Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Was Jonah Taken by a Humpback Whale?

The account of Jonah and the whale is one of the most memorable stories in the Bible. To a child, it captures the imagination like the story of Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den, or of Noah gathering all the animals – tame and fierce alike – into the ark. It isn’t a story that one forgets.

As a young biology student, however, I confess that I occasionally had my doubts about some of the details as I began thinking about marine ecology, and especially about the specifics of whale biology. I know that many other Christian thinkers have had their doubts as well. Many of us have come to understand the story in metaphorical ways.

This is easy to do because the New Testament almost invites this kind of interpretation. In the Gospel of Matthew Jonah’s three days and three nights inside the whale foreshadowed the three days and three nights that Christ spent inside the earth prior to His resurrection (Matthew 12: 39-40). Many devout thinkers have interpreted this to mean that Jonah didn’t really get swallowed by a whale.

This is about all the thought I was prone to give the account. On the few occasions when I found myself needing to tell the story to children, I tended to let somebody else give the details. I just wasn’t very comfortable explaining them literally. In passing years, I didn’t pay much attention to the Book of Jonah at all. And then things changed.

I was reading Roger Payne’s fascinating book Among Whales. Dr. Payne is considered by many to be the world’s leading authority on these giant and intriguing creatures. He has spent most of his life watching them, listening to them, and otherwise informing himself about them from the vast literature that continues to accumulate.

I was reading Payne’s book without a thought in the world of Jonah. I was reading it because I love to read, and because Payne’s book is very worthwhile reading. Imagine my surprise when Payne mentions, almost in passing, that an acquaintance of his was once almost swallowed by a whale.  

Here is the passage. “I have a friend who was studying humpback whales in Alaska when one of them rose beneath his boat. The next thing he knew he and the boat were inside its widely opened mouth, a situation that only lasted for a second as the whale was apparently as surprised as he and instantly backed off. But he observed that when his [small boat] was in the whale’s mouth it was not grounded on the whale’s jaws but was floating freely, with water under the keel.”

This story was mentioned to demonstrate the very large capacity of a baleen whale’s mouth – or more properly, its buccal cavity. This cavity can make up over a third of the whales body. Its immensity can be appreciated in an interesting picture of a full-grown right whale skeleton next to Roy Chapman Andrews in the American Museum of Natural History. The man is maybe as tall as the whale’s closed mouth. And the buccal cavity extends even deeper into the animal. More than a dozen men could fit inside such a place.  

In fact the large mouth of baleen whales can be quite a bit larger than even this picture shows. In a recent study documented in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, baleen whale mouths were shown to increase allometrically. This means that as a whale increases in bodily size, the size of the head grows disproportionately larger. This kind of growth is more commonly seen, for example, in the mandibles of stag beetles. Normal or undersized males have fairly non-descript mandibles projecting forward from their heads. Somewhat larger alpha males, on the other hand, can have massively larger mandibles. The size of a baleen whales mouth is certainly not a criterion for dismissing the story of Jonah.

These large mouths of baleen whales (including humpback whales) make them quite a bit different than the typical animal most of us imagine when we think of whales. They don’t have teeth like Moby Dick and are not shaped with the high forehead that is typical of most children’s storybooks about whales. Instead, baleen whales have a large “jaw” with long fleshy wrinkles that are capable of greatly expanding.

I recently spent an afternoon looking at pictures of whales from Bibles and children’s story books about Jonah. There is quite a variety of sea creatures depicted. And no one clearly accepted species predominates. I expect that this stems from our general cultural lack of taxonomic precision. When the Old Testament says that a fish swallowed Jonah, and the New Testament says that a whale did, it’s obvious that we’re somewhat less than clear on the species involved.

Walker’s Mammals of the World recognizes 79 species in the Order Cetacea (which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) worldwide. When large true (bony) fish are added to the list, and perhaps even sharks, the possible list of candidates becomes quite large. It’s no wonder that nobody seems to have decided in favor of any one species.

Gustave DorĂ©’s painting Jonah Cast Forth by the Whale is perhaps the most famous painting of the story. It is depicted in family Bibles around the world. Despite the title of the painting, DorĂ© pictures a creature with fins and a tail that are clearly those of a bony fish, albeit a large one.

