Wednesday, March 09, 2011

All and once and nothing first

As I have said before, the geckoes and anoles are everywhere. This place should be called "Lizard House," not "Starlight House." They skitter. They climb. They hang upside down. Fearless, they seem. They will sit in place, pulsing their dewlaps, and let you almost touch them. We love their company.

Alas, yesterday a gecko fell afoul of my step. I saw him just as I was about to put my foot down, and jerked my foot to the side. He darted too, in the same direction. Squash!

I don't like killing any creature. I mop up ants on the kitchen countertop with sadness -- all those exquisite machines! OK, OK, centipedes I kill without a qualm. But geckoes. Never. And so remorse.

At least it was quick. My mother's death a few years ago came after a long and debilitating decline. Years of increasing helplessness. It was not the way she wanted to go. She used to quote to me a line from Oliver Wendell Holmes' "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay," about a one-horse carriage so contrived that when its time came to expire "it went to pieces all at once, -- all at once, and nothing first, -- just as bubbles do when they burst." That's the way she wanted to go.

Don't we all.

If Holmes' deacon could design such a carriage, why not natural selection? Well, part of the answer may be that it didn't have to. For most of evolutionary history most creatures didn't live long enough for senescence to be a problem. Even for humans, until recently, death began to reap its harvest starting at birth, and the number of people living to a given age steadily declined until old age took the few remaining survivors. The human survival curve was the same as that for sparrows or geckoes. Which may be why genes that cause senescence have not been deleted or modified by natural selection.

These days the progress of medical science and our relative peace and safety means the human survival curve is becoming more and more "rectangular", with more and more of us getting to experience the so-called "golden years." Perhaps not so golden. At seventy-four I feel my springs and axles, hubs and spokes, panels and crossbars wearing out. One by one.

I have blogged here before about robust secularist Susan Jacoby's books. She has a new one out of a rather different sort, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, a not particularly sanguine view of what I have to look forward to.