Two years ago I wrote an article called “Programming Human Beings during Vacations” in which I argued that the deciphering of the human genome was the very beginning of an arduous process in truly understanding genetics. I said that while some people feared that tinkering with genes was only a few years away, my belief is that we are probably still at least a century away from changing the genetic programs of living individuals with the first objective most likely being to reverse the program that makes us age. So while I had been aware for a while that we and all other animals and plants are genetically programmed to age and die, I had a wrong understanding of how this was the case, and Bill Bryson´s book clarified it. I knew that we are born with a fixed number of neurons and that we lose them as we go through our lives. But what I did not know is that there´s “not as much as a stray molecule” in a 90 year old person that was there when this person was 80. This means that a person of 90 is a complete new person from a person of 80, yet old. In other words, not only are we programmed to age but we are constantly “renewing” ourselves, as older people.

This realization will make me look at old people in a different way. Not so much as people who were young and became old, but as actors whose script, their genes, tells them to act as old people whether they like it or not. Old people make themselves old in a short period of time. Bryson does not go into the root of ageing but as sad as it can be I can see a value in ageing and that is that after passing on our genes and living long enough to nurture our children there´s little left for us to do in the world that will have evolutionary impact. Indeed if we remained in the world, and again let´s imagine the 80 person world of Tikehau in which cannibalism made “sense” as only a limited group of people can survive off the island same is true of ageing. Old people in great shape who continue to need great quantities of resources to survive would compete with their genetic offspring, with their children and grand children. Are old people people ,then humans who reinvent themselves as old so they go on a slowly planned genetic suicide? Indeed.

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