I’ve been in London for so long I forget that some of my adventures now count as historical experiences. I recently went back to visit the Temple Church off Fleet Street, remembering an atmospheric and solitary visit years ago. I was taken aback to find the church had been scrubbed up and sanitised, turned into a tourist destination (thanks, Dan Brown!) and that there was a smart £3 entry fee. Feeling rather deflated, I just wanted to sit quietly and drink in whatever faint atmosphere there was left. But then even that was spoilt when I saw the two ticket sellers by the door openly smirking at me. I scowled and departed.
And on that note of ‘It was all so much better in my day!’ it seems appropriate to examine David Bainbridge’s Middle Age: A Natural History (Portobello £14.99). Bainbridge is a zoologist and trained vet who now teaches clinical veterinary anatomy at Cambridge and is the author of four previous books. In Middle Age he aims to explain this period (defined as between the ages of 40 and 60) in evolutionary terms. He asks, what’s the point of middle age, a developmental stage apparently unique to human beings? His answers are often rather uplifting.
He is good on the positives of middle age. It’s very tempting to think, in a youth-obsessed world, that there aren’t any; Bainbridge will set you straight. Your brain is not decaying, but in some ways sharper than ever. Even middle-aged spread is explained as a result of the wonder-inducing thriftiness of the middle-aged body (well, it made me feel better about mine).
Throughout he examines the sheer strangeness and uniqueness of human beings compared with other animals. Humans, of course, produce weird, top-heavy babies with giant brains, who need about 16 years of close attention. Middle age is crucial for passing on complex human culture, nous, experience to the younger generation. (I loved this idea.) He has interesting things to say about the perception that time is speeding up the longer you live (the immortal John Mortimer once claimed it felt like he was eating breakfast every half-hour), and the increasing tendency towards political conservatism. And his notion that the push-pull effect of intergenerational strife, the battle for resources between the young and the middle-aged, is in fact of evolutionary benefit, is an intriguing one.
He does bang on and on about sex, I suppose because it’s the aspect of life that links us most closely to the animals: after all, animals don’t play chess. ‘This is where life gets unfair for women,’ he announces smugly. Men remain attractive propositions as they grow older. Women tend not to. It must be true! The science tells us so. The ‘attractiveness [of middle-aged women] is perceived to decline more rapidly than men’s, they earn less, especially if they have taken a career break to care for children, and their fertility is declining. Men face none of these problems.’ Even before middle age strikes, monogamy may not be natural for men, and, whaddyaknow, it may even be preferable for a woman ‘to choose a mate who is slightly sub-optimal in looks and physique, if that male shows signs that he is likely to lavish parental care on his offspring’.
He uses the phenomenon of craggy male newsreaders and actors and their smooth-faced female counterparts to illustrate the notion that ‘the advancing years have a greater effect on the perceived attractiveness of women than of men’. This seems dodgy: complacently accepting prejudice as part of the natural order of things rather than seeing it as an issue of equality and rights. Anyway, all these evolutionary arguments seem circular. Bainbridge constantly seeks real-life examples to shore up his argument, then explains real-life examples in terms of evolutionary theory. Round and around we go.
I don’t really care whether it’s a scientist or a religionist who’s telling me that women’s disadvantage is natural and ordained; I tend not to listen in either case. From reading this book you’d think humans don’t do much beyond reproduce and hark back to those glorious days of hunter-gatherering. (It all started to go pear-shaped, in evolutionary terms, once we turned to agriculture.) You’d never know from this book that humans – even, shock, older women – might write poetry, philosophise, pursue enlightenment, create art, find a million and one exciting things to fill their days. (Although he does go on about his Lotus sports car.)
This is a very entertaining, sometimes irritating, always thought-provoking book. After reading it, though, you might find you’ve tired of theoretical arguments based on the crunching of statistics. Why don’t you go and find a middle-aged woman to talk to? She might even (gasp) be fascinating.