Was Man’s Evolution Driven by the Positively Old?

Did you know that about 32,000 years ago, the number of people surviving into old age quadrupled during a relatively brief period in history? As a result, the population grew, and new ideas began to emerge. Why do we credit healthy aging with the very foundation of human culture? That’s easy.

The older folks who lived longer shared their wisdom and experience, so progress could happen faster. And because there were more people, there was more support for chores like raising the children and gathering food, and that meant the beginning of leisure time. Leisure time, for the first time in history, allowed people time to dream and to develop skills unrelated to survival, like painting and playing instruments. The extra time the older generation afforded and the knowledge they shared while sitting around the campfire made them valued members of society. They were like today’s computer hard drives, “the archives of vital information,” according to Sang-Hee Lee, one of the anthropologists who researched this revolution.

Of course, today we have a LOT more people and we have computer hard drives to capture knowledge for us, although I doubt any of us would say we have more time. Also today we find society more often sneering at the elderly rather than revering them. Ah, the good ole’ days! How do we bring them back?

It’s a simple supply and demand equation. Provide what is most necessary in the world, and people will want you around. If we’re whining about our aches and pains and allowing ourselves to become prematurely dependent, what value do we bring? Why stick around forever just to torment the poor souls we live with? If instead we offer sage wisdom accumulated from a lifetime of living, positive values gleamed from our successes and failures, and if we help our loved ones in ways that allow them more leisure time, perhaps we will be perceived as vital once again.

Tell me your thoughts. Do you think it’s possible for society to view the “positively old” positively?

P.S. By the way, old age 32,000 years ago meant you were probably over 15 (tell that to your teenager or college student the next time they call you old like it’s a bad thing!)

Reference: Old People Helped Evolution by Lee Dye, ABC News (July 15, 2004)

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4 Responses to “Was Man’s Evolution Driven by the Positively Old?”
  1. I like this: “Provide what is most necessary in the world, and people will want you around.”

  2. linda says:

    Dear Karen:

    Wonderful opening and yes, I agree with this point of view, in spite of growing older, but not necessarily wiser.

    Did I ever talk to you about Positive Deviants, that 1% segment of human demographics responsible for positive and dramatic changes for their fellow human beings?

    I believe you would like being classified as part of that category.

    Talk to you soon, contragtulations on beautiful, meaningful work.

    My best,

    Linda Snyder

  3. Karen Callahan says:

    I’d love to learn more about Positive Deviants. Sounds like James Dean grew up!

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  1. […] Why such fear over appearing “older”? Has society changed its values so drastically that the aged are no longer seen as valuable? That would mean that just when people have gathered enough experience to truly have something to offer society, their input would be undermined. If true, this mentality seems doomed to halt evolution in its tracks. (see “Was Man’s Evolution Driven By the Positively Old?”) […]



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