Another depiction of a true fish (again, despite the title) is Giulio Pippi’s Jonah and the Whale. The creature in this painting continues with the bony fish theme but with an exaggerated mouth. And the creature itself looks a bit monstrous, perhaps reminiscent of the fear that ancient people’s often had of unknown sea creatures.

Children’s books and paintings, though equally difficult to categorize, do seem to favor whales over fishes. A typical example is Jonah and the Whale by Roberta Rivera. This is clearly a depiction of a sperm whale with its large head and relatively small mouth lined with teeth.

It’s obvious that we haven’t decided one way or another about what kind of whale swallowed Jonah. The truth is that we haven’t really given much thought at all about the different kinds of whales that live in the world’s oceans and seas. I remember some time ago using the word “rorqual” while playing a word game. It is a general word for baleen whales – and not uncommonly used among student of marine biology – yet nobody had heard of it before.

The incident made me aware of just how little most of us know about marine taxonomy. If it’s true that most of us don’t even know the names of the trees in our neighborhood – and we don’t; and if it’s also true that your neighbor has no idea of the kinds of birds (even very common birds) singing in his own yard; what is the likelihood that any one of us will know the kinds of whales in a distant sea? It’s not very likely at all.

But, in truth, our general ignorance of whales has not been restricted to non-biologists. For hundreds of years, the only real knowledge we had of these amazing creatures was gained from whalers and from the occasional dead animal that washed onto a beach. And this knowledge tended to be mixed with older fears of unknown monsters of the deep.

If you combine this level of ignorance with our modern disregard of sacred texts, it’s little wonder that most educated people find the story of a man being swallowed by a whale, and then surviving, unlikely. But to be honest, this doubt has not been grounded in real whale biology. It has been based on our own imagination.

My argument is that we are beginning to learn enough about these marine animals to conjecture more thoughtfully about the whale that captured Jonah. In particular, the feeding behavior and respiratory biology of humpback whales makes them a likely candidate. Let me explain further. 

As I mentioned above, the large buccal capacity of humpback whales is an adaptation that allows them to capture vast amounts of small crustaceans (known collectively as krill) and fish which make up their diet. This is done when a whale moves forward through the water with its mouth open. The expanding jaw allows the whale to pull in water instead of only pushing it in front of its mouth.

Imagine trying to catch fish with a bucket. It just doesn’t work. Using the bucket below water only pushes water and, unless a fish gets confused and actually swims into the bucket, the effort is a waste of time. The expansion of a baleen whale’s mouth corrects for this problem by actually pulling water – with accompanying krill – into its mouth. It was probably a whale feeding in this way that picked up Payne’s friend by accident.

Once the baleen whale’s mouth is full, it begins pushing water out through its teeth, somewhat like a boy I once knew who could project a stream of water through the spacing of his front teeth. A baleen whale does this through teeth that are specifically adapted to this purpose. The teeth are long and thin and spaced just right to let water through while keeping the krill inside – acting like a giant sieve.

This giant sieve is called a whalebone or baleen – hence the name of these kinds of whales. You may have heard of whalebones being used in previous centuries in the manufacture of corsets. The long, thin and flexible nature of these bones was ideal for upper body support. In fact the popularity of whalebone corsets proved troublesome to baleen whales as their populations dwindled from over-hunting.

But I digress. The spacing of these long teeth is such that small animals can move through them into the mouth but then are unable to exit because of a sophisticated network of long thin fibers that grow on the inside of the whalebone. Sometimes baleen whales will feed by just moving through the water with its baleen exposed. At other times, it feeds by actively taking in water with its mouth agape.

One of the most interesting behaviors of the humpback whale, especially relating to the story of Jonah, is the activity known to biologists as lunge-feeding. This is a form of feeding that often brings whales to the surface from hundreds of feet below.

Often, the lunge-feeding whale rises in a fairly slow spiral pattern while blowing a cloud of small bubbles through the narrow openings of the baleen. This rising cloud does something unusual to small fish and krill. It confuses them and keeps them from swimming away.

This seems to work because the cloud of bubbles actually decreases the density of water. Imagine a small boat that floats easily on the water (floating because the water is denser than the boat). Now imagine that this same boat were to be dropped through the air. It would obviously fall because it is denser than air. A rising cloud of air bubbles has the effect of creating a place that is somewhere between the density of water and the density of air. A boat, if floating in a tall narrow tank of water, will sink if bubbles are infused into the tank, even though it is lighter than water. It isn’t lighter than the water and air mix of a cloud of bubbles.

