The Tenacity of Life
Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
I’m 83 years old; how that happened, I’m not exactly sure. I strongly suspect that it has something to do with biological programming. Interestingly, some kind of such programming can be observed even in the most primitive life forms. In terms of human longevity, current estimates are that under optimal conditions, we might eventually extend our life spans to 150 years. In the past few decades, the interest by biologists in extending life spans has increased and some few have conjectured that we could live a thousand years. However, that has no appeal unless one can have strong assurances of good physical and mental health. I think almost no one would opt for sitting around in a wheelchair, drooling, and mumbling incoherently to oneself. We have a long way to go in terms of cryogenics, regeneration, and suspended animation. Also, some recent studies strongly suggest that more than a decade or two over 100 years is very unlikely. These studies concentrated on research done on human aging and it seems less and less likely that that can be reversed, suspended, or greatly slowed. Indeed, we can improve the overall biological condition of individuals through diet, radical avoidance of toxic substances, such as, alcohol and nicotine, but there remain the environmental aspects of contaminated water, lead pipes, arsenic in well water, a wide variety of toxins in air, and the list goes on and on.
Here I am going to give a brief account of modern theory about aging and it’s a bit dry, but hang in there; it’s only one of my paragraphs which is not like the 24 page German paragraphs. There is the telomere theory of aging that suggests that the lengthening of telomeres might well slow aging and increase life span. However, some elderly individuals have been shown to have long telomeres and other individuals experience a significant shortening of the telomeres as these people get older. Some of this has partially been linked to lifestyle, but the results are certainly not definitive. Some work has been done using the enzyme telomerase as a supplement and, in many cases, there was some increase in the length of the telomeres. However, there is insufficient evidence to assert that this results in a longer life span. Furthermore, the elderly individuals that naturally possessed longer telomeres have not been shown to have an increased life span, but some do suffer fewer of the negative effects of aging or at least experience them less severely.
I apologize for going off on this rather tedious digression, but it does set the stage and might serve as a reminder to be careful about what we wish for.
Tardigrades or “water bears” are marvels in terms of their abilities to suspend their metabolic activities and yet, when living out an interrupted natural life span, they rarely last more that about two and a half years. On the other hand, when they go into cryptobiosis, they have been revived after 2,000 years from being dormant in a sheet of ice. All such numbers are, of course, estimates and it is possible that even older specimens may yet be discovered. In case you’ve forgotten what they look like, here’s a link.
Recently, it was discovered that some bdelloid rotifers have survived for about 24,000 years and have been revived from Arctic permafrost. These are the type of rotifers that move in a fashion that reminds one of an “inch worm”. Here’s a link to give you an idea of what they look like.
For humans, however, such a long period of suspension would be a nightmare in terms of adjustment when revived into a radically different kind of civilization (assuming there would still be such). Imagine transporting an ancient Greek or a contemporary Yanamama Indian into the middle of Times Square. He or she would probably go insane from such radical disorientation, so you may not want to be revived and attempt assimilation after 24,000 years; be careful what you wish for.
The record for being resuscitated goes to a strain of Bacillus and is a whopping 250 million years!!! Specimens have been found in salt mines in Poland and China. You might say, “Yeah, but they’re really primitive and barely alive.” Try saying this if you ever are unfortunate enough to get hit by botulism. As a matter of fact, without bacteria, we couldn’t survive and the population of bacteria in a human exceeds the number of cells that we have. Indeed, there are species that are dangerous to us, but many more that not only benefit us, but are essential. Our situation as organisms is indeed strange and we keep learning more and more weird things about our own biological existence as our knowledge expands. As Alice says when she experiences the oddness of Wonderland: “Curiouser and curiouser”.
