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Photo: <a href="">Andrea Mucelli</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Photo: Andrea Mucelli, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Elders

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Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager talk about the role of individuals once they are past fertility. Elders help hold communities together by acting as the living histories and resource libraries.

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Martha Foley: Let’s talk about old people, or I should say maybe elders. So do our elders have practical value? I hate to think I’m just going to be old and grey and only in the way.

Dr. Curt Stager: Actually, our society is really weird that we don’t have an instant answer to that. But I was reading an editorial by Jared Diamond recently who thinks about these kinds of things and he had some really interesting points, especially back in the seventies he did a lot of field work in New Guinnea among native peoples over there and the elders had a definite practical central role in the culture and it has to do with not having writing or the internet or TV or radio or any of these things to transmit knowledge

MF: Libraries full of books.

CS: Libraries full of books and things. What a culture knows in that situation which is actually 99% of all human history is in the skulls of the people in the culture.

MF: So there sort of the older people have been around long enough to learn more than everybody else.

CS: Even just the personal experiences of living through hard times that only come around sporadically that maybe the younger folks in the group never had to go through, the knowledge in which could keep the group alive if that ever happens again.

MF: And in human society like that, the margin between survival and not survival of the group is a little narrower. If you had, let’s say a typhoon or a cyclone or a huge drought, that could wipe out your community.

CS: Yeah there’s no hospital to take folks to or anything like that. There was an example of edible plants, let’s say, and he said these folks that he was living with broke plants into three basic types. One is edible, one is inedible, and one is stuff you only eat when you really have to but it’ll keep you alive. And there was this category of plants which the folks he was talking to weren’t very familiar with. So when he asked specifically, “What are these plants and how do you prepare them?” They said well we don’t know but the old lady in the hut knows. So they went and talked to this elder who said, “Yes, when I was a young girl there was a terrible cyclone and it destroyed all of our crops, and this is how we made it.” So she had it all in her head.

MF: She was the reference work for that.

CS: Yeah, so she would be the only one that could keep the group alive next time a cyclone happened, or a draught or a raid let’s say from the neighbors or something. So the elders were the repository of knowledge that was necessary for survival.

MF: How about other species that live a long time? Like whales live a long time and elephants live a long time. Are they still, if you have a big old whale, are they still reproducing?

CS: Well there are elders in other species like you’ve mentioned. A lot of the songs that whales sing are carried by the older ones and are spread around. Or there was a recent study with elephants where the herds were usually run by an elder female, who’s got a lot of experience about what could be dangerous or not. And there was an example where some of these biologists were playing elephant calls over loud speakers to hear how distant herds they were watching with binoculars would react. The ones that didn’t have the older female in there would often ignore this. But if there was an older one she would perk up her ears and pay attention to this, and actually get nervous, make the rest of the herd get nervous and move off. The implication being that a strange unknown elephant could cause trouble for them. So she was the one smart enough to warn the others to get out of the way.

MF: Well I’ll keep that in mind as I age myself.

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