Ageing and the goal of evolution

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 43 (1):1-16 (2021)
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There is a certain metaphor that has enjoyed tremendous longevity in the evolution of ageing literature. According to this metaphor, nature has a certain goal or purpose, the perpetuation of the species, or, alternatively, the reproductive success of the individual. In relation to this goal, the individual organism has a function, job, or task, namely, to breed and, in some species, to raise its brood to maturity. On this picture, those who cannot, or can no longer, reproduce are somehow invisible to, or even dispensable to, the evolutionary process. Here, I argue that the metaphor should be discarded, not on the grounds that it is a metaphor, but on the grounds that this particular metaphor distorts our understanding of the evolution of ageing. One reason the metaphor is problematic is that it frames senescence and death as nature’s verdict on the value of older individuals. Instead, we should explore a different metaphor: the lengthy post-reproductive period in humans and some other animals is not an accident of culture, but designed by nature for the purpose of supporting and guiding younger generations. On this alternate picture, different stages of life have their own evolutionary rationales, their distinctive design features, their special mandates.

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Justin Garson
Hunter College (CUNY)


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