Archive for category Humanitarian
Much Grief, but Little Action From Congress on Guns
Updated: December 14, 2012 | 4:07 p.m.
December 14, 2012 | 2:34 p.m.
AP PHOTO/JESSICA HILL
Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Friday.
Thoughts and prayers. That’s what you get from members of Congress. They said it after the Aurora, Colo., shooting in July. They said it after the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, the assassination attempt on former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, and the massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007.
Now they are saying it after a gunman opened fire on Friday at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in one of the nation’s worst mass killings.
This tragedy may hit a little harder, as policymakers are hinting at action on gun legislation. President Obama choked up during his statement on the incident. “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this.” That’s the closest he has come to saying he wants action on gun control legislation in the wake of other shootings.
On Capitol Hill, the reaction was mostly an outpouring of sympathy and grief. House Speaker John Boehner ordered the flags at half mast.
Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., went further than most lawmakers in their reactions. Feinstein is important because she has already pledged to introduce legislation to bring back the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. Obama has said he supports reviving the ban, but there has been almost no activity from the White House to make it happen. That could change after Friday. Lautenberg is important because has also has called for an assault weapons ban and he sponsors legislation on that same topic.
Feinstein said “weapons of war don’t belong on our streets or in our theaters, shopping malls and, most of all, our schools. I hope and trust that in the next session of Congress there will be sustained and thoughtful debate about America’s gun culture and our responsibility to prevent more loss of life.”
Lautenberg said, “If we do not take action to address gun violence, shooting tragedies like this will continue.”
“The nation is ready for this conversation,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chimed in.
Those statements went beyond the typical ones from Capitol Hill:
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “The entire nation will continue to stand as a source of support to this community in the days and weeks to come.”
Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said, “I am shocked and saddened by the horrific news from Sandy Hook Elementary School this morning, and I pray that kids, teachers, staff, and families reach safety as quickly as possible.”
Senate Republicans said in a tweet: “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by today’s tragic shooting in Connecticut. Please keep them in yours as well.”
Yes, anyone within range of a television or an Internet connection can’t help but think about the shootings, where the death toll has been estimated as high as 30 and parents are worried sick about their children.
You get much grief but precious little action on guns in Congress. The best shot at legislative action comes from Feinstein’s attempt to reinstate the assault weapons ban.
Another hope, but without a lot of momentum, is legislation by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., to tighten up state background-check laws. It has the advantage of piggy-backing on existing laws to improve the databases.
That’s cold comfort to gun-control advocates.
“If you don’t have the human decency at this point to speak up about this issue, you’ve lost your humanity. This has gone too far. Everybody literally should be sick right now,” said Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “It’s time for the president to speak about this. Not long ago we saw the power of the bully pulpit when he spoke out on gay marriage. It’s time for him to find his voice and stop cowering to the [National Rifle Association].”
His outrage echoes some of the people sounding off on Twitter.
“Please let this be a wake-up call for gun control if all of the other shootings haven’t been,” said one tweet.
“As much as I love Americans, today I would be ashamed to [be] a citizen of a nation whose lawmakers have yet to end this madness for good,” said another tweeter.
Gun-rights advocates tend to ride out these waves of turmoil in relative silence. They say that tragedies like the Connecticut shooting (and the Aurora shooting) are used as emotional wedges for gun-control groups to win political points.
Advocates on both sides of the gun issue say part of the problem with the public outcry in the wake of such tragedies is that the facts about each individual circumstance aren’t always known immediately. In some cases, an assault weapon was used. In other cases, a handgun was used. That makes it difficult for anyone lobbying on a specific gun issue to react quickly.
Generally, the lack of immediate facts helps the gun-rights advocates because they can keep their responses general without delving into the areas that they deem dangerous. After the Aurora shooting, an NRA spokesman gave a generic “thoughts and prayers” comment but declined further speculation until all the facts were known. By then, the story had gone cold.