Scientists are strange creatures; I know, I have worked with them and wanted to be one before I got seduced by Philosophy. A bit of that strangeness reveals itself when we get to a discussion of viruses. Viruses, we are told by most researchers are not alive. One science writer reports: “They existed 3.5 billion years before humans evolved on Earth. They’re neither dead nor alive.” As Biden would say: “Come on, man!” If it’s true that they’re neither dead nor alive, they would really ruin a game of 20 Questions since they aren’t Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral. So, what the devil are they? I guess the answer we would get is that they are fragments and bits of organic stuff that bonded together and now sits around waiting for a suitable host. That language is, of course, inescapably anthropomorphic, but surely we can make a decision between living and non-living, and health care workers try to convince those people skeptical about vaccines to get shots by telling them that “the vaccine contains no live virus”. A virus is not, after all, a computer program floating around in the aether. Biologists talk about viruses not using any energy and becoming active only when they encounter a host. However, that notion suggests that they are somehow dormant entities and then begin to use energy to make copies of themselves. However, recently, biologists have discovered what they call a mimivirus and it has the “tools” to make replicas of genetic material without a host, suggesting that this type of virus is indeed “living”. This entire issue needs, in my view, to be carefully rethought and better conceptualized, because there are obligate intracellular parasites which are bacteria and regarded as living and yet use energy from their hosts. So, I would add to Alice’s remark: Murkier and murkier!”
The point of all this rambling is that living things are extraordinary in finding means to survive even when subjected to incredibly radical changes in environment and can endure over time periods that boggle the human mind. It seems that the more complex organisms become, the more vulnerable they are. There are a lot more things that can go wrong with a Ferrari than with a Model T and when something does go wrong, it’s a lot harder and more expensive to repair. Our biophysical nature is staggering in its interacting genetic, biochemical, and metabolic systems. So, although a rotifer may be able to go dormant and survive for 24,000 years, it remains primitive in relation to us, even though we could not survive the conditions which it endures in its state of suspended animation. We are assaulted by aspects of our physical environment, such as, volcanos, violent storms, earthquakes, etc. Also, we are subject to the ravages of disease and attacks by parasites. Nonetheless, the human life span has gradually increased from about 40 years in 1850 to 79 in 2021 or nearly double for the U.S. World wide the numbers are lower, but even so from 1900 to 2017, life span more than doubled. This happened in spite of disease, famine, wars, and natural disasters and was accompanied by a population explosion. As we struggle to civilize ourselves, increasing shared benefits becomes inevitable; improved transportation, more and more efficient means of communication, major developments in science and technology, and perhaps, most importantly, the evolving discoveries of modern medicine. Thus, in one sense, we might say that humans have a collective or genetic tenacity for survival.
When we look at individuals within a species, we encounter fascinating, but very difficult problems. I am not willing to romanticize life to the point of talking about bacteria, rotifers, tunicates, fish, frogs, or pythons exhibiting a “self-directed, self-conscious” desire to continue living. I can’t image rotifers, fish, or pythons going to the help of another member of its species to offer aid and comfort. Indeed their behavior is directed toward self preservation, but this is attributable to biochemical and biophysical programming. However, as we move up the phylogenetic tree, things get more complicated.
In mammals, we can clearly observe behavior which demonstrates concern and anguish for other animals and not necessarily just within its own species or even genus. In some instances, it appears to be learned behavior (perhaps from a human) but, in other cases, seems spontaneous. For example, there are instances of chimpanzees adopting and caring for a kitten or puppy. It should be noted that these are in circumstances of at least semi-domestication. All one has to do is go to YouTube and there you can find many videos of quite different animals “adopting” or forming friendships. This suggests that many mammals may thrive under circumstances where they have a sense of companionship, security, food, and shelter. Nonetheless, I am not inclined to invite a grizzly bear to share our little house with our three cats. Other animals simply seem completely off the radar as potential companions for me and I suspect for most other animals as well; wolverines, badgers, wild boar, hippopotami, cape buffalo, hyenas, to mention a few of the more notoriously bad-tempered beasts. This ferocity is one form of tenacity for life; if one is nasty enough, it reduces the chances of becoming prey.
What then of the animals that demonstrate a sort of version of empathy? I think we can learn from humans that it is untenable to generalize across even one species. I think most of us would be reluctant to say that empathy is a universal human characteristic. In large part, the self-directedness of humans is reinforced by our evolution as tribal creatures. In other words, to put it in a stuffy, stilted fashion; statistically speaking, self sacrifice in humans is a rarity or, in yet other words, pick your friends wisely as there isn’t much you can do about selecting your relatives. I’ve often thought that at a certain age one should have the choice of selectively “divorcing” ones relatives, but this idea has never gained much traction. So, where are we? We’re “killer apes” who created tribes to increase our chances of survival and generally we have a fear of death or an extraordinary reluctance to give up living.
