on average, live some five to seven times the length of time they require to reach maturity. According to this biological law, humans, who take about twenty to thirty years (opinions differ) to reach complete physical maturity, should live from a hundred to two hundred and ten years. Apparently, it’s not so much that life is too short but that we shorten our life too much.
Indeed, for some people, life is not too short. Take for example the English Thomas Parr. He died in 1635 at the age of 152 – cured to death by his physicians who bled, purged and made him puke in an effort to remedy his discomfort caused by an excess of food and wine from the table of the king. His post-mortem, performed by the famous Dr Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood, revealed that his body was in an almost perfect condition. Thomas Parr was not a freak of nature. Many more examples of centenarians could be cited. In some places in the world, such as Vilcabamba, Abkhazia and Hunza, Methuselahs seem to be the rule rather than the exception. And we are not talking about bedridden, senile or invalid people, but healthy and active ones.
Our three scientists tell us that they wondered what would be the shape of bodies to come if “…it had been constructed specifically for a healthy long life.” What makes them think that we are not built for an extended life? Two main reasons, I believe.
Firstly, they mistake average for normal. The people who make up the average are, in most cases, simply people who have not realized their potential. Secondly, they adhere to a neo-Darwinism paradigm with its tautological principle of the survival of the fittest, where ‘fitness’ has nothing to do with health or good looks but simply with the ability to leave more offspring. Supposedly, according to the tenets of neo-Darwinism, our body’s sell-by date expires around the age of 50, giving us just enough time to reproduce. After reproduction, no salvation!
Thus, according to this philosophy of life, parasites which, through a series of retrogressive adaptations, discard most of their organs to end up being a mere swollen stomach and a bag full of eggs are said to be ‘fit’. To me, this view of life is absurd. There is more to life than just reproducing the ‘selfish genes’. If Nature has designed us to be able to live around six or seven scores of years, I don’t see why we should be useless after two-and-a-half of them. Organisms have been evolved to participate in a greater scheme of nature where, through symbiosis, they perform work and duties that create organic wealth, a springboard for more progressive evolution.
According to our bio-engineers, “…it is grossly unfair to blame people for the health consequences of inheriting a body that lacks perfect maintenance and repair systems and was not built for extended use or perpetual health”. The message is clear: don’t bother teaching people the conditions of health and the causes of disease. Make them believe instead that they are badly designed and destined to be old at forty. Make them dependent on biomedical science with its myriad drugs and its newly acquired skill in manipulating their genes to morph them into goblins.
Yet, the evidence speaks strongly in favour of health education and social, economical and environmental reforms; not for a new design for humans. Life is not too short for longevity! And for the unfortunate among us who inherited a bad draw – the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge – let’s not forget that what matters most is ‘not to add years to life, but to add life to years’.