- NYC, Boston Mayors: Get Rid Of Gun Loopholes Now (wbur.org)
- Bloomberg to Obama: Offering Condolences ‘Is Not Enough’ (politicker.com)
- At Least 26 Dead, Including 18 Children, Dead in Connecticut Elementary School Shooting (yubanet.com)
- Congress Calls Connecticut Shooting ‘Massacre,’ ‘Senseless Tragedy’ (usnews.com)
- Newtown shootings: if not now, when is the time to talk about gun control? | Gary Younge (guardian.co.uk)
- Dem Lawmakers Call For New Gun Restrictions In Wake Of Shooting (patdollard.com)
- How Will NRA Explain Away Gun Shooting At Elementary School In Newtown, Connecticut? (dekerivers.wordpress.com)
- School Shooting Reactions: Politicians Offer Condolences After Newtown Incident (huffingtonpost.com)
- MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: ‘Calling For ‘Meaningful Action’ Is Not Enough’ (businessinsider.com)
- Disgusting: Lefty celebs crawl out to politicize Newtown, Conn., tragedy (twitchy.com)
How One GOP Plutocrat Helped Make 20,000 Kids Homeless
Homelessness in New York has skyrocketed, thanks in part to years of conservative policy predicated on right-wing ideology.
November 29, 2012
A series of ads placed in New York’s subways by Coalition for the Homeless highlights skyrocketing rates of child and family homelessness in the city.
There are 20,000 kids sleeping in homeless shelters in New York City, according to the city’s latest estimate, a number that does not include homeless kids who are not sleeping in shelters because their families have been turned away. Up to 65 percent of families who apply for shelter don’t get in, and their options can be grim.
“Some end up sleeping in subway trains,” Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, tells AlterNet. “Some go to hospital emergency rooms or laundromats. Women are going back to their batterers or staying in unsafe apartments.”
Families that make it into shelters are taking longer to leave and move into stable, permanent housing. Asked by reporters why families were staying 30% longer than even last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “… it is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.”
“Is it great?” He elaborated a day later in response to outcry over his comments. “No. It’s not the Plaza Hotel … but that’s not what shelter is supposed to be and that’s not what the public can afford or the public wants.”
That deep-seated empathy for the poor also runs through the mayor’s policies, which have helped create a crisis that the New York Times has called “an emergency.” Since the mayor took office, promising to slash the rate of total homelessness by two thirds in five years, the homeless rate in New York City has ballooned to 46,000 people sleeping in shelters, an increase of almost 40 percent. The administration blames the financial crisis, but as it turns out, there are ways to make the lives of the very poor tougher in the middle of a recession: you just need to subscribe to a governing philosophy that assumes the poor are both too lazy to get on their feet and working hard day and night to cheat the system.
Here is a guide to how the Bloomberg administration managed to increase family homelessness while using up a lot of public money.
1. Cut access to federal aid.
For decades, Republican and Democratic mayors kept family homelessness down by giving homeless parents and their kids priority access to federal housing subsidies and rental vouchers. But in 2004, as part of the mayor’s five-year plan to combat homelessness, the administration knocked homeless families from the top of the massive waiting list for federal rent subsidies. Administration officials, offering no empirical proof, claimed that poor people were scamming the system by moving into shelters in order to get Section 8 vouchers. (Like many conservative fantasies involving scheming minorities, it’s no doubt true that someone, somewhere, cheated – but studies show this was not a widespread problem straining the system.)
The rate of homeless families who used federal subsidies fell to the low single digits. According to Giselle Routhier, policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless, ”In fiscal year 2010, at a time of then record homelessness, homeless families received only 2 percent of the 5,500 available public housing apartments and only 3 percent of 7,500 Section 8 vouchers.”
In place of programs that gave them access to permanent housing, homeless families got the gift of personal responsibility! First the administration introduced Housing Stability Plus, a subsidy that fell by 20 percent each year. HSP was mired in controversy following revelations that families were being exposed to hazardous conditions in their new digs: “[M]any formerly homeless families and their children have suffered from lead poisoning, lack of heat and hot water, vermin infestation,” according to a Coalition for the Homeless report.
