Disappearing Elder: A Devolutionary Downstep
We have lost Elder, our third stage of life, in a single blink of the evolutionary eye.
This loss began with the discovery of fossil fuels only eight generations ago, a very short period when contrasted to the more than a thousand generations modern humans have existed. The loss of our Elder stage, that stage of human wisdom, has gone mostly unnoticed. When the loss shows up at all, it shows up as vague, slow and incremental.
Yet if we stand back and contrast the eons-long influence and privilege of Elder with the present disreputable state of our elders, we become present to the possibility that we live within an evolutionary detour, a human devolution. We can then notice that our uniquely human Three Stage Life that had long given us our evolutionary advantage has devolved into a mere Two Stage Life, only slightly distinguishable from any other species. For them, Youth and Adult is sufficient. For humans it is not. Our unique species-advantage is that humans have a third stage of life.
Humans had long utilized the wisdom of that 20-40 year long Elder stage to live lightly and lovingly upon our planet, to pass on the various human cultures with an appreciation that actions impact ‘unto the seventh generation’ and to give children the benefit of two generations of child-raisers ― mothers and that uniquely human institution, grandparents.
Our critical Elder stage is rapidly disappearing worldwide. In some places, particularly the West, it is practically gone. Our old people continue to default into mere aging adults, or, in some cases, aging children, instead of assuming the wise mantle of Elder.
Further examination of this trend reveals that this evolutionary slide has not been straight like the slide of a playground. Rather the loss shows up as a series of mini-transformations, not upward as in ‘evolutionary leaps’, but downward in a series of devolutionary downsteps. Buckminster Fuller, world visionary and architect of the geodesic dome, described one of these downsteps, without distinguishing it as such, during a seven hour interview on stage with Werner Erhard in 1977.
As he explained,
“…early Mom and Dad were, for their children, the authority regarding their lives. Dad ranged wide during his search for food, staying aware of any possible dangers arriving from a distance. He brought home the meat. Mom consolidated these gains and developed the means to preserve the food, drying it, heating it with fire and the like … Both Mom and Dad were the repository of the knowledge that allowed continued existence. This knowledge was confined to them and they were the exclusive conduit by which it passed down to their children.
Fuller was born in 1895. When he was three, the electron was discovered. Then the first airplane when he was eight. When he was twelve, the SOS of Morse Code was invented. And when he was 23, the first human voice came over this new thing called a radio. When he was 27, the first radio station was licensed.
“One day, as Dad came home, his children ran out to greet him and they told him that the radio said that someone had flown across the Atlantic. What!? Dad exclaimed.”
Bucky said, “Dad never again brought home some news.”
This abrupt shift from Dad as news-bringer was one in the irregular series of devolutionary downsteps. This downstep instantly disempowered Elder as the source of ongoing tribal knowledge.
It might be tempting to conclude that this shift represents a disempowerment of the Adult Stage, Dad being an adult. Not so, because Adult is the source of the discoveries of electricity, airplanes and radio. Dad-as-Elder became disempowered at the same moment that Dad-as-Adult journeyed toward over-empowerment.
Of such small devolutionary downsteps, unappreciated at the time and only noticed in retrospect, does a devolutionary process consist. We might wonder what else we are not noticing. Is it possible that what we label as progress, the technological discoveries that clearly represent an advantageous shift, might similarly contain the seeds of devolutionary downsteps?
What other downsteps might we be missing as our cultural worldview shifts at this time of enormous change?