A humpback whale forcing bubbles through its teeth creates a sort of gravity field that must make small creatures feel like they are falling. Instead of swimming quickly away they freeze and the whale swimming up from below has a concentrated mouthful of food waiting that it captures by opening its mouth wide as it nears the surface.

This form of lunge-feeding does something else, though, that intrigues me about the Biblical account. It temporarily blinds the whale to anything moving on the surface. This would likely be an important consideration if, in fact, it was a baleen whale that swallowed Jonah. Baleen whales would normally never capture a human, or any other creature of comparable size. Their body is just not built to be able to eat such a thing. So an active form of feeding that is both blind and brings a whale to the surface – lunge-feeding that is – becomes a real possibility in the case of Jonah.

Another scenario of how Jonah might have been swallowed, and the one that most of us imagine, involves a toothed whale, like the sperm whale. These whales actively hunt other animals, capturing and masticating them in their (relatively smaller) mouth and then swallowing them. This sort of behavior is one of the reasons many people tend to disbelieve in the literalness of the Book of Jonah. For my part, I could not imagine anybody living within the highly acidic stomach of any mammal (even a giant stomach like that of a whale) without air for three days.

This is one of the reasons why I think the humpback whale is a much more likely candidate. It has an extremely large buccal cavity that is mostly free of stomach acids and, even more significantly, it contains a supply of oxygenated air.

This air in a whale’s mouth is a bit unusual. Whales, unlike other mammals don’t breathe through their mouth. They have a breathing hole on top of their head – the blowhole – that leads directly to the lungs, bypassing the mouth. A toothed whale, like a sperm whale, never needs to open its mouth to bring in oxygen. If some air-breathing creature were ever to be eaten alive, it would not be able to breathe in such a place.

But humpback whales are different. Their unique form of bubble feeding begins by air moving into their mouths. And it is the movement of this air through the whalebone, with its narrow openings, that create the cloud of small bubbles that works to confuse their food. How the air actually got to the whale’s mouth was a mystery until just a few years ago.

Writing in the Anatomical Record, researchers Reidenberg and Laitman reported a trough-shaped epiglottis in humpback whales that can “facilitate channeling air from the larynx to the oral cavity.” This mechanism is basically an opening in the air tube that connects the blowhole with the lungs and can be opened when the whale needs air in its mouth. When a whale is actively feeding using bubble clouds, there would be a significant amount of air moving into the mouth.

This to me is a remarkable combination of traits that make the story of Jonah much more interesting. It appears that a man could very well survive in the back of a humpback whale’s mouth for days. Not that it would be a pleasant experience, far from it, but the oxygen needed to survive would be available.

Some may argue that surviving in a whale’s mouth is contrary to the Biblical text, which says clearly that Jonah survived in the “belly of a fish”. My answer is two-fold. First, the length of the humpback’s buccal cavity is so long that it extends well into the area that might be considered the “belly” in other organisms. Second, if you open your dictionary you will find that the word “belly” can refer to the entire underside of the body of certain vertebrates likes snakes and fish. I don’t see this as a contradiction.

Another possible criticism that occasionally comes up is that whales don’t occur in the Mediterranean Sea, where the story of Jonah would certainly have taken place. This argument may be true today for some times of the year but it isn’t valid overall. Because of large-scale over-hunting of whales in modern times, humpback whales no longer frequent waters that they formerly would have. Their numbers are too few. Yet even today, humpback whales do find their way to the Mediterranean Sea during their breeding season. They don’t breed or raise young there, but they do move from deeper water and begin swimming near land as they work their way to their breeding grounds. It is presumed that the greater number of whales in former centuries would have seen many more whales there than we see today. Walker’s reference book of the mammals of the world indicates that the humpback whale “M[egaptera]. novaeangliae, occurs in all oceans and adjoining seas of the world.” 

I am also intrigued by Diane Ackerman’s theory that it was the sound of the humpback whale’s song – a unique sound among whales – that caused the ancient Greek sailors so much fear. Sailing throughout the Mediterranean Sea, these sailors were convinced that mythical creatures called Sirens would lure them to their death with their eerie songs. Perhaps it was the song of the humpback whale that was responsible for this.