The Advantage program, introduced in 2007, helped with a percent of families’ rents (requiring they work or take job training) but cut aid after either one or two years. When their subsidies ran out, families were supposed to find their own way into permanent housing. Instead, many found their way back to the shelter, because, as homelessness advocates point out, rents did not magically go down in New York. One out of three families whose Advantage assistance expired applied for shelter in 2011, according to city numbers crunched by Coalition for the Homeless.
2. Cut and run.
Still, the administration touted the program as a success, defending it against homelessness advocates and city officials who pushed the mayor to give families priority in federal housing assistance. So it was strange that when the governor of New York cut half of Advantage’s funding in March 2011, the Bloomberg administration refused to make up the difference and just killed the program. Around that time the mayor suggested that poor families were pretending to be homeless to scam Advantage subsidies.“You never know what motivates people,” he said on his radio show. “One theory is that some people have been coming into the homeless system, the shelter system, in order to qualify for a program that helps you move out of the homeless system.”
When the city officially cut the program, 15,000 families who relied on Advantage to make rent were informed by letter that they had exactly two weeks to find other arrangements. An emergency court order forced the city to continue helping families in the program, but when the order was lifted in February 2012, the city abruptly cut off aid to tenants, saddling 7,000 households with full market rent for apartments they’d struggled to pay 30% to 40% on.
The inevitable return to the shelter of many former Advantage families helped push the number of homeless people sleeping in shelters up to 43,000 in 2012. “In the last 18 months, there has been no housing plan,” Markee tells AlterNet.
3. Spend money on temporary solutions.
Instead, the administration is just frantically opening up more and more emergency shelters. The AP reports that 10 new shelters for single adults and families have opened in recent months to deal with the crisis. The administration plans five more before the year is over.
The problem with that is everything. Putting up a family in a shelter costs $3,000 a month — way more than a rental subsidy. Beyond that, studies have shown that not having a permanent place to live is destabilizing and harmful to kids, even if they end up in one of those NYC shelters that so impressed the mayor with their luxury. Homeless kids get sick more often and with stranger and more serious ailments than poor kids who have homes, suffering respiratory infections and digestive infections at significantly higher rates. The lack of safe, permanent housing delays normal development and homeless kids have higher levels of anxiety and depression, which often manifest in behavioral problems.
“If homelessness is hard on adults, for the young, it can be disastrous, starting a slide into a lifetime of problems,” a NYT editorial put it. (It’s not entirely clear what the long-term impact of Hurricane Sandy will be on the city’s homelessness rates. Right now, families who lost their homes in the storm are staying in hotels paid by the city and reimbursed by FEMA.)
4. Refuse to change course.
The New York City Council has outlined a plan to revive programs proven to reduce homelessness. As Christine Quinn, Annabel Palma and Coalition for the Homeless director Mary Brosnahan wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed, “That means returning to the proven strategy of setting aside a reasonable share of open slots in public housing and marshaling valuable federal housing vouchers for those trapped in the shelter system. In addition, a new rental assistance program, modeled on the successful federal voucher program, must be created.”
An assessment of the plan by the City of New York’s Independent Budget Office found, “if a total of 5,000 families a year were moved out of shelter through priority referrals for NYCHA and Section 8, family shelter costs would be $29.4 million lower, of which $11.0 million would be savings of city funds.”
So far, the administration has rebuffed the plan. At a hearing in September, Department of Homeless Services commissioner Seth Diamond pointed, improbably, to job training programs as the way to address the city’s skyrocketing homelessness. One council member called it a “head-in-the-sand” approach.
Diamond reiterated the administration’s position that shelter residents should not be prioritized for housing aid.
