Why elders are indispensable to society

One statement that young people who refuse to wear masks make that drives me berserk are (essentially) that they’re healthy so everything’s ok. That ignores the other people they could infect, particularly the vulnerable, many of whom are elderly. It’s so easy to forget about the older people in your life without remembering the many contributions they make to your life.

Why Elders Are Indispensable for All of Us

New research suggests that humans evolved to have long lifespans so that older people can pass on their knowledge to young ones.

ILLUSTRATION: TOMASZ WALENTA

By Alison GopnikJune 12, 2020 2:01 pm ET

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Like children, older people need special care. The current crisis has made this vivid. Millions of people have transformed their lives—staying indoors, wearing masks, practicing social distancing—to protect their vulnerable parents and grandparents, as well as other elders they may never even see.

But this raises a puzzling scientific paradox. We know that human beings are shaped by the forces of evolution and natural selection. So why did we evolve to be vulnerable for such a long stretch of our lives? And why do strong, able humans in the prime of life put so much time and energy into caring for those who are no longer so productive? Chimpanzees rarely live past 50 and there is no chimp equivalent of menopause. But even in hunter-gatherer cultures without modern medicine, if you make it past childhood you may well live into your 70s. Human old age, cognition and culture evolved together.

A new special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society devoted to “Life History and Learning,” which I coedited, brings together psychologists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists to try to answer these questions.

Humans have always been “extractive foragers,” using complicated techniques like hunting and fishing that let us find extra calories in almost any environment. Our big brains make this possible, but we need culture and teaching to allow us to develop complex skills over many generations.

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In the special issue, Michael Gurven of the University of California at Santa Barbara and colleagues argue that older people may have a special place in that process. Many foraging skills require years of practice: Hunters don’t reach their peak until they are in their 30s.

But it’s hard to practice a skill and teach it to someone else at the same time. (Sunday pancakes take twice as long when the kids help.) Prof. Gurven and his team found that, mathematically, the best evolutionary strategy for developing many complex skills was to have the old teach the young. That way the peak, prime-of-life performers can concentrate on getting things done, while young learners are matched with older, more knowledgeable but less productive teachers.

The researchers analyzed more than 20,000 observations collected from 40 different locations, and found this pattern in many different hunting and gathering cultures. Children were most likely to learn either from other, older children or from elders. The grandparents weren’t as strong or effective providers as the 30-year-olds, but they were most likely to be teachers.

This may explain why humans evolved to have a long old age: The advantages of teaching selected for those extra years of human life. From an evolutionary perspective, caring for vulnerable humans at either end of life lets all humans flourish.

The pandemic has made us realize both the importance and the difficulty of this kind of care. In the richest society in history, the job of caring for the old and the young involves little money and less status. Elders are often isolated. Perhaps after the pandemic we will appreciate better the profound connection between brilliant, fragile young learners and wise, vulnerable old teachers, and bring the grandchildren and grandparents back together again.

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