Aging is a Military Coup

The military forces of the United States are not to be deployed within the country.  Many people think it’s a clause in the Constitution, but actually it was an afterthought, enacted into law in 1807, strengthened and clarified by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.

The Founding Fathers reasoned that government is always in danger of assuming imperial powers, escaping from democratic control.  If ever our government were to turn against the people and treat them like a domestic enemy, they would not start from the ground floor to assemble an occupying force; rather they would be tempted to use the existing military forces, the standing army, grotesquely turned against the American people whom they were sworn to defend and protect.

Evolution as conceived by Charles Darwin has no forethought and no central direction, but often the results of natural selection are elegant and economical, as though they had been planned.  If evolution found it necessary to regulate the individual’s life span for the larger good of the community or the ecosystem, there would be no need to invent a new and specialized death program.  It would be far easier to coopt the body’s existing armies, and redirect them in a suicide mission.

The science of aging in the last twenty years has made one discovery after another of the body’s protective armies turned inward, repurposed to destroy the self.  In each case, researchers specialized in one particular disease notice that the body is attacking itself; they imagine that this is a unique case of “something gone awry”, and they write about “dysregulation” of this system or that system.  But when generalists in gerontology step back and see many examples of the same pattern, they suspect an evolutionary purpose.  In the same sense that the purpose of our eyes is to gather visual information and the purpose of our kidneys is to filter waste from our blood, we may say that aging has an evolutionary purpose, and that purpose is to eliminate the individual for the larger good of the community. All for one and one for all — only the “one” in this case is not the individual animal but the whole population, which if it grows too fast can crash the ecosystem on which all depend.

Arthritis.  The old view of arthritis was that the cartilage that cushions and lubricates our joints wears away with years of use.  Now it is recognized that osteo-arthritis has the same roots as rheumatoid arthritis.  It is an auto-immune disorder, the body’s immune system turned traitor against our bones and cartilage.

Atherosclerosis.  The old view of coronary heart disease was that over many years, cholesterol deposits on the artery walls in the same way that mineral deposits build up inside a water pipe and gradually come to clog the pipe completely.  Now it is recognized that inflammation plays an essential role.  When we are injured, inflammation is the body’s first line of defense against invading microbes; but in old age inflammation attacks healthy tissues, and the delicate linings of our arteries are among the most vulnerable.  Inflamed pieces of the artery walls break off, clog the artery and cause heart attacks.

Cancer.  The old view was that there are random mutations in a particular cell line, a series of unfortunate accidents that cause the cells to disregard regulating signals from the body and just continue replicating and growing out of control.  Now we realize that cancer is a failure of the body’s immune defense system.  When we are young, our white blood cells search and destroy incipient cancers, but as we get older the immune early warning system is gradually shut down.  The thymus gland, where these white cells are trained for their task, gradually atrophies with age.  And the cancer mutations themselves are not steady and random, but are ramped up as we get older by chronic, systemic inflammation.  Further, the deadliness of cancer comes not from the selfishness of uncontrolled growth, but from malicious “oncogenes” that create toxins, poisoning the body from the inside out.

Alzheimer’s Disease.  This is the latest paradigm to shift, highlighted in an article this week in the MIT Technology Review about the work of Harvard Med School Professor Beth Stevens.  The old view was that plaques and tangles accumulate in the brain from cellular waste products.  Now we are beginning to see that glial cells are the culprits.  When we are infants, the brain is sculpted by subtraction.  It is the glial cells that decide which nerve connections to keep and which to prune.  But in old age, this article reports, the cells “go rogue” and begin—unexplainably—to destroy nerve connections that are healthy, even essential for the brain’s function.  Could it be that this, too, is not a random dysfunctional behavior, but part of evolution’s program to reliably fix our life spans?

Evolutionary biologists have been the last to recognize this paradigm shift in our understanding of aging.  Since the 1960s, they have been committed to the idea that natural selection cares only about the individual, never the community.  This is the theory of the Selfish Gene.  But a growing wing of academic scientists has been gathering evidence that natural selection works both on individuals and on groups.  The new view is that evolution occurs simultaneously on multiple levels, so that both selfish and cooperative behaviors appear.  Communities and entire ecosystems may evolve in a way that is integrated for the good of the whole.  Only in this context can we make sense of the body’s civil insurrection that is aging.  We die individually as part of nature’s regulation of the ecological community.