- How One GOP Plutocrat Helped Make 20,000 Kids Homeless (alternet.org)
- How One Plutocrat Made 20,000 Children Homeless (readersupportednews.org)
- Homelessness in New York skyrocketed, thanks in part to conservative policy predicated on right-wing ideology. (mahilena.typepad.com)
- Remembering Those Who’ve Died on the Streets (krextv.com)
- Stopping Psychopath CEOs | 7 Yr-Old on Medical Pot | Let Red States Secede? (womensphilanthropy.typepad.com)
- Survey says state has less homeless, local shelters disagree (rapidcityjournal.com)
- Aurora Facility Focused On Female Homeless Vets (denver.cbslocal.com)
- VIDEO: Joseph’s House Winter Walk reminds public about the homeless (troyrecord.com)
- More than 2,000 homeless veterans in Arizona ()
- Liberal Berkeley May Fine Homeless $75 for Sitting Down | Alternet (mbcalyn.com)
June 21, 2012
In Need, in New York
By ALEX MILLER
A native of Chicago’s South Side, I was raised in poverty. Several times my mother and I had to take refuge in other people’s homes, and sometimes in shelters. I thought that by joining the Navy at 18, I would get the training and education I needed to improve my life and help my family.
Yet once I was honorably discharged in 2008, with good conduct medals and, from a service-related injury, seven screws in my foot and ankle, I found the recession had left few available jobs. I worked as a server at a pizza joint and as a salesman at a retail store. Finally I did maintenance at the veterans hospital in the Bronx. I should have taken a full-time job there when it was available, but felt sure I could find something that paid higher. I was proud, and I was wrong. For a long time, I got by on the G.I. bill benefits and scholarship grants I received from going to community college and, more recently, the New School. But eventually I couldn’t get by anymore; I couldn’t even pay rent.
One in seven homeless people have previously served in the military. This year, at 25, I became one of those homeless veterans.
One of my most vivid memories of New York City shelters is of watching a fellow black veteran having a heated argument with himself. The oddest thing was that no words were said — the man spit and sputtered and pounded his fist on his chest, all while only moving his lips. It was as if a mime was violently illustrating anger to a person who had never experienced it.
It reminded me of a conversation I’d once had in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Bored of waiting to hit land, which could take two months or more, my shipmates and I made up games. One such game, which we called “Wish List,” was simple. We had to envision the most extravagant thing we’d do in order to get an early discharge from the Navy. One guy said he’d pretend he was crazy — eat foreign objects and pull his pants down while pledging allegiance to Harvey the pooka instead of the United States of America. That got laughs.
It was hard to laugh at that veteran in the shelter, though. And others were worse off than he. The mistake that the shelter system makes is to clump everyone together. Those unstable vets lay in cots directly next to stable soldiers who lay next to ex-cons with any number of offenses. It was hard sleeping at night not knowing how innocent or guilty the former prisoner in the bed next to me was. Just about every shelter had gang members or former gang members and stories of violence and theft. Sadly, there was always someone who had taken, or at least claimed to have taken, the life of another. There was speculation that sex offenders were being quietly shuffled through the system, too.
I experienced firsthand the frustrations veterans feel in shelters each day. We were told how little we mattered by social workers with limited patience and even less training in working with recently deployed soldiers, and pushed into applying for public assistance. I wanted a job, not welfare, but I was told that no New York City shelter would house me if I didn’t apply for food stamps and warned I would fail to find work.
Despite the setbacks, I am grateful for some of the acquaintances I made. I met a former service member who worked for NASA before a crack addiction led to theft, a prison sentence and homelessness. I got to know an Army doctor who served in Vietnam. Doc, as we called him, lost it during combat and even admitted to enjoying killing people, but his charm and patience made that hard to believe. Another former-Navy man was an astronomy geek, just like me, so we hit it off instantly.
In the beginning, I blamed the government for our fate, for training us for sophisticated equipment that is found only in the military, thus limiting our job opportunities in the civilian world, and for failing to put better safeguards in place to keep veterans off the streets. I pointed fingers at my college for only granting me a small sum for food and transportation while my world was crumbling. I even found fault with my mother, for dying and leaving me and my siblings to pay for her funeral and burial costs.
But ultimately, my experience has made me realize that I’m more responsible for my situation than I’d like to admit. Drinking to excess and my uncanny ability to withstand hardship when help should be requested are two of the main culprits. Today I’m focusing on my education; I moved out of the shelter last month and am now living in a beautiful duplex in New Jersey. I have been able to find purpose in all of this: a persistent determination to do better for myself, ironically the very lesson the Navy instilled in me when I joined eight years ago.
