Evolutionary theorists have tried to understand aging within the framework of the theory as they learned it. They have done a workman like job of extending and modifying the theory as each new result comes in, carving out exceptions and elaborations on the basic themes. But specialists in the field tend toward myopia, and few have stepped back to look at the big picture, to see the signs that the basic principles of the theory no longer match the basic observations.
The essential problem is that the theory has been built from the bottom up, taking the individual animal and its individual success to be primary. (Darwin did not make this error; it came into the field only later, in the twentieth century.) Neglected are all the ways in which a community functions as a collective, with logic that cannot be understood simply as the sum of individuals. The limited perspective of the selfish gene is very much the standard today. Evolutionary scientists are quite aware that their paradigm is based on individuals to the exclusion of communal adaptation, and they have their reasons for this strong bias in favor of the individual over the group. Such reasons include an overreaction to an earlier excess in the opposite direction, when naturalists spoke too glibly about "the good of the species." But although the bio-mathematicians' skepticism of group se lection was understandable, it is clear now that they are wrong. I* am in the minority, but I am not alone in saying this. Many smart people, including Nobel laureates and experts on the edge of the field, have recognized that evolutionary science today is missing something basic. Perhaps you have sensed this already; if not, I think that you will come to see it in the chapters that follow.
Why Should It Matter
If Evolutionary Competition Is Individual or Communal?
And What Does All This Have to Do with Aging?
Having a fixed life span--dying on a schedule--is bad for the individual, but it has advantages for the community. To understand what aging is and how it came to be, it is necessary to adopt a communal perspective for evolution. Aging is a paradox if your paradigm is confined to selfish genes, but it is possible to understand aging if you imagine natural se lection in a broader context, with cooperative groups competing in a classical Darwinian struggle. The fashion in evolutionary theory these last fifty years has been to think exclusively in terms of individual competition, to disallow group competition. This has been the root of the scientific community's failure to understand aging.
I have said all this in scientific forums and on the pages of biology journals, and now I am going over the heads of the experts to appeal to your good sense. For eighteen years, I have been watching the response of the academic community to ideas about communal evolution, including my own ideas. It has been both deeply gratifying and intensely frustrating for me--gratifying because the scientific world is moving in the right direction, frustrating because the movement is so slow. There is still a great deal of unthinking bias against "group se lection." Lab scientists still report their results in terms of the failed theories.
A few years ago, I was visiting my mother (now ninety-three years old and sharp as a tack) when I complained about the conservatism of the scientific community. I had wanted to initiate a scientific dialogue, and I was frustrated. "Take your case to the people," she said. "Write a book." That project proceeded in fits and starts for two years. Then I hit the jackpot and found an ally in Dorion Sagan. He quickly understood my ideas about aging and was able to help me both put them in the context of broader evidence-based evolutionary theory and make them more accessible. This book is our first collaboration.
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