In Western culture middle age is mostly seen as a featureless stopping-off point between the more anguished periods of youth and old age, a dull no man’s land of mild regret and sprouting nasal hair. Unless, that is, you read certain mid-market newspapers. In which case middle age is a cauldron of awfulness, a particular hell made up of women who have left it too late to have a baby and men in sports cars chasing young girls, the two cohorts coming together only to wrangle over the division of the pension pot.
But in this determinedly chirpy book, David Bainbridge wants to show that the years between 40 and 60 actually represent a kind of sunlit upland of “maximal” experience. Yes, we get fatter and slower and less able to read small print (this book is tactfully printed in a large size font). But our bodies stay in pretty good nick: if you get to 40, then you are very likely to get to 60. What’s more, argues Bainbridge in a slightly over-emphatic way, as if talking to someone with early hearing loss, by the time we enter our fifth decade we will have developed cognitive capacities that allow us to think more cleverly than, if not quite as quickly as, we used to at 20. In a culture that depends on harvesting information rather than, say, turnips, this puts middle-aged people in pole position for a really rather lovely life.
All this sounds pretty obvious, if a bit rosy. But Bainbridge teaches veterinary science at Cambridge University and has a more specific point to make. We are, he explains, the only species to experience a distinct plateauing in mid-life, as opposed to the steady wind-down from young adulthood to death experienced by everything from hamsters to elephants. And this, he insists, is thanks to centuries of evolutionary biology.
Middle Age: A Natural History
By David Bainbridge
Our hunter-gathering ancestors did not, as you might have assumed, condemn the occasional person who made it to 35 to a marginal life existing on tribal scraps. Instead, they depended on the graybeards (or at least the salt-and-pepper beards) to organize and lead the all-important hunt for resources. The middle aged may not have been able to outrun the prey, but they were really good at working out where it might be hiding and dividing up the spoils afterwards. These skills turned out to be so useful to the survival of the human race that they became hardwired into the gene code and explain why 45-year-olds are the best people to manage supermarkets, become psychotherapists and even to
Given Bainbridge’s day job, he is naturally keen to show that his narrative is grounded in proper science. But while his bibliography includes an impressive list of peer-reviewed articles on subjects such as Ageing and Spatial Acuity of Touch and The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols, none of these specifics appears in the main text. His most over-used phrase must be “studies show,” without any further identifying detail so that we’re rarely told which piece of research he is referring to. The problem, as he would probably be the first to recognize, is that studies can and do show just about anything. His way round this seems to be to offer an argument based on aggregation of the most persuasive sources, but with periodic nods to dissenting evidence (time seems to fly when you’re 50, except when it slows down; middle-aged people are mainly monogamous, apart from when they’re not).