- Opinionator | Townies: In Need, in New York (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Downloads A Shelter Is Not a Home…Or Is It? Lessons from Family Homelessness in New York City book (cnfiizc.typepad.com)
- Fundly Spotlight: Helping Homeless Veterans (fundly.com)
- How to End Stop-and-Frisk Abuses – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- New shelters helps rising number of homeless female veterans (mysanantonio.com)
- Vice Lords gang member: Chicago has gone ‘haywire’ (msnbc.msn.com)
- Job Training Grants to Assist Nearly 9,000 Homeless Vets (defense.gov)
- This Is How We Ride – NYTimes.com (pitsbicycleblog.wordpress.com)
- “Shelters help growing number of homeless female vet” (pamhi.wordpress.com)
- New York City’s Poverty Rate Reaches Highest Level Since 2005 – NYTimes.com (ekonometrics.blogspot.com)
Can you buy technology with a clean conscience?
Posted on 25 May 2012 at 16:13
Pitifully paid workers, weak environmental policies, supply chains that allow manufacturers to abdicate responsibility. Simon Brew asks: is it even possible to buy ethically sound technology?
PC World sells, at the time of this magazine going to press, 85 different laptops. Its website stocks 26 variants of the Apple iPod, and an extensive range of tablet computers – each keenly priced, and capable of performing tasks that sizeable desktop PCs of a decade ago would have struggled with.
Chances are, too, that each was made in a factory in China. The reason for this is simple: workers are cheaper in most Eastern economies, and the saving made on labour greatly outweighs the expense of moving tankers full of products to the other side of the world.
In the past, when people have voiced ethical concerns surrounding technology, it’s typically been centred on environmental issues. Such issues, as we’ll see, are still relevant, but it’s increasingly the human consequences of manufacturing technology that are coming under the microscope.
How is the end user supposed to know just how their shiny new product came to be? Do they even care that there’s a sporting chance the manufacturer itself couldn’t tell you where every last component came from? And if they did, how is it possible to have confidence that the product they’ve just bought conforms to any kind of ethical standard? Or do we all just want to buy the cheapest product available?
Is it even possible to buy any technology with a clean conscience, without bankrupting ourselves in the process?
Focus on Foxconn
On 2 January 2012, more than 150 workers at the Foxconn Technology Park in Wuhan, China, took to the roof of the factory and threatened to commit suicide. It took two days to talk them down from the top of the three-storey plant.
The protest started in response to Foxconn’s decision to move hundreds of workers to a different production line. Reporters (including those from PC Pro) dutifully published this news; ironically, they did this using equipment that was more than likely a product of said Foxconn facilities in the first place.
Suicides and stand-offs over poor working conditions at Foxconn’s Chinese factories have been rife for many years, to the point where the company has installed nets to break the fall of potential jumpers. The facilities, which manufacture hardware for many major companies, are responsible for the production of more than a third of the world’s consumer electronics products, employing hundreds of thousands of workers.
Suicides and stand-offs over poor working conditions at Foxconn’s Chinese factories have been rife for many years
Yet those workers are cheap. You don’t have to look far for stories of six-day weeks and 12-hour days among employees, with pay rates reported to start at a mere 30p an hour.
This, it should be noted, partly reflects the lower cost of living in China than in the UK. But even so, it’s the kind of substantive saving in manual labour that companies including Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and Acer have been keen to take advantage of, building up sizeable profits for themselves in the process. Apple alone racked up $20 billion of gross profit in the last 13 weeks of 2011.
Increasingly, these firms have come under fire for continuing to support factories that pay such meagre wages and provide such poor working conditions.
Yet, the question of employee treatment isn’t as clear-cut as campaigners may lead you to believe. The suicide rate in Foxconn’s factories, for instance, is below the national average figure for China as a whole.
