Ageing and Philosophy

Around 161 BC in the comedy Phormio, by Terance, an old man is asked by his brother what illness afflicts him and replies: "Why do you ask? The illness is old age itself." In 1732 the doctoral thesis of Jacob Hutter was entitled "Senescence itself is an illness" (Senectus ipsa morbus est). The incurable nature of the illness was commented on by Seneca (Senectus enim insanabilis morbus est; see Schäfer 2002 Med. Hist 46, 525-48). Twentieth century optimism led to a marked change in attitude towards the issue of incurability.

Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958). Probably in Berlin in the early 1930s. A photograph from the collection of the National Library of Medicine, USA."I have accumulated a wealth of knowledge in innumerable spheres and enjoyed it as an always ready instrument for exercising the mind and penetrating further and further. Best of all, mine has been a life of loving and being loved. What a tragedy that all this will disappear with the used-up body!"

Richard B. Goldschmidt (1878-1958). In and Out of the Ivory Tower. (1960) University of Washington Press, Seattle, p. 311.


Stephen Jay Gould"It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity. Of course I agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to love and a time to die - and when my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way. For most situations, however, I prefer the more martial view that death is the ultimate enemy - and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light."

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) Bully for Brontosaurus. Reflections on Natural History. (1991) W. W. Norton, New York.

These views of two great twentieth century evolutionists capture a changed attitude towards death by scientists. In Richard Goldschmidt (born 1878) we find calm acceptance. In Stephen Jay Gould (born 1941) we find an apparent awareness of the possibility that ageing may be a disease like any other disease. So far, it seems to be a disease with a 100% mortality. But that may not always be so. 

    Reflecting this, there are now government Institutes of Ageing with mandates that extend beyond "geriatrics" (how to age with health and grace) to "gerontology" (how to understand and reverse the ageing process so that normal life may be extended).

   A fundamental idea in this respect is that in the course of evolution most organisms have died early from environmental insults (e.g. predators) and so there has been no selective pressure for enhancing later life. Organisms are selected to be optimal, in terms of the number and health of offspring, in their early years. Indeed, genes which operate such as to achieve early optimization may even exert negative effects if operating in the same way later in life (should the organism survive environmental insults, as most humans seem to today). 

    Thus, a high blood pressure may be selectively advantageous in early life, but may predispose the organism to cardiovascular problems in later life. Similarly, genes concerned with somatic DNA repair have been fine-tuned over evolutionary time to work optimally during the early years. Their failure to do this later in life would have no consequences in terms of the number and health of offspring. The essence of this was perceived by the great pioneer of modern biostatistics, Ronald Fisher, in 1929:

Ronald Fisher"In man, the death-rate increases and the expectation of life decreases with increasing age. Death might be just as inevitable without this being so. For example, if the expectation of life were 20 years at all ages, we should have a half chance of dying within about 14 years, only one in a thousand would live to be 140, and one in a million to 280. We should all die sooner of later as we do now, only - if fertility continued - even the oldest would have the same expectation of further posterity as the youngest, and would be as much affected by selection, and consequently there would be no tendency for their death-rate to become higher than at early maturity, where in man it is least.

    In fact, the incidence of death or cessation of reproduction (or at least of reproductive usefulness) determines the action of natural selection, which in turn reacts on the death rate. In an oak in the forest, I suppose an old tree has a greater expectation of posterity than a young one, so that it would be a bad bargain for the father oak to benefit his offspring unless he could do so by losing considerably less than the offspring gains.

    The reproductive value at different ages must determine the extent to which parental care pays. If all ages were of equal reproductive value, a species would tend to benefit its offspring up to the point at which the offspring gains double the advantage which the parent loses, but no further. Of course, immature offspring are usually worth much less, and so should be cared for only at a cheaper rate still. But if crocodiles were able to recognize their mature offspring, I suppose they would co-operate with them not only in terms of mutual advantage, but in terms of joint advantage so long as the loss of either did not exceed the half the gain of the other. Hence society starts with the family."

Letter of R. H. Fisher to Charles Darwin's son Major Leonard Darwin. 27th June 1929. Natural Selection, Heredity, and Eugenics. Edited by J. H. Bennett. (1983) Oxford University Press

These ideas were elaborated in Fisher's 1930 book (The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, Oxford University Press) by Peter Medawar (1952; An Unsolved Problem in Biology, H. K. Lewis, London), and by others (e.g. Charlesworth, B. 2000. Genetics 156, 927-931; Gavrilova, L. A. & Gavrilova, N. S. 2002. The Scientific World Journal. 2, 339-356)

The issues, of course, extend much beyond the sphere of biology per se. Over millennia our philosophers, struggling for answers to the deep questions of life, have found their hour on the stage all too brief. It is as if they had been appointed to a committee that must report by a given date, - a time-span quite inadequate for the task in hand. 

    Thus, there is a now a "first-things-first" viewpoint. Let us attend to our immediate problems, - peace, health (including ageing), - then there will be time for attending to the really deep questions. Unfortunately, our approach to immediate problems is often coloured by our attitude towards the really deep questions. So, difficult as it is, the two have to go hand-in-hand.

Donald Forsdyke 28th July 2002 

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Last edited on 27 Oct 2003 by Donald Forsdyke