42 thoughts on “Aging is a Military Coup

  1. Hi Josh….Big picture posts like this are wonderful..We need this regularly Thank you !

    I’ve noticed a trend in previous blog comments for lots of science geeks to pile on in with lots of links about very specialised bits of the jig saw..Yes they have their place ..But this blog is outcome focused for ordinary mortals..

    Two questions : when does the book come out ? And have you decided not to bother updating the index.. I wanted to refresh my memory on one aspect that you discussed last year..But the index did not help as it stops in 2014..

  2. What is the feedback mechanism for “group” evolution? Is the idea that, for example, perhaps a bunch of subpopulations with similar access to resources exist, and ones with members who live too long tend to collapse due to resource overuse, thereby favoring groups with the right levels of longevity?

    • Yes. I have contributed several such computer models to the literature. The first was by Michael Gilpin (1975) “Group Selection in Predator-Prey Communities”, still in print from Princeton U Press. With crude computer facilities available 40 years ago, he constructed a watertight argument proving that this mechanism is possible, even common.

  3. Josh, I think you have it pretty much correct- aging is not the result of a haphazard, random destruction of information but a deliberate set of interconnected programs. I recently had the most amazing conformation about my proposed model of aging (Katcher 2015), which I’ll admit – though I derived it from many studies – I didn’t really have much faith in, or know what to do with). However the recent studies in Nature by Stroustrup et al 2016 – I received mathematical confirmation of this model in several respects – as it produced lifespan scaling with treatments designed to increase or decrease lifespan, and it should the ‘simultaneous change in all risk factors and to the same degree’ as shown in the totally ‘unexpected’ results of Stroustrup et al. As well as predicting other phenomenon – so if anyone is interested in helping me develop and explore a mathematical model of this phenomenon I’d sure be interested in collaborating – I’m starting to think that life, ageing and developmental processes in general might be modeled on Markov chains.

    • Hi Harold,
      I have degree in Science and Biology and finishing my degree in medical Science this year. I would like to know more about your research. This web site is fascinating, it is an area of interest.


      • Yes. As you know Josh, I’ve been saying this stuff for a long time, aging is a program. and now I feel I’m onto how aging really works. Yes the article about C. elegans treated in a number of different ways, with a number of life-extending and life-shortening procedures that showed ‘scaling’ (stretching of shrinking functions in the horizontal axis) and coordinate changes is all risk factors and to the same degree..

  4. I’m convinced now on this new and groundbreaking paradigm shift in how and why we age. You’ve put the pieces of the puzzle together –
    And it reminds us of why CR and HIIT work for health and longevity. The body doesn’t ‘know’ it’s in a gym. It physiologically behaves as if survival itself is on the line. In fact if we are moving and pushing intensely then life in our ecosystem must be brutally hard. And that transfers I believe to an alarm system- extinction- immenient!
    Self destruction and culling of the species turns into a dynamic cry of, ‘we need to be here’– Not just for us, but for our species. Which is why our immune system strengthens with physical exercise even in old age. Another wonderful post -Amazing detective work

  5. I think the cancer immonoediting hypothesis is still in its infancy. I think the degradation of chromatin by epigenetic changes is the main tool for aging the body, Chromatin degradation drives tissue degradation, immune system dysfunction, increased rate of mutations, etc.

    • I agree, but I’d perhaps word it differently. I don’t think of epigenetic changes as just “degradation” but also “reprogramming” – some of each is going on, and both contribute to the body’s self-destruction.

  6. When evolving cooperation, it does not “take two to tango,” cooperative behavior can arise from one individual. Furthermore, I cannot conceive that evolution would curtail population growth for the sake of the group. In my view, one must always consider the ever present danger that predators present to a species. In the natural world, predators cull and resources diminish thereby obviating the need for intrinsic population control. Also because of possible excessive population growth amongst the predators and new predators arising, it would be foolhardy to implement any system of self control. Diseases of aging are the consequences of an inability to repair DNA with 100% fidelity and entirely because of imperfections inherent in the process of replication. Such consequences being most dire in organisms with a high metabolic rate and/or high UV/toxin exposure.

