….but we are all fabulous.

Meaning of life – is longevity part of it?

As regular readers will know I have been musing on the meaning of life and the reality of death recently. I basically believe that when an organism dies, its atoms return to the earth ready for the ultimate in recycling to take place whereby the atoms are reconfigured in new life forms. The wave of organisms currently in existence will die and reconfigure to form future waves of life. I find this idea comforting somehow. But what is the purpose of life in general? It would appear to be to procreate to ensure the survival of species, but is that really the only purpose?

I struggle with the idea that we are only here to reproduce. Why? Because we strive to stay alive beyond the point of procreation: human females are able to survive beyond menopause (a phenomenon apparently shared by killer and pilot whales whose females also live significantly beyond their fertile years, but shared by few other species – elephants who also live long lives, for example, are still able to reproduce in their 60s).


A J-pod orca. Credit: Ed Yong

Once humans have procreated and ensured the species survives, what if there is a second goal – to achieve longevity? Evolutionary explanations of why humans live beyond our reproductive lifespan include the mother and grandmother hypotheses whereby in simplified terms there is a genetic survival advantage to investing more resources into fewer children (mother hypothesis) or assisting one’s children in raising theirs (grandmother hypothesis). But we are increasingly living beyond the point of active motherhood or even grand-motherhood. Could longevity for its own sake be a secondary goal?

Us humans certainly seem to be striving for this – to reference an earlier post (What’s the point of it all?) we have made technological advances that enable us to live relatively safe lives, protected from predators, able to drink clean water and increasingly able to cure sickness. These have the cumulative effect of increasing our individual lifespans.  Would the ultimate biological achievement be to live as long as Methuselah or perhaps even forever? Or is this drive to extend our lives simply an extension of the grandmother hypothesis or even a side effect of our sentient nature that enables us to know but not fully comprehend the fact that as individuals we will die?

Whatever the motivation, human beings seem determined to extend their individual as well as their collective time on this earth. One consequence of this might reasonably be expected to be that equal regard was paid to all stages of life. However in the West at least we persist in focussing on the start of life – ensuring as many babies as possible survive birth, infancy and childhood – and the onset of motherhood, whereby mothers are by turn celebrated and demonised and fertility is prized at all costs. Why do we not turn to those individuals past parenthood and in old age to ensure that their health and wellbeing is equally championed. There seems little point achieving longevity if there is no quality to it.

Furthermore we are missing the opportunity to learn how to extend life by only focussing on one end of it – we have the know-how (sadly not universally applied) to vastly reduce infant mortality and increase fertility but beyond middle age individuals are left to their fates each clutching a lottery ticket with numbers based on geography, socio-economic status, food quality, education and genetics. It is almost a by-product of our technological advances that we are able to live longer, yet if our spiritual and moral evolution were equal to our ability to split the atom and travel to the moon, we might be better placed to ensure that longevity was not only achievable but worthwhile.


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