Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bucking the Hayflick Limit

Ash Wednesday. How we looked forward to this day as children, the day when Lent begins, and the nuns marched us across the yard from school to church where we lined up on our knees at the altar rail and piously dipped our heads while Father Shea marked our foreheads with the ashes of the burnt palms. "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return," he said, which struck me as a bit of a paradox since we were otherwise made to believe that we would live forever.

No matter. Such theological niceties where not as much on my mind as sweet Carmen who looked so adorable besmirched with her own sign of earthy temporality. We trooped out of church with the badge on our foreheads, a visible sign that we belonged to the One True Faith, going so far as to avoid our foreheads in the bath that evening so that the next day a remnant of the ashes remained.

The paragraphs above are recycled from Ash Wednesday last year. The sweet Carmen of my youth is not (I think) the one who visits here. I wonder where she is today, and if she is still with us. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We've had our threescore years and ten. Everything now is gravy.

Why do we get old and die?

Automobile manufacturers would hardly bother to design a machine that will run reliably for 200,000 miles if conditions on the road made it virtually inevitable that the car will be totaled by accident within the first 50,000 miles. Evolution, apparently, takes the same approach. Our bodies are designed to last about as long as our hominid ancestors could expect to survive. Which was not very long at all. Maybe natural selection never bothered eliminating those cellular changes that lead to senescence because almost no one lived long enough to experience senescence.

Advances in technology and agriculture have eliminated the danger of non-human predators and death by starvation. Modern medicine has conquered many of the diseases that used to decimate human populations. Even death by war would appear to be a diminishing threat. Old age is an artifact of human civilization. We get old and die naturally because for most of human prehistory we didn't get old and die naturally.