All things considered, the story of Jonah being taken by a whale is still remarkable – and perhaps incredible to many. It doesn’t help that poorly documented accounts of modern whalers being swallowed by whales get repeated and rightfully criticized by skeptics. And then there are the outright spoofs that are so easy to find on the internet. It is not surprising that a thoughtful Bible-revering student would doubt such a story.

Like most historic accounts from ancient times, the details of Jonah’s story are not known. I have no intention of insisting that he was swallowed by a humpback whale. And yet I have to admit that I am pleasantly surprised by what our modern studies of these fascinating creatures reveals. Far from invalidating the Biblical story, they continue to render it an increasing plausibility. 

But this is also a cautionary tale. It’s quite easy to disregard many stories found in sacred texts because they appear to be quite fanciful. With our perceived modern objectivity and expertise, stories like Jonah and the whale have been quickly discounted as nothing more than fairy tales. Often it takes a bit more probing to find that these stories have more to them than a superficial reading with quickly formed assumptions might suggest. It should make us ponder a little bit when we insist on understanding sacred texts with a presumption of modern superiority. The ancients weren’t as stupid and gullible as we sometimes make them out to be.


Roger Payne’s Among Whales was published by Scribner (1995). The reference to his friend’s engulfment is on page 49. The picture of Roy Chapman Andrews next to the right whale is from Walker’s Mammals of the World, Fifth Edition, Volume II by Ronald M. Nowak (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1991). On whale head allometry see Goldbogen, Potvin and Shadwick (2010) Skull and buccal cavity allometry increase mass-specific engulfment capacity in fin whales, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 277 (no. 1683): 861-868. On air movement into the humpback whale’s mouth see “Blowing bubbles: an aquatic adaptation that risks protection of the respiratory tract in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)” by J.S. Reidenberg and J.T. Laitman in Anatomical Record (June,2007) Volume 290(6): 569-580. Diane Ackerman’s note on Greek Sirens is in The Moon by Whale Light published by Random House, in 1991.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Old Age is Essential

A number of years ago I found myself unhappily plodding through a humid Central American forest contemplating my own mortality. Our small group had been camping at the top of the very remote Mount Botaderos in northern Honduras for a few days and was now returning to the lowlands where we hoped to find transportation back to civilization. But I was quite sick and was experiencing my third day without food – imposed by an aggressive microbe my stomach could not tolerate.  

At several points in our descent the trail would climb over individual hills and around steep ravines. On one prolonged climb, I was feeling particularly down, barely able to keep myself walking. Suddenly the frayed rope securing one of my bags to the back of a mule snapped without warning. The bag, containing several days’ worth of valuable samples, broke free and bounced several hundred feet down a steep hillside and out of view.    

I was stunned and at the point giving up. There was no way I had the energy to descend a steep canyon and climb back to the trail with a 70-pound duffle bag on my back. I leaned against a rock and sighed disconsolately.

Then without saying a word, a 70-year-old gentleman named Vicente (a local guide that we had hired for the trip) took off his backpack, picked up a machete and began hacking his way down the hill through the thick vegetation. In less than half an hour, with bag once again secured, we were back on the trail.

I was amazed then – just as I am now that I recall the incident – that this aged man was so healthy. Honduras, after all, is a difficult place to make a living.  It is a land where rural people survive by working hard and being resourceful. It is a place where people often go hungry, and where the climate often breeds malignancies. It is also a place where people don’t live very long lives – at least on average.

Even so, it isn’t unusual to find healthy old people. In fact, when you get the chance to talk with one of them you get the faint idea that old age just might be a possibility for most of us, if we could just stay healthy. This is true in many countries and in many climates. It’s perfectly natural to have the suspicion that we are capable of living to the ripe old Biblical age of 120 years.

This might be more obvious if we weren’t so distracted by the many myths of naturalism. Regarding the age of man, the accepted evolutionary story is a little unclear but it centers on the human struggle to survive, and on the importance of living long enough to reproduce. But the meaning of longevity is left to speculation. For example, we have a handful of effective equations for measuring reproductive fitness. A high school biology student can cross two varieties of plants and record just how well they survive and reproduce in nature. This is not difficult.