- Can You Buy Tech With a Clean Conscience? (tech.slashdot.org)
- Check out the Foxconn facility where the iPhone is made [Video] (mobigyaan.com)
- Speedy PC Pro – Get the Download Now (socialactions.net)
- The Interesting Satellite PC Pro Review (yepthatsme.com)
- Apple partner Foxconn invests $210M in new plant (news.cnet.com)
- Watch this rare video from inside the Foxconn facility where 70% of iPhones are made (thenextweb.com)
- Foxconn setting up China headquarters in Shanghai (macworld.com)
- Foxconn Building New Apple Plant with 35,800 Workers – Report (news.softpedia.com)
- Foxconn to build new Apple production line in China (pcadvisor.co.uk)
- Foxconn to build new plant for iPhone screens with Sharp’s help (tuaw.com)
Paralyzed woman uses first mind-controlled robot arm
Sebastian Anthony on May 17, 2012
Using BrainGate, the world’s most advanced brain-computer interface, a woman with quadriplegia has used a mind-controlled robot arm to serve herself coffee — an act she hasn’t been able to perform for 15 years. I strongly suggest you watch the video below — the expression on her face at the end is really quite beautiful.
BrainGate, which is being developed by a team of American neuroscientists from Brown and Stanford universities, and is currently undergoing clinical trial, requires a computer chip to be implanted in the motor cortex of the patient. This chip (pictured below) uses its 100 electrodes to measure neural activity, which it then transmits to a computer for processing. Like all brain-computer interfaces, the user must train the software — basically, you just repeatedly think of an action, such as move my hand up, and the software eventually correlates this thought with your measured neural activity. Once this is done, you simply think of a movement, and the software moves the robot accordingly.
It’s also worth noting that the robotic arm itself is quite intelligent: It automatically grasps things that move into its hand, and it goes into “safety mode” if it hits an obstacle. I’m sure other advancements will be added to the arm in due course, too — imagine if it could automatically detect graspable objects; and it definitely would spare the user a lot of effort if the robot could automatically maneuver close to your mouth (or other pre-defined locations).
Moving forward, the researchers would like to miniaturize the system and make it wireless. You’ll notice in the video that both BrainGate users have fairly large boxes attached to their heads, which then tethers them to a computer — not ideal, but it should be rather easy to convert it to wireless (and who knows, maybe that box can be tucked behind your ear instead).
Last month we wrote about a similar technology that directly restores movement to a paralyzed arm, rather than using a robot arm. A brain-computer interface is still used, but the output is then fed back into a functional electrical stimulation (FES) device that’s wired into your arm muscles. The big difference, though, is that BrainGate is a very mature technology: The first BrainGate chip was implanted in a human back in 2004, after years of in-monkey testing — while the FES version is still trialing its tech on monkeys, meaning it’s probably at least 10 years behind BrainGate.
Between bionic eyes, the successful decoding of your thoughts by computers, and silicon chips that mimic the brain, and these recent brain-computer interface advances, things are definitely looking up for victims of paralysis and neurological diseases — and cyberpunk, bionic implant junkies like myself.
- Paralyzed Woman Controls Robotic Arm With Her Thoughts (singularityhub.com)
- Paralyzed individuals control robotic arms to reach and grasp using brain computer interface (w/ Video) (medicalxpress.com)
- Paralyzed woman grips, sips coffee with robot arm (sciencenews.org)
- Amazing: Paralyzed woman uses her mind to control robot arm (deaconforlife.blogspot.com)
- BrainGate (merovee.wordpress.com)
- Paralyzed woman gets robotic arm she controls with her mind (thehandiestone.typepad.com)
- Moving Things with your Mind (getintomedicineuk.com)
- Paralysed patients use thoughts to control robotic arm – BBC News (drugstoresource.wordpress.com)
- The Real Power of the Phantom Mind (chronicle.com)
- Brain Chip Helps Quadriplegics Move Robotic Arms with Their Thoughts (technologyreview.com)
Evolution has given humans a huge advantage over most other animals: middle age – The Washington Post
Evolution has given humans a huge advantage over most other animals: middle age
By David Bainbridge, Published: March 26
As a 42-year-old man born in England, I can expect to live for about another 38 years. In other words, I can no longer claim to be young. I am, without doubt, middle-aged.