History has documented what humans will tolerate in order to continue living and the degree of endurance is often unsettlingly extreme. The history of medicine is quite grim. We know that the ancient Egyptians practiced a kind of extremely primitive brain surgery in which the top of the skull was cut off and parts of the brain removed and the bone then replaced. Some actually survived the procedure as is evidenced by the fact that the bone of the skull knitted. Medicine in ancient Greece and Rome was also filled with what today we would regard as horrors and I won’t give you a catalog here, but if you’re curious, you can find accounts in Hippocrates and Pliny and Galen. The ancients did have some effective and ingenious nostrums and techniques but, on the whole, a modern patient would likely reject most of their approaches.
Modern medicine is still, in my view, quite primitive. For one thing, it has a very strong tendency to treat patients as being more or less identical when it comes to a particular malady. If you are diagnosed with a case of influenza, there are “standard” treatments and, in general, this works out reasonably well. However, there is an underlying assumption that the biology of one patient is largely interchangeable with most every other. This can be a very dangerous notion when it may ignore very significant differences in the physiology, metabolism, and/or neurology of individuals. Nonetheless, many of these techniques work effectively for large numbers of individuals and that is a significant kind of progress.
The development of a wider range of chemicals for treating diseases and disorders has been both a boon and a curse. We have developed a “pill” culture in which we have come to believe that for most any ailment we have there is some pill that we can “pop” that will take care of it or, at least, provide some relief. This has led to unscrupulous individuals, including some medical practitioners, providing large quantities of drugs illegally at highly inflated prices and they are often drugs which are addictive.
For grim procedures and pharmaceuticals, we need only look to cancer treatments. The drugs often have severe side effects and may drastically limit an individual’s ability to carry out even a semi-normal life style. Chemotherapy also has extreme side effects and is not infrequently used in conjunction with the drug therapy. Indeed, such treatment is successful for some patients, but often at a terrible cost physically, mentally, and financially. A distressing number of people who undergo such treatments extend their life spans only for a relatively short time and are often in great pain and general misery. As once cancer specialist put it: “Oncology is the discipline of slowly poisoning the patient.” At some point, it should be necessary to stop and ask: “Is this really worth it?”
My view is that much more money needs to be put into medical research (take it from the wasteful military budgets). However, the directions should be changed radically to create a kind of permanent and evolving medical Brookhaven project. We should be doing intensive research on finding drugs that are not so toxic and treatments that are not so damaging to the human organism. Much more needs to be done with genetic manipulation and especially massive studies in regeneration. We know that a wide range of animals have developed tricks for regenerating damaged or lost tissue, organs, or body parts. Planaria have long been a model for demonstrating regeneration to students, but we still lack a coherent understanding of the intricate processes involved. Here you can see visual evidence.
Even more impressive is the sort of performance we find in starfish of the genus Linckia which can regenerate from a single arm and a small portion of the disk. I have experienced many situations wherein I would have liked to have had 3 extra arms.
We also know that holothuroids (sea cucumbers) can eviserate and then regenerate a significant part of their internal structures. So, here is a dimension of potential discovery for the advancement and improvement of the human condition that needs to be aggressively pursued. This desire to improve our biological condition is certainly a rational one with enormous merit, but there is an extraordinarily difficult and enormous obstacle–overpopulation.
Current estimates of world population are 8 billion and in 35 years it is estimated that it will reach 10 billion. The present population is already a strain on the natural resources of our fragile planet. If we take projects as to the value of assets in economies world wide, the figure is approximately 360 trillion dollars. Now, there are many people who argue for a redistribution of wealth and certainly, from my perspective as a retired, underpaid professor of Philosophy, for any individual to have as much as a billion dollars is obscene and culturally insane. This is especially true when we consider that there are millions of people living at a starvation level and millions more at a poverty level which allows them to maintain necessities, but just barely. I count myself as fortunate in that I have enough to be comfortable without a desire or need for expensive luxuries. Why should an individual (Roman Abramovich) be able to buy a 600 million dollar yacht when children are starving? Why should Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, or Elon Musk, be in a position to “play God” and decide which projects and groups of people are “worthy” of their beneficence?!