    Where predation and food scarcity do not suffice in maintaining balance, you could consider the virus which is almost always associated with overpopulation, and even homosexuality, for instance, may be a possible mechanism to control rat overpopulations.

    With regard to the importance of Immunosurveillance, there is much contradictory evidence. For instance, while the immunocompromised transplant patient is quick to develop cancers, they tend to be cancers that are associated with viral infections. In other words, in this population the IS fails to kill viral infections and the viruses then go on to form tumours.

    • Angel –
      I encourage you to read more about evolution about cooperation, and read some of my own writings on predator/prey dynamics. Without aging, predator/prey dynamics are inherently unstable and both populations tend to explode, then crash in turn.
      – Josh

    • @ Angel

      Assume you’re right: What happens with the top predator of a ecosystem? They have no predators, thus will eat as much as possible and, as Josh explains, crash.

      Thus “nature”/”evolution” must have a mechanism to cull them. (without the anthropomorphizing, what this means is that it ACTUALLY HAPPENED, deep in the past, when “grey goo” first arose, thus no gray goo today) Otherwise the whole system will unwind back.

      Now, complexity doesn’t arise ready and done. As you say, a new predator can come along. But, now you have 2 species age regulated, no? And so on, all the steps of the pyramid. True for 1, true for n+1, by induction you prove aging must be active in every single one, except perhaps at the very bottom, the autotrophic universal donators, where the very definition of life gets blurry(ier).

  7. Some of those holistic doctors dying, suiciding, being murdered claimed that something was put in vaccins that disabled the body’s capacity to correct cancercells. They claimed to have found some stuff that could correct that. Another interesting article i just read was by Geoengineering about chemtrails causing the chemtrailsyndrome. And then there is Roundup, expected to cause autism in 50 % of the children by 2025. And then there is so much more diseasing humanity through some evil plan for massdepopulation. Suffering from PTSD/CPTSD when triggered instantly halts the immunesystem. Either all of this forces humanity to upgrade human evolution, thinking of ways to overcome all of the above, or i fear the worse for my future generations.

  8. Hi Josh,

    I am looking forward to the release of your book.

    I think an important question is, have the conditions you described each evolved as independent death programs or are they manifestations of some underlying single process such as the developmental program?

    While group selection could be the mechanism that results in the evolution of senescence or death programs it does not seem to be required. I have simulated populations of animals in which only selection on the individual is occurring.
    In these studies simply varying the predation rate on the population of reproductive adults controls the rate of senescence in the population over generational time. Increasing the predation rate selects for individuals with higher rates of senescence and lower predation rates decreases the rates of senescence in the population by selecting for individuals with lower rates senescence. This effect is maintained in the simulation as long as the rate of senescence is linked to the maturation rate of the individual, as is common in nature.

    • Kevin –
      To model the evolution of aging without requiring group selection, you must assume that aging is part of a tradeoff, so that shorter life span corresponds to higher fertility. This tradeoff is justified by a great deal of theory, and in fact it is so widely assumed that many authors don’t feel a need to justify it.
      But there is no experimental evidence for such a tradeoff. In fact, field studies and studies of zoo animals have never detected a “cost of reproduction”. For example, Ricklefs 2007.
      So when I say evolution of aging requires group selection, I am excluding tradeoff models.
      – JJM

      • Josh, remember the other factor you have also already identified: evolvability. It can be way more powerful than group selection, to the joy of the old paradigm defenders 🙂

  9. VERY COOL expansion on senolytic population clearance. ROCK ON, JOSH!
    Me, I’m locked and loaded and already sieved my pops a few times. Lost a bit on body weight thereby, and am in really fine fighting trim.
    I will go the distance.

