Commentary: Respecting our elders should never grow old

Members of the Ute tribe are seen on the Ute reservation in this collection of photos by Robert L. Marimon, Sr. He homesteaded in the Whiterocks Canyon area in the early 1900s. Marimon's granddaughter, Nancy Martin, lived there from 1934-1955 and donated these photos to The Tribune. (Courtesy of Nancy Martin)

The 1976 cult sci-fi film “Logan’s Run” depicts a hedonistic utopia that descends into dystopia as everyone over age 30 is terminated. The film’s “runners” — people who have reached 30 but don’t wish to have their clocks “re-set” — are pursued by Sandmen, elite police.

Two runners discover an old man hiding in the ruins of a city that was Washington, D.C. The old man is living proof that knowledge can persist for more than three decades. There’s a metaphorical lesson: If you’re “old,” you might just have knowledge, stories and memory that enhance our world.

This past winter, while visiting the Four Corners region where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet, we reflected on drought preparedness. Previous climate changes have sharpened the region’s native people’s abilities to live lightly in these arid lands. Yet one key challenge, voiced at a recent meeting, is how to connect the lessons of the past to present and future conditions.

The knowledge and experience of elders has taken a hit lately. At the federal level, there’s a dangerous brain drain afoot. Senior employees who are quitting, retiring or accepting buyouts have specialized expertise as engineers, infectious disease specialists, disaster relief workers and environmental toxicologists, among other fields. They have been around long enough to know what pre-regulation pollution levels look, smell, feel like.

They comprehend the importance of transnational cooperation, knowledge-sharing and diplomacy. Their work has benefited us as individuals, groups, countries, human societies and interconnected ecosystems. We ignore the benefits of accumulated knowledge at our own risk, but might there be a larger blind spot unique to humans revealed here?

In “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” John Steinbeck famously offered, “We are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it.” That observation arose as he stood at the feet of California’s Redwoods, over 1,000 years old, and noted how we don’t love to be reminded of our “youth.” The truth is that as a 200,000-year-old species, modern humans are all “millennials.”

Only hubris prevents us from a belief that we can learn from older individuals and species whose longevity across time and space exceeds ours. Evolutionary successes include sharks, horseshoe crabs, shrimp, sturgeon, jellyfish — just some of the animals that have survived unchanged for millions of years and some 50 times longer than our genus Homo.

Elsewhere, telltale signs of exquisite adaptation reveal themselves. In the Four Corners, the neck pouches of pinyon jays carry pine seeds too big to be wind-dispersed, and elusive ring-tailed cats, whose eponymous appendage naturalists haven’t yet deciphered, deposit their juniper-filled feces.

The knowledge to be gained from older species in an evolutionary sense applies as well to older animals. Examples of the prowess of elderly individuals abound in nature. Among elephants, older females lead as matriarchs, guiding their families to sources of water. Old moose mothers know the best migratory paths to access food and avoid predators. Among wolves, packs with older individuals can adjudicate conflict.

Which brings us back to the wisdom passed down to our own bipedal species. America’s western canyons host the country’s largest number of archeological ruins. It is here that the ancestral Puebloans learned about drought. What their successors, the Navajo and Ute Nations, now know is that drought destabilized their ancestors’ societies by exacerbating social inequalities.

It’s time to seize what lessons we’ve learned from our past and revere better. Let’s remember that climate challenges gripped people before and their contemporaries are responding with improved drought resiliency plans informed by past failures. Let’s revere the old matriarch who harbors accumulated wisdom that makes her a reliable leader, or the old wolf that teaches his pack when to walk away from a fight.

Evolutionarily old species — like elders — also have much to teach us by inspiring innovative solutions derived from their time-tested forms, for example sensitive robotic arms modeled on elephants’ trunks, or electric eel-inspired battery power.

Today, a new generation enjoys smartphones, deploys drones, summits K2 or Everest sans oxygen. The world is changing. But isn’t it true that the new inherits the remnants of what the old has left? So while we may be momentarily tempted to embrace the rules of “Logan’s Run,” let’s face our Sandmen and stand our ground. The next generations will thank us.

Kate Nowak

Joel Berger

Katarzyna Nowak is a fellow with The Safina Center. She holds a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Cambridge, has studied wild primates and elephants in Africa, and has observed our human (primate) behavior on the streets of Washington D.C. as a recent Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Joel Berger is a Senior Scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Barbara Cox University Chair in Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University. He studies adaptations in wild mammals from Siberia to Patagonia including cherished species in the American West.