Book Review: Middle Age – A Natural History – David Bainbridge

In Ancient India, human life was caricatured as a four-fold cycle, beginning with Shaishavam (infant – 0 to 5 years) Balyam (Child – 5-15 years), Yauvanam (Youth – 15 to 60) and Vardhkayam (old age). However in any of the literatures of those period, there is a no mention of an intervening period called the Mid Life, a period of massive turnaround that we all experience as we cross the forty year mark. It is only from western literature that we come across this term called middle age or a crisis associated to this.

Middle age among men and women is doubted as a phase when there is a marked change in their Physiological and Psychological set up. It evolves from a time when they feel that they have reached a peak in their life path. It is also a time when people do introspection on what they have achieved till then and develop a future course of action.

If you want to ponder more on this subject, David Bainbridge’s book MIDDLE AGE – A Natural History is worth reading. As a veterinary anatomist from Cambridge University, he has given an insightful picture on middle age, in the background of modern evolutionary biology and neuro-psychiatry.

Bainbridge begins his essay with his passive theory of ageing named Antagonistic Pleiotrophy where genes which promote breeding among the young will perpetuate degeneration at an older age. This means that the genes that activate the sex hormones during reproductive stage play a role in body degeneration in the post reproductive age. His second passive theory is ”disposable soma theory ” where our bodies (soma) become disposable after the reproductive stage, which means that the natural selection promotes, body rejuvenation only as long as you are capable to reproduce. Such anthropological studies on ageing and its genetic nature makes us argue that middle age is not a modern construct but existed among humans since millions of years.

Bainbridge also says that this is a time when there is a change in the psychological continuity of our lives, giving us a feeling of speeding up of time and a fragility in our mental view of life. Bainbridge argues that the changes in our world view during the middle age are attributed to the change in sexuality or the biologically induced play of the fundamental reproductive forces on human body and its adaptation to the newer environment.

Among women, middle age proceeds to a virtual switch off in their reproductive capabilities and among males there is a general decline in sexual indices like sperm count and sexual productivity. Middle age in women is a precursor to an upcoming menopause while for men it results in a condition called andropause which results in significant reduction in the production of testosterone in their bodies.

However, this book is not just a sagging story of middle-aged people but also analysis the positive transformation taking place in a person’s life during the Middle Age. He says that this period is not an end but beginning of a new paradigm in the sexual chemistry of individuals beyond the realm of reproduction. Sex becomes much of self-expression and discovery than a method for reproduction which he says, is seen only among human beings. This may explain why men chases bikes and young women and make frantic effort for body building and other youth regaining measures.

Accordingly for Bainbridge natural selection gives men a chance to start a new family, while among women it leads to a syndrome called ”Mother Hypothesis. This syndrome affects near-menopausal women in their early forties where their sexual energies are more spent nurturing young ones making them grow up as mature adults only to reach an empty nest syndrome when the kids leave home.

Where does this change in the genetic clock of life lead to? The answer is a mix of negatives and positives. During this middle age, negative effects of divorces, extra marital relations and other marital discords co exists along with a newer level of camaraderie among couples who rediscover a newer meaning for their life. The trauma of an empty nest syndrome among women also leads to their entering the work force again while men start withdrawing from the daily job routine.

The question is, if this is a universal human syndrome why did this concept not been echoed in any of the eastern, spiritual and psychological discourses? Indian literature mentions of a ”periods of wisdom” in a person’s life where the fighting Kshatriya warrior becomes a coach for the young ones and refrains from fighting. Beyond this there is no mention of this situation, may be because of the formidable impact of patriarchy and Brahmanical traditions of our society.

It is also argued by a section of left leaning sociologists that the so called Middle age crisis is a myth and was only a ”crisis” created by the western media in the early fifties. After the great depression in the early part of the twentieth century, by the 50s and 60s, a wealthy middle age population emerged in the developed nations. Waning colonialism and spread of industrial revolution resulted in the growth of a class of healthy middle aged men and women whose financial independence made them being experimental in breaking conventional notions of contracted sexual relations. This perhaps created an upswing in middle age promiscuity which the western media caricatured as a Middle age crisis.

Irrespective of those arguments on whether it is a myth or reality, middle age is an opportunity for introspection on the path that we have taken and build a new paradigm of our growth. For men it might mean leaving your daily job and experimenting on your passion or engaging in a new profession, business or taking a sabbatical. For women it is an opportunity to re start their careers after a child rearing period and feel more independent and wanting. It is a period of experimentation on our life objectives, even redefining our notion of love, relationships, career and engages ourselves in search for newer pastures.

After all as Frank Natale wrote in his book Wisdom of midlife: reclaim your passion, power and purpose, “Middle age is not the beginning of decline, but a time to reach for the highest in our selves. It is a pause to re-examine what we have done and what we will do in the future. This is the time to give birth to our power.”

As this year dawns on you wishing all my middle aged friends who are somewhere between 40 and 55, a new year where they discover their power, passion and purpose.

Leave a Reply