    Comrade Doctor Yuri Andreevich Zhivago
    From within Occupied British Columbia

  10. Thank you for this fascinating study. I’ve preordered your book and look forward to reading it.

    All the best

  11. Looking at your article from the point of view of someone who deals with the 150-plus different arthritis diseases, what you say is very convincing. Can you explain though why so many young people develop auto-immune arthritis diseases? Although this may occur in younger people following a severe viral illness or extreme stress, there are many, many cases where it ‘just happens,’ or appears to.

  12. Why would evolution need so many pathways to kill us, when all it takes is a single cancer cell? Death does a thorough job, I guess.

    • Evolution has piled on different methods because any one would be too easy to evolve away. The most direct and efficient natural selection is always for LONGER life span.

      This argument was made by George Williams in 1957, and though he got some other things wrong, I think he was essentially correct about this one.

  13. Amazing. Germline cells just dont age. We already knew this but… I thought it was because germline cells are passed to the next generation while we are still young. But no. Theyse cells just dont age. A 25 year old woman has a lot of mtDNA mutations in her soma, but very few and only noncoding mutations in her oocytes.
    Disposable soma? Germline cells are protected. They are like ant queens.
    I always wondered how come most of the children are healthy while there is no competition among oocytes at least nothing compared to sperms. (of course there is selective pressure, 75% of fertilized oocytes are not viable in IVF). Now I understand.

    • Apparently :

      While somatic cells depend mostly on mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation (OxPhos), pluripotent stem cells possess immature mitochondria and preferentially use glycolysis as their major source of energy

      Pnpt1 encodes mitochondrial polynucleotide phosphorylase (PnPase), an RNA-binding protein that plays an important role in RNA import and processing in mitochondria and, thus, mitochondrial homeostasis

      … overexpression of Pnpt1 (Figure S4A) significantly suppressed somatic reprogramming by 60% (Figure 3D), whereas knockdown of the Pnpt1 gene … significantly enhanced iPSC reprogramming by ∼4-fold
      I never believed mitochondria or oxidative stress has anything to do with aging, but maybe there is some link.

  14. Aging is entropy, pure and simple. All things must pass, and the nature of life is that things are always changing.

    “The only thing that never changes is the fact that things change.” ~ The Buddha

    Once we understand that, there can be more peace in our hearts. Cherish the now — what’s happening now. It’s all we really have.

  15. Ahhh how simplistic is that Buddhist outlook..”The reason for living is to die so don’t bother trying to stop it”. ( btw, the Buddha taught reincarnation. How does that fir in with your universal entropy ?

    Life is itself a huge slap in the face of entrophy..Otherwise how could it be ?
    Josh’s posts on this blog are also a big slap in the face..But not of entropy. It’s evolution’s plan to kill all of us from within, which Josh is challenging…Thanks Josh…

  16. In the construction of a scientific theory the builder of this theory is faced with selection of the inferences that will be made by this theory. Evolutionary theory selects these inferences by intuitive rules of thumb called “heuristics and biases.” The resulting theory faces incongruities that include the onslaught of autoimmune diseases in old age. These incongruities are explained by an addendum to evolutionary theory under which it is favorable to propagation of the species for old organisms to die. This theory is, however, a product of heuristics or biases,

    In the selection of the inferences, an alternative to heuristics and biases is to select them by “the principles of reasoning.” Under these principles the inferences are selected by an optimization of the unique measure of an inference in the probabilistic logic: its entropy. Heuristics and biases yield a solution to the problem of how to select the inferences that is suboptimal and prone to logical error. Thus, the quest for alleviation of age-related disorders should be bound by the principles of reasoning rather than being bound by evolutionary theory.

    • Since when is there a disagreement between reasoning and evolutionary theory? It is based on reasoning and rules that are probably never observed in nature when coincidence and calamity – and pure blind chance determines the next stage in evolution, not a set of mathematical laws – which is what reasoning is. If we decided to base nature on our reasoning – we’d have a bunch of laws that don’t work, at least under the circumstances we need them to in modern technologies – because the laws of quantum mechanics are basically unreasonable. An object can’t pass through two spatially separated slits at the same time – but it does. The special relativity theory is based on the totally unreasonable principle that the speed of a passing beam of light will be measured as being exactly the same whether the observer is moving away from it at near light speed or towards it at near light speed. Is it reasonable for an enzyme that’s lacking substrate to become a transcription factor for the production enzymes and channels that transport its substrates precursors into the cell and process them? We can’t do it, how can a cell – but it does – have you ever wondered how every cell in your body has the ability to replicate you – and yet is so much simpler than you? Where does the extra information come from? From energy – yes, but jump into a fire and you won’t increase your information content. Is it just more of the same – no.