To some people that is a depressing realization. We are used to dismissing our fifth and sixth decades as a negative chapter in our lives, perhaps even a cause for crisis. But recent scientific findings have shown just how important middle age is for every one of us, and how crucial it has been to the success of our species. Middle age is not just about wrinkles and worry. It is not about getting old. It is an ancient, pivotal episode in the human life span, preprogrammed into us by natural selection, an exceptional characteristic of an exceptional species.
Compared with other animals, humans have a very unusual pattern to our lives. We take a very long time to grow up, we are long-lived, and most of us stop reproducing halfway through our life span. A few other species have some elements of this pattern, but only humans have distorted the course of their lives in such a dramatic way. Most of that distortion is caused by the evolution of middle age, which adds two decades that most other animals simply do not get.
An important clue that middle age isn’t just the start of a downward spiral is that it does not bear the hallmarks of general, passive decline. Most body systems deteriorate very little during this stage of life. Those that do, deteriorate in ways that are very distinctive, are rarely seen in other species and are often abrupt.
For example, our ability to focus on nearby objects declines in a predictable way: Farsightedness is rare at 35 but universal at 50. Skin elasticity also decreases reliably and often surprisingly abruptly in early middle age. Patterns of fat deposition change in predictable, stereotyped ways. Other systems, notably cognition, barely change.
Each of these changes can be explained in evolutionary terms. In general, it makes sense to invest in the repair and maintenance only of body systems that deliver an immediate fitness benefit — that is, those that help to propagate your genes. As people get older, they no longer need spectacular visual acuity or mate-attracting, unblemished skin. Yet they do need their brains, and that is why we still invest heavily in them during middle age.
As for fat — that wonderfully efficient energy store that saved the lives of many of our hard-pressed ancestors — its role changes when we are no longer gearing up to produce offspring, especially in women. As the years pass, less fat is stored in depots ready to meet the demands of reproduction — the breasts, hips and thighs — or under the skin, where it gives a smooth, youthful appearance. Once our babymaking days are over, fat is stored in larger quantities and also stored more centrally, where it is easiest to carry about. That way, if times get tough we can use it for our own survival, thus freeing up food for our younger relatives.
These changes strongly suggest that middle age is a controlled and preprogrammed process not of decline but of development.
A crowning achievement
When we think of human development, we usually think of the growth of a fetus or the maturation of a child into an adult. Yet the tightly choreographed transition into middle age is a later but equally important stage in which we are each recast into yet another novel form.
That form is one of the most remarkable of all: a resilient, healthy, energy-efficient and productive phase of life that has laid the foundations for our species’s success. Indeed, the multiple roles of middle-aged people in human societies are so complex and intertwined, it could be argued that they are the most impressive living things yet produced by natural selection.
The claim that middle age evolved faces one obvious objection. For any trait to evolve, natural selection has to act on it generation after generation. Yet we often think of prehistoric life as nasty, brutish and short. Surely too few of our ancestors lived beyond age 40 to allow features of modern-day middle age, such as the deposition of a spare tire around the middle, to have been selected for.
This is a misconception. Although average life expectancy may sometimes have been very low, this does not mean that humans rarely reached the age of 40 during the past 100,000 years. Average life expectancy at birth can be a misleading measure; if infant mortality is high, then the average is skewed dramatically downward, even if people who survive to adulthood have a good chance of living a long, healthy life.
The evidence from skeletal remains suggests that our ancestors frequently lived well into middle age and beyond. Certainly many modern hunter-gatherers live well beyond 40.
The probable existence of lots of prehistoric middle-aged people means that natural selection had plenty to work on. Those with beneficial traits would have been more successful at nurturing their children to reproductive age and helping provide for their grandchildren, and hence would have passed on those traits to their descendants. As a result, modern middle age is the result of millennia of natural selection.
But why did it evolve as it did? In prehistory, and still today, human survival is entirely dependent on skilled gathering of rare, valuable resources. Humans cooperate, plan and innovate so they can extract what they need from their environment, be that roots to eat, hides to wear or rare metals to coat smartphone touch screens. We lead an energy-intensive, communication-driven, information-rich way of life, and it was the evolution of middle age that supported this.
