Monday, 19 October 2009

The naturalness of age

We caught an excellent exhibition at the Civic Centre yesterday. The BP Portrait Award 2009 is on tour, and is spending a month and a half in Southampton.

While the subjects range widely, taking in everyone from children to heavily tattooed Portsmouth supporters, painting the elderly was quite a popular choice. Some of the pictures were really striking, and the material accompanying such painting usually made vague references to the naturalness of the ageing process or the cycle of life or some such.

Seeing such commentary repeatedly made me reflect on, not so much how natural ageing is, but how natural our acceptance of it is. In part, this sometimes strikes me as being a reflexive dismissal of efforts to ward off ageing and a dislike of the denial of age by those of a more materialist (in the social sense) disposition. All well and good, but as a biologist I can't help but think that ageing, far from being something that we should relax into, is something that we really should resist.

Rather than seeing it as a necessary part of life, senescence should instead be seen for what it is: a predictable outcome for the throwaway machines that are built to service the unconscious and uncaring needs of immortal strands of digital information. If we value ourselves, that is our minds, above the ceaselessly shuffled genes that built the machines that we both are and occupy, then we should take a far less sanguine view of our fate.

In a way, ageing truly exposes our serf-like existence as mere temporary vessels for more permanent passengers. Once they have disembarked, off to newer, cleaner vessels for the next leg to eternity, the fate of the decaying hulks left behind is irrelevant, and the concomitant blindness of natural selection is to be expected. In this view, we should be more than a little annoyed by senescence, and a whole lot more questioning of the common wisdom that, just because something is natural, it should be uncritically accepted.

The shallow pursuit of youth should be viewed suspiciously, but it is wrong to view ageing as some benign part of some abstract "cycle of life". What ageing is really telling us, if we're prepared to listen, is "you're fired".

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