By: Raymond L. Hall
The reason for a longer stretch of time for human viability is the nature (and structure) of the human brain: It develops in stages over a period of time and depends on learning how to survive--and thrive--from other humans (parents, family, peers) and from the physical and social worlds. The development of the human brain is so complex that, so far, it’s mostly unfathomable, the advances in brain and neurological sciences notwithstanding. While scientific advances in brain science in the last half century are remarkable, we also know that it’s only the beginning of understanding probably the most complex mechanism humans have ever encountered.
Being endowed with the brain has allowed humans to achieve nothing less than stunning feats in a variety of endeavors, ranging from the invention of the wheel to landing people on the moon. They have devised machines that make travel faster; made work more productive; built safer and more efficient homes; made sanitation systems to enhance cleanliness and health; erected buildings that seemingly reach into the heavens; devised social and political systems to nurture and protect citizens; built stations for living in outer space; made breath-taking progress in science to aid those with disabilities; and the list goes on.
The nature of the brain enables humans to develop attributes and values not only to shape the physical environment with the use of tools (science and technology), but also to use the unique socio-psychological and cultural attributes that humans develop over the life span to shape and improve their physical and social environment. Things like tool-making, complex technological feats, literary achievements, inventions and so forth, set humans apart—make them unique--from their counterparts in the animal kingdom. But there are more important differences still. Love, empathy, altruism, gratitude, caring, awareness of the past, visions of the future are other examples of what set humans apart from other species. My point is not that other species don’t exemplify some of these elements, but that humans alone utilize institutions to pass them on from generation to generation. I think it’s fair to say that humans better understand and value “abstractions” as they age, especially those more likely to perpetuate ideas, institutions and programs they feel will contribute to society. They care deeply about improving the world to make it safe for their offspring (i.e., to nurture and protect their progeny).
|Amazing architecture is another human accomplishment! Here is the incredible Duomo in Milan, Italy|
I would argue that a paramount reason why grandparents are so enthralled with their grandkids is because they are grateful to have lived long enough to enjoy the precious opportunity to gaze upon their progeny who will represent them into the future. Parents and grandparents alike understand the importance of love and caring in linking both them and grandkids to the past, present and future. How many grandparents do you know who would choose war over peace or anarchy (at any level) over order? They understand the importance of love and caring and tolerance because they understand and embrace Martin Luther King’s assertion, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
My major point is that humans are endowed with the unique ability to embrace and put into practice ideas and values that are not innate, an attribute that can cut both ways. It can lead to the Hobbesian pessimism that humans are fated to be embroiled in a “constant state of war,” or to the quest for peace and tranquility among men and women everywhere. It can foster widespread ill will or lead us, as President Lincoln phrased it, to seek “the better angels of our nature.” While it would be foolish to assert that a particular human entity has a monopoly on truth, wisdom and justice, I would argue that those who live the longest are in a good position to offer advice on how to better negotiate the uneven roads on life’s journey.