For example, hunter-gatherer societies often have complex and difficult techniques for finding and processing food that take a long time to learn. There is evidence that many hunter-gatherers take decades to learn their craft and that their resource-acquiring abilities may not peak until they are older than 40.
Gathering sufficient calories is crucial for the success of a human community, especially since young humans take so long to grow up. Indeed, for the early years of life they devour calories without contributing many to the group themselves. Research suggests that a human child requires resources to be provided by multiple adults, almost certainly more than two young parents. For example, a recent study of two groups of South American hunter-gatherers suggested that each couple required the help of an additional 1.3 non-reproducing adults to provide for their children. Thus, middle-aged people may be seen as an essential human innovation, an elite caste of skilled, experienced super-providers on which the rest of us depend.
The other key role of middle age is the propagation of information. All animals inherit a great deal of information in their genes; some also learn more as they grow up. Humans have taken this second form of information transfer to a new level. We are born knowing and being able to do almost nothing. Each of us depends on a continuous infusion of skills, knowledge and customs, collectively known as culture, if we are to survive. And the main route by which culture is transferred is by middle-aged people showing and telling their children — as well as the young adults with whom they hunt and gather — what to do.
These two roles of middle-aged humans — as super-providers and master culture-conveyers — continue today. In offices, on construction sites and on sports fields around the world, we see middle-aged people advising and guiding younger adults and sometimes even ordering them about. Middle-aged people can do more, they earn more and, in short, they run the world.
This has left its mark on the human brain. As might be expected of people propagating complex skills, middle-aged people exhibit no dramatic cognitive deterioration. Changes do occur in our thinking abilities, but they are subtle. For example, response speeds slow down over the course of adulthood. However, speed isn’t everything, and it is still debated whether other abilities deteriorate at all.
To carry out their roles in society, middle-aged people need not necessarily think better than younger adults, but they may have to think differently. Indeed, functional brain imaging studies suggest that they sometimes use different brain regions than young people when performing the same tasks, raising the possibility that the nature of thought itself changes as we get older.
An elite club
A central and related feature of middle age is the many healthy years we enjoy after we have stopped reproducing. Female humans are especially unusual animals because they become infertile halfway through their lives, but male humans often also effectively “self-sterilize” by remaining with their post-menopausal partners. Almost no other species does this.
The possible benefits of menopause are not immediately obvious: After all, natural selection favors individuals who rear the most offspring. Yet there are other, rare examples of reproductive cessation in the animal kingdom that may provide some clues. Orcas also undergo menopause, and it is striking how much their lives mirror ours. They are long-lived, slow to develop, intelligent and vocally communicative. They invent and apply a complex array of techniques for communal food acquisition, and they are extremely widespread.
Thus, humans can be seen as members of an elite club of species in which adulthood has become so long and complicated that it can no longer all be given over to breeding. Just like farsightedness and inelastic skin, menopause now appears to be a coordinated, controlled process. It liberates women and their partners from the unremitting demands of producing children and gives them time to do what middle-aged people do best: live long and pamper.
- Evolution has given humans a huge advantage over most other animals: middle age (3quarksdaily.com)
- Is Middle Age Evolution’s Crowning Achievement? (science.slashdot.org)
- Middle Age Is the Secret Weapon of Mankind (patospapa.wordpress.com)
- Evolution has given humans a huge advantage over most other animals: middle age (washingtonpost.com)
- “Once our babymaking days are over, fat is stored in larger quantities and also stored more centrally, where it is easiest to carry about.” (althouse.blogspot.com)
- Evolution Has Given Humans A Huge Advantage Over Most Other Animals: Middle Age | David Bainbridge | Washington Post | 26 March 2012 (washingtonpost.com)
- Why the middle-aged are most impressive life-forms of all time (thesun.co.uk)
- Paul Vallely: That’s me – at the pinnacle of evolution (independent.co.uk)
- Middle age: A triumph of human evolution (newscientist.com)
- Middle age: A triumph of human evolution (newscientist.com)