If we were to take that figure of 360 trillion for global worth and divide it by the population of 8 billion; that would mean that every man, woman, and child on the planet would have 45,000 dollars in assets. That is, of course, a naive and reductive approach. So, what do you get–a few feet of Abramovich’s yacht or a part of Musk’s spaceship? Remember this is a one time deal. Unless you figure out how to maintain and increase your assets, you’re soon broke. So, an equal share for everybody is unworkable and would be a disaster. However, surely, we can structure societies in such a way that there is not constant warfare, poverty, and deprivation. In the end, the expression of the tenacity for life of the individual depends in large part on the conditions which societies as a whole can offer.
The will to live of individuals varies enormously as is evidenced by that relatively small number of survivors of the Holocaust concentration camps or the survivors of refugee camps in areas virtually out of reach of outside aid or those driven by passions that exceed what is comprehensible for most of us. An example of this last is the hiker and mountaineer, Aron Ralston, who, after 5 days of being trapped with his arm pinned under a boulder, used a pocket knife to cut off the lower part of his arm, put a tourniquet on it, and staggered down to a place where he was seen and finally rescued. He recovered and has since continued to climb, stating that his goal is to climb all of the peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet without using any tech devices, supplemental oxygen, or special equipment. He sees the purpose of his life as pitting himself against nature and conceives this as essential to his existence.
I, on the other hand, regard such extreme demands upon oneself as pathological. I am a soft, pampered, bourgeois “egg head” who doesn’t like discomfort, let alone severe pain or long term suffering. Had I been shipped to a concentration camp, I would have attacked a guard, gotten fatally shot and gotten the whole wretched business over with. As for climbing mountains, as I once told a student: “What I want to do with my life is climb the mountains inside my head.” I’m not sure quite what that means, but it sounded good at th time. I would hazard a guess that it had something to do with being a philosopher.
So, where does all this take us? The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, wrote a collection of essays titled: “Holzwege”. This translates as “paths through the forest”, but they’re also paths that don’t lead anywhere. However, along the way, there might be some interesting scenery. Well, perhaps that’s what this ramble was all about.
How did it come about? What set me off on thinking about the tenacity of life? The incident that triggered it is almost comic. Being housebound, I treasure my view from my corner at the kitchen window, out into the garden with it’s lovely flowers, birds, squirrels, rabbits, and occasional neighborhood cats. Late one afternoon, I was looking out and at the end of a wooden ramp which goes up to a wooden gate that leads out into the alleyway, I saw in the shadows up near the top of the ramp, on the left side, near the lilac bushes, an injured bird. It was a dark, gray from that distance and when there were gusts of wind, it would move slightly on the ramp. I couldn’t go out to do anything and I didn’t want to upset my wife by mentioning it to her. So, I tried to put it out of my mind hoping that it might recover or become prey and thus disappear. However, the next day, it was still there. Our cleaning lady and helper came and took the garbage and recycling out, up the ramp and into the alley where the bins are. She mentioned nothing about the bird. When I checked later, it was still there and I thought that she was rather insensitive not to even mention it. If she had still been there, I would have asked her to dispatch it, if it was injured, or to put on gloves and put it into the trash bin, if it was dead. The next day, the bird was no longer on the ramp and I felt a sense of relief. Now, I didn’t have to deal with the situation or have anyone else involved in having to deal with it. However, the next day, the bird had reappeared in nearly the same spot and I was distressed for, apparently, the poor thing had struggled its way off the ramp and then back up on to it again. Our cleaning woman wasn’t scheduled to come until the next afternoon. The next morning, the bird was still there. When our helper arrived, I mentioned the situation to her and she went out, kicked the bird over the edge and off into the flower bed. When she came back in, she said: “That was no bird; it was a clump of dried leaves from the lilac bush. There are a number of those that will soon fall off.”
I felt both embarrassed and relieved and yet, the experience made me feel that had my sense of things been accurate, that that bird would be demonstrating an extraordinary tenacity for life–thus these ramblings. I, nonetheless, believe that if we humans had more empathy for the other creatures around us, some of which we depend upon for our own survival, then we might have a richer understanding of both ourselves and nature. In my defense, I offer the assurance that I haven’t yet started talking to plants.
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Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
Published in the July 2021 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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