Paul Vallely: That's me – at the pinnacle of evolution

Our writer relishes middle age. It means he is in his prime...

Share
Related Topics

When Mozart was my age he had been dead two years. Or so Tom Lehrer, that great satirical songster of the early Sixties, said many years ago. Mind you, he didn't go to the gym twice a week, as I do. Mozart, that is. I'm not so sure about Tom Lehrer, though unlike Wolfgang Amadeus, who died at 35, Lehrer was still with us at 83, last time I checked.

So the pecking order goes like this: Mozart, me, then Tom Lehrer. Agewise, that is. All this is important because that makes Mozart young (if dead), me middle aged and Tom Lehrer old. And a book has just come out – a proper book, written by a zoologist, not some feature writer on a women's magazine – that says middle age, which apparently stretches from 40 to 60, represents the human species at the very peak of its powers.

That's me we're talking about.

Mozart, of course, had a hard life, with all that partying and notational scribbling. Too many notes, my dear Mozart, too many notes, as the Emperor Joseph II is supposed to have told him. But then everyone had a hard life in the 18th century before middle age was invented and everyone, by and large, went straight from young to dead often without passing through old.

It's evolution, you see. The Cambridge zoologist David Bainbridge, in Middle Age: A Natural History, says that humans are the only creatures who have a distinct middle age. Most animals, by contrast, carry on breeding until they die. But since it takes up to 20 years for the next generation to grow up and go to university, humans tend to remain healthy for two or three decades after their childbearing potential expires.

Like killer whales (nice company to keep) we follow the unusual practice, Bainbridge says, of sticking with post-menopausal female partners, rather than continually trying to mate with younger models. This makes middle-aged men, apparently, "the most impressive living things yet produced by natural selection" and "the pinnacle of evolution". Ahem.

You might be able to see a number of flaws in this theory as words like monkey gland transplants, old-man-in-sports-car, predatory cougar and dad-dancing suggest. Not to mention specs for short-sightedness, short-term memory loss and getting up in the middle of the night for a wee.

Bainbridge insists all that is outweighed by the repository of wisdom and experience. MRI scans show, he says, that the brain's white matter, which connects the different parts of the brain, actually increases in middle age. Intellectual abilities don't begin to decline until after the age of 65. The middle-aged human brain is the most powerful, flexible-thinking machine in the known universe.

As for the midlife crisis, he insists that is a myth – which is a bit rich from a portly father-of-three who has just bought himself a blue Lotus sports car. (The book must be selling well.) Bainbridge avers this is not a compensatory mechanism prompted by angst about his physical or mental deterioration, or to salve his dawning sense of impending mortality, or to attract young women. It is just that he couldn't afford it before, and now he can.

I had an older friend who thought the same about the big powerful motorbike he lusted after in his youth but lacked the purchasing power to realise in those far-off days. His broken leg is almost better now, thank you. My ambitions were more modest. I tried yoga but it gave me a bad back so I packed it in.

The safest thing, then, is probably to stay at home and open a bottle of Meursault with Mrs Killer Whale. The middle-aged, according to another report in the past few days, get through more alcohol in a steady drizzle over the course of the week than teen binge-drinkers do at their mammoth single sitting. But no one said we were perfect, did they?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A picture posted by Lubitz to Facebook in February 2013  

Andreas Lubitz: Knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 enabled mass murder

Simon Calder
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, presides at the reinterment of Richard III yesterday  

Richard III: We Leicester folk have one question: how much did it all cost?

Sean O’Grady
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

Election 2015

Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May