But try figuring out how an old dog helps its offspring reproduce, and the discussion is different. It’s possible to imagine ways this can be done. But try measuring it in a way that eliminates the possibility of other influences. The point is that evolutionary thinking does not have a clear picture on the meaning of old age. We are left with the textbook model of primitive humans wandering through an African landscape gathering plants and hunting big game, even while other animals (including rival humans) hunt them in return. This is not a story where anybody is expected to live very long past the years of peak physical activity.

Taking other animals as models, it has been assumed that primitive man took no care for other humans that were sick or aging. If a person was no longer capable of contributing to his own survival or of simply keeping up with the band, death would not be far away – not unlike the failing zebra picked out by a pride of lions for their next meal.

Animals don’t worry about the moral or ethical implications of such things. And survival would have been just as difficult for primitive peoples as it is for the beasts they lived with. Or so we have been led to believe. But, in fact, this story is guesswork at best.

And it is obviously not the same story as specified in the Bible – I mean the story of human beings living several hundreds of years. Methuselah’s longevity (all 969 years of it) is enough evidence to many thinkers that the Bible is not trustworthy. To others it is evidence that the Bible must be read metaphorically and not as history.

I have no intention of trying to persuade anyone on how to read ancient texts. I’m a biologist, after all. But I do have a thing or two to say about longevity. And the Biblical age of man (as established after the time of Abraham at 120 years) is a good deal more realistic than the vague senescent notions of contemporary savants.

Here is the question in a nutshell: What does old age mean? Of the many possible answers we might come up with, I see only two as important. Either it is a relatively unimportant by-product of evolutionary processes, or it suggests that living things were made to live quite a bit longer than they currently do.

If this is true, it implies that our bodies just might contain a blueprint that transcends the random accumulation of genes that natural selection is supposed to have endowed us with. It means that there is something about us that was made to endure – something that goes well beyond the natural explanations of evolutionary chance.   

Of these two very different perspectives, the view from Genesis is based on faith in a religious tradition and on our own experiences, suggesting that we were made to live a long time. This view also accepts that our ancestors might occasionally have lived a long time as well. The “accepted” view, on the other hand, is an evolutionary deduction based on the age of other (especially primate) animals. This view believes that our current human longevity comes because of better health care and improved living conditions. It also assumes that ancient humans lived short lives. 

The Bible isn’t really all that clear on the intended age of man. In the 6th chapter of Genesis, right after the discussion of the extreme longevity of the Patriarchs, the age of man is set to be 120 years. This is said to be a result of the constraints of the “flesh”. Later on the Bible indicates that Abraham lived 175 years. So if you draw a graph of the history of the world and the expected age of individuals, the line begins to level off at 120 years soon after the time of Abraham. If the line continues, it will drop to less than half of this number before rising to the 70’s for affluent societies today.
Let me give an example of the differences in these two perspectives of old age. Not far from my home, in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, there are many impressive stands of trees. In fact California is one of the most diverse places in the world for conifers. There are 55 species in the state.

The biggest pine tree is the sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) which is known to grow up to 275 feet tall. This, of course is a very atypical height. Sugar pines are the trees with the very long cones measuring over a foot long that your mother may have collected on one of your recent vacations.

Most sugar pines live for one to two hundred years and typically reach a height of less than 150 feet before dying. The typical causes of death are diseases, insect pests, and lightning. Very often a chance abrasion – say from a nearby falling tree – will leave an opening that allows for disease to enter and then spread. Eventually an accumulation of this sort of wear and tear leads to sickness and death.

A sugar pine tree that dies – let us say at 100 years of age – will probably have produced thousands of seeds. Many of these will have been food for squirrels and birds. Some of the seeds will have germinated and produced a new generation of trees. Clearly the constraints of natural selection will have been satisfied. Chance and the genetic diversity that comes from the formation of new seeds will have produced future generations with different reproductive potential. This is the Darwinian world in which we live.

Every now and then, however, you might come across a real sugar pine giant. Trees growing over 200 feet are uncommon and their age is also exceptional but they do exist. It is thought that the oldest known giants are close to 500 years old.

Looking at these ancient trees is an awe-inspiring experience. Their size alone numbs the imagination. You may be tempted to take a picture for future reflection, but you will probably be thwarted. It’s just too difficult to get a shot that does justice to the entirety of the tree.

