David Bainbridge

No Country for Old Men?

How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals about Male Health and Mortality

By

Princeton University Press 177pp £18.95 order from our bookshop

‘By the simple virtue of being male, I have less chance each day to see another sunrise,’ laments Richard Bribiescas near the beginning of How Men Age. This is a dark thought to leave hanging in the air, yet he gently brightens the mood over the subsequent chapters of this charming book.

Yes, this is a book about getting old. I once told someone in the publishing industry that I wanted to write a book about middle age, only to be advised, ‘Oh, no one wants to read a book about that sort of thing – it’s far too depressing.’ Well, not only has Bribiescas, a professor of anthropology at Yale, decided to tackle the topic of ageing and death, but he has also chosen to focus on men. Nowadays, many of us have an instinctive lack of sympathy for older men, but this book might almost convince us to embrace them (not literally, obviously). Middle-aged and older men do, it must be admitted, have a lot to answer for. Yet the centuries of patriarchy, wars and male privilege, Bribiescas argues, have an upside. He makes a good case that there is something unusual about ageing in men, and that this relates to the inherent biological usefulness of older men. He also argues convincingly that everything he is writing about must be seen through an evolutionary lens – and that includes the decades when men’s time and energy are running out.

Bribiescas soon puts men in their evolutionary place. The book opens with a series of affectionate reflections on his own dear father’s greying, grumbling and surrender to gravity, but immediately he juxtaposes these with the daily trials of an ageing male hunter-gatherer in Paraguay and a Ugandan he-chimpanzee. Clearly no one is getting any special treatment here. He argues that the behaviours and fates of each of these three specimens are controlled by the same uncaring hand of natural selection, and he has a great deal of evidence to back this up. What all three have in common, and what they do not, turns out to be fascinating.

Ageing and death remain surprisingly mysterious processes – we still do not really know why we are not immortal. Ageing has been said to result from gradual wear and tear caused by our bodies’ everyday metabolic activities, but although this theory could explain why we super-metabolic, muscly men might not last as long as women, it does not explain why most animal species, and indeed some human family lineages, seem to have their own arbitrary life expectancies. Bribiescas is more keen on theories involving ‘allocation of resources’, which are based on the idea that each individual does what they can to pass on their genes. If that means neglecting the systems that maintain your body into healthy old age, then so be it.

The resources required to pass on genes may be harder to quantify in men than in women, but we do know that once spent on youthful competition and hunkiness, those resources cannot be spent again. Even worse, violence, self-neglect and general irresponsibility mean than men are more likely to die from ‘extrinsic’ causes. This means that somewhere back in the mists of time we evolved to pack as much of our fertility as possible into the years before the lion ate us or the torrent swept us away. Old age was less often experienced by our male ancestors, so we modern chaps are not set up to enjoy much of it.

Again and again, Bribiescas asks what the use of being an older man is. First, he points out that humans, while often monogamous, are not always monogamous: older men may cheekily sire the occasional late-in-life offspring. Second, there is good evidence that only by middle age have male humans perfected the ability to provide for their kin and tribe. However, it is really the value of fathers that fascinates Bribiescas and he pushes hard at the idea that older men perform a fundamental volte-face, ceasing to be competitors and becoming instead loving, providing parents. Human children need a lot of support for a long time and there is good evidence that a father’s presence and survival increase his offspring’s success. Bribiescas has even started looking at the potential value of grandfathers too. He proudly expounds his new ‘Pudgy Dad Hypothesis’ (‘Podgy Pop’, surely?), according to which men, once fathers, pile on the adipose pounds to increase their own chances of survival, enhance their ability to care for their offspring and, in what must be my favourite phrase in the book, ‘mitigate mate-seeking behaviour’.

I have few gripes about the book. Some statements go awry: bacteria do not divide by mitosis; multicellular animals can be asexual; ornithologists might debate the suggestion that parental care is rare in internally fertilised species. None of this takes away from the fact that this is an enjoyable and humane look at what could have been a bleak subject, spiced with just the right amounts of humour, anecdote and quirky personal perspective. Indeed, it is perhaps when Bribiescas references, without adequate explanation, a 1970s Lynyrd Skynyrd song, that we finally, truly, learn How Men Age.

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