      • Harold Katcher:

        Thank you for taking the time to respond and for sharing your views. Prior to the advent of information theory, there was not an alternative to selection of the inferences that are made by a scientific theory from a larger set of possibilities through the use of the intuitive rules of thumb that are called “heuristics and biases.” Early in the 1970s Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky began to investigate the heuristics and biases that humans use in practice from a logical perspective. They and their colleagues found logical errors. Recently Kahneman was awarded the Nobel prize in economics for his work with Tversky. Tversky was ineligible as he had died by the time of the award.

        Heuristics and biases fail to deliver a unique solution to the problem of how to select the inferences. In this way the method of selection that uses heuristics and biases violates Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction.

        Since about 1980 scientists have had the ability to select these inferences by optimization of the unique measure of an inference in the probabilistic logic: its entropy. This method delivers the uniqueness that is missing for heuristics and biases. The rules by which a unique solution is reached are properly called the “principles of reasoning.”

        A few scientists were lucky enough to anticipate information theory and thus to create logically flawless scientific theories prior to the advent of information. Among them were the creators of thermodynamics and the modern theory of telecommunications. Among them was not, however, Charles Darwin.

        • Terry, I honestly don’t understand your point. Charles Darwin certainly advanced a reasonable hypothesis of natural selection. That it was accepted as “the” principle by which evolution proceeded certainly was not Darwin’s fault that was 150 years ago! That the development of organisms, their limitations by dint of developmental gene regulatory modules that are ‘imported’ from ancestors or even the existence of genes at all, was unsuspected in Darwin’s time.
          However, it seems to me that the ‘old’ way of looking at the world, the way of the ‘modern synthesis’, is no longer ‘modern’ – as genes as entities that either exist or don’t – not as complex entities that change concentration and even function in space and time, because genes don’t act alone but as part of the huge connectivity of gene-regulatory networks, metabolic networks, signalling networks, protein-protein interaction networks, small RNA networks and their interactions with each other makes inheriting ‘a life’ far more than inheriting twenty-five thousand-odd genes.

          • Hi Harold

            “Reasonable” is the wrong word. “Intuitive” is the right word. Now that we have the technology for making reasoned arguments we should use this technology rather than heuristics and biases in drawing conclusions from biomedical studies. This my point.

            Cordially, Terry Oldberg

          • I honestly don’t know this technology for making reasoned arguments, although I’ve taken a course in logic (and am a programmer), but let’s hear you apply this technology to the evidence (and it first had to be recognized as evidence) that Darwin saw (a unique perception, motivated by the then emerging field of geology) of evolution – and the hypotheses put forward to explain it – other than animals produce more offspring than can be sustained, variation in those offspring decides which have the advantage and are more likely to survive and reproduce. That coupled with fossil evidence that what animals existed in ancient times were different yet similar to animals today. What conclusion does your “algorithm” reach about this evidence, and if it is a ‘mechanized’ and infallible system (prove that! – I don’t believe it.) then why do we need humans at all? We can just feed in the current Wikipedia and let it determine everything for us; the purpose of life, the universe and all that! I’m a simple guy, I need examples.

          • Harold Katcher:

            We do not have a mechanized and infallible system for drawing conclusions from arguments. We do have a well tested never falsified scientific theory on how we should draw conclusions from arguments. This theory is the one called “information theory.”


          • That says precisely nothing – its just words, like we have a way of determining the structure of sub atomic particles, its called mathematics. Let’s hear some application!

          • Harold
            You’ve over generalized. It says precisely nothing to you but says something to me and to many others. I have to go. So long.

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