Such a tree could easily pass as a standard for the species. Of course, in thinking this way, you would be ignoring the many smaller and more typical forms. But this is not important. The majestic giant in front of you is such a superb specimen, that it deserves this kind of recognition. You want to remember sugar pines by this specific tree.

It is also worth noting that most of these giants – especially the ones you remember as remarkable – are well-formed and stately trees. They are not senescing as old twisted remnants of their former healthier (and reproductively successful) selves. They have become impressive far beyond the demands of any Darwinian requirements. 

Why is this so? Why would anything live so long beyond its reproductive prime and then do so with such majesty – as if it were becoming the very standard for its kind? Well the truth is that we don’t know. And I have a confession to make: my acknowledging of this reality makes me an essentialist of sorts. And essentialism is one of the things that I was educated to avoid.

Let me explain. Until modern ideas changed our way of seeing the world, living things were believed to be imperfect representations of another reality – a more complete reality. Plato argued that individual beings belonged to clearly defined groups and that each group had an essence (his word was eidos). In this world the individual plants and animals that we see are only imperfect representations of this essence. We can sometimes get a hint of these essences, or types, in remarkable individuals but ultimately we experience the reality of these higher forms only as if they were shadows on a cave wall. This thinking about ideal types or forms has been called essentialism – a belief, if you will, in essences or essentials.

This, of course, was a view of the world that was incompatible with evolutionary thinking. Natural selection worked on individuals within a population. And these populations changed over time. Darwin and his followers have considered these changes to be the engine that drives evolutionary change. Species are formed by these changing populations. A static essence would obviously not work.

But if essentialism was incompatible with evolutionary thinking, it has been quite the opposite with Christianity. It is very compatible with Christian beliefs about the Creation. In fact Platonic essentialism and Christianity have lived side-by-side for hundreds of years. Perhaps the Bible is not clear about individual essences for living things, but it is clear regarding a premeditated created order. Some Christian biologists believe that the Creation involved evolutionary processes. Yet even this thinking requires a thoughtful process that very well may have involved essences or types. The Book of Genesis is clear about individual animals and plants being created after their own kind.  

Even the earth itself confirms these created distinctions. The fossil record shows clear breaks between species that are as obvious as the breaks we see in nature today. This is a hint that some sort of essential mechanism is involved. A strict population perspective would suggest that no clear lines exist between species, only vague geographic zones of overlap.

We do know that populations of plants and animals change. Sometimes they change quite a bit. Many dedicated scientists have measured these changes and the environmental conditions that have solicited them. In the end, though, it isn’t clear that these changes drive major evolutionary novelty. To many of us they appear to be built-in genetic devices enabling created beings to adapt to a world of changing conditions. In the end, this may be the only significant contribution of Darwin – That is, natural selection accounting for adaptability, with the true mechanism of species or generic differences lying elsewhere.

So what does all this mean as we stand beneath our old sugar pine tree and marvel at its age and grandeur? It means to me that the real world may indeed be a fallen place but that there are hints here of something more. To me, superannuated majesty looks a lot more essential than Darwin. And yes, the pun is intended.

In recent years there has emerged further evidence that humans lived longer anciently. Some of this evidence is coming from field studies of rural peoples. Other evidence comes from the dry vaults of ancient Egypt – from ancient mummies. And this evidence is requiring scientists to look differently at the so-called transition of erstwhile primates to humans.

By way of comparison, the chimpanzee (claimed to be our closest living relative) lives, on average, 13 years. The life expectancy for humans living in developed countries now exceeds 75 years. This is a significant difference and not one easily predicted by evolutionary theory.

Scientists have long assumed that modern health practices are the reason for the advanced ages often encountered in Western society today. Earlier humans would obviously not have lived so long. It isn’t hard to find old anthropology texts arguing that early human females were having babies in their early teens (or even earlier) – the implication being that our ancestors were more like Paleocene primates than like Methuselah. 

But things are changing. Heather Pringle, writing for Scientific American, tells us of the recent field work done in Tanzania with the Hadza - a group of hunter-gatherers living in the Lake Eyasi basin.

The Hadza live in a world surrounded by all the diseases and risks associated with wilderness living. And they do so almost entirely without the benefits of modern medicine. This is a world not so different than the world of chimpanzees. But the Hadza live a lot longer than chimpanzees. On average, the Hadza live over 30 years. But this isn’t the whole story. Death takes a disproportional number of children and youth, as it does in most societies. Individuals that manage to survive these years often live much longer. It is not unusual for some Hadza elders to live into their 80’s.

Another fairly recent finding is that many ancient Egyptians also lived longer than expected – longer than the evolutionary model predicted. The clues are coming from mummies that are well enough preserved for scientists to study their immune systems. What these scientists are finding is that ancient Egyptians suffered from many of the same kinds of diseases that we do – diseases that scientists once thought only existed among long-lived humans enjoying the benefits of modern health care. 

The closer we look at the world the more we find long-lived beings. An individual Giant Tortoise from Aldabra recently died after living 255 years.  An Andean condor has lived to the age of 80. A Cockatoo living in the Brookfield Zoo (Illinois) lived 80 years.

Elephants have been known to live over 80 years, with unverified accounts of individuals many times that old. A domestic cat from Austin, Texas died a few years ago at the age of 38. In the oceans of the world, long-lived creatures can be even more surprising. Lobsters are occasionally found that are over 100 years old. Specimens of the Red Sea urchin have been found that are over 200 years old.   

Just recently while travelling along the Columbia River in northern Oregon, Kathy and I stopped at the fish hatchery near Bonneville Dam just east of Portland. It was a sunny afternoon in early October and the few deciduous trees were turning yellow – highlighting the various shades of evergreen blanketing the surrounding hills. We were surprised at the size of the rainbow trout in several of the long cement ponds. But the real surprise was tucked away in the back of the hatchery in a pond near a small waterfall.

A small structure had been built into the ground beside the pond with a large glass window extending below the waterline. From the window it was possible to see three very large fish. These were not trout, although they were fish that lived part of their lives in fresh water. They were sturgeons, a kind of primitive bony fish that seem more related to sharks than other true fishes.

These sturgeons were as long as I am (over six feet long) and were fairly old - one of them had lived 70 years. This is impressive although sturgeons have been found that were over 12 feet long and probably much older than 70 years. What makes this particularly impressive is that sturgeons typically begin laying eggs before they are 10 years old and only a few feet long. These individuals were truly ancient for their kind.

The apparent early age of reproduction makes sense considering their habitat. They live much of their lives in the ocean and are themselves targets for other predatory fish and mammals. If they had to wait until they were 5 feet long before laying eggs, there probably wouldn’t be any sturgeons around anymore.  

Every once in a while individuals live a lot longer than expected. Maybe these are just extreme outliers in an otherwise very predictable span of temporal diversity. Or maybe they are more obviously temporal hints. Maybe, living things are made to live longer than we think.

I do find it quite interesting that the oldest known human beings live to the biblical age of man – just at, that is, 120 years. Jeanne Calment of France, the oldest human being whose age has been confirmed in modern times, lived 122 years. The oldest modern male was Jiroemon Kimura from Japan who lived 116 years.   

Perhaps John Henry Newman understood what this meant better than most. He observed that, “it is a plain fact, that most of us who die, die, not by any law of death, but by the law of disease; and some writers have questioned whether death is ever, strictly speaking, natural.”

This is something to think about. Maybe death isn’t natural in a different place. But here, in our fallen world, it’s easy to assume that old age is just the flip side of inevitable death. Such a view means that if you live to an advanced age, you will do so because of luck.

The other view is much more interesting. It is also much more inspiring. And to be quite frank, it makes more intuitive sense. Old age is a hint of who we are. And we were made for greater things.


The reference to Methuselah’s age is Genesis 5:27. The age of Abraham is given in Genesis 25:7. Heather Pringle’s article, Long Live the Humans, is found in Scientific American (October 2013) pages 48-55. Ronald M. Lanner’s colorful and interesting book Conifers of California (published by Cachuma Press, 2002) is my main source on sugar pines. My main source for essentialism is Ernst Mayr, especially his The Growth of Biological Thought (Belknap Press, Harvard, 1982). For an interesting list of long-lived individuals of many species see the Wikipedia listing for “List of Long-Lived Organisms” [accessed September 2013]. My source for old humans comes from Wikipedia’s article “Oldest People”. John Henry Newman’s statement is from A Grammar of Assent, Chapter VIII, part 1 of Informal Inference.