120 Years, Man’s Natural Age
MRS. JOHN VAN VORST IN PEARSON'S MAGAZINE
Man should live to be a hundred and twenty years old and then he should want to die. Such is the pronouncement of Metchnikoff, the scientist, who is rapidly coming to the fore as a student of life. His theory of existence, as set forth in this article, is remarkable and yet it is not unnatural. It remains to be seen whether it can stand the test of experience.
ELIE METCHNIKOFF is an extraordinary man about whom the world is just beginning to talk. Scientist he must be, since the French have made him sub-director of the Pasteur Institute. Idealist he surely seems, since he affirms that men can and should live to be a hundred and twenty years old.
“A hundred and twenty years old!” we repeat, aghast at the picture of decrepitude suggested to our minds.
“But no,” our modern alchemist responds; “when man understands how to live and what to eat, there will be no old age. Old age is a disease. We must cure it. When we have done so, we shall prolong otar existence for over a hundred years, and then, instead of wanting to live, we shall want to die.” Scientists nowadays belong to two categories : in the first may be classed those whose lives are devoted to discovering the specific remedy for some especial disease. In the second are those who devote themselves to findingout what life really is. The great Pasteur relieved humanity from the scourge of hydrophobia : Dr. Roux, his successor, has diminished the dangers of diphtheria; Koch is associated in our minds with the treatment of tuberculosis; Dr. Doyen is in search, unsuccessfully as yet, of the cancer microbe and its antidote.
Among the seekers after the lifeprinciple, the most eminent are Professor Burke and Professor Loeflb.
Metchnikoff holds a place which is not really in either of these cate-
gories. He is probably the only scientist living who believes just what he does; namely, that men should, if they were natural, live to be one hundred and twenty years old, and then be ready to die.
Before coming to this conclusion, Metchnikoff began by investigating the cases of persons who were between sixty and eighty years old, and who were afflicted with some ailment which was soon to put an end to their lives. He supplemented his own researches with data procured from others, and what he found was this: Among all the cases cited, even those whose sufferings were terrible, there was not a single man or woman who wanted to be put out of his '.agony by death. They all preferred misery, with a chance of recovery, to extinction. They all wanted to live.
“This.” Metchnikoff said to himself,, “shows that death between the ages of sixty and eighty is not natural. It should not occur so soon. There is some cause for it which should be discovered and remedied.”
Then he set to work studying old age and length of life among the animals. Mammals, he found, show their age in much the same way that men do. An aged horse, or dog, becomes sluggish, stiff in its joints, its teeth loosen and decay. A dog, after ten or twelve years of existence, gives decided signs of physical decrepitude. These animals, with cows and other mammals, have comparatively short lives, and a pronounced old age, exactly as man has.
Now, on the other hand. Metehnikoff observed that birds live much longer and are far more alert up to the end. A duck twenty years old is still agile in its movements, and nothing in its appearance betokens age. A small parrakeet nineteen years old, kept under close observation, was found to be as lively as the young birds of the same variety. It was as [bright and as inquisitive as they, and its plumage was as brilliant and rich in coloring at nineteen as it ever had been.
Another bird which Metchnikoff has under his daily scrutiny at the Pasteur Institute is a parrot, known, according to precise records, to be between seventy and seventy-five years old. Yet it is impossible to find in it any sign of advanced age.
The list of this scientist’s observations is long: mice, he noted, become old very soon, and seldom live more than four or five years. Canaries, on the other hand, live sometimes fifteen or twenty years.
When the examples cited were sufficient to confirm the general rule, tlha'f birds are longer-lived than mammalia, Metchnikoff set about to discover the reason for this fact.
The reason he found was this: the animals that soonest show the pronounced signs of old age, are those in which the intestines are largest. Birds, as a matter of fact, have no large intestines.
Now it is in the large intestine, Metchnikoff observed, that are found the microbes which cause the disease we know as “old age.” Fifty per cent., or one-half, the poisoning called “sclerosis,” or hardening of the arteries, is probably transmitted by the microbes of the large intestine. It is this hardening, or sclerosis, which gives rise to the infirmities of old age.
Close upon such a statement it is appalling to learn that these microbes of the large intestine increase at the rate of one hundred and twenty-eight billion (128,000,000,000) a day!
Fortunately—and let it be quickly said—some of these microbes are .harmless, some are even beneficial." But there are a great number which are prejudical to health and life.
“Birds,” we repeat to ourselves, “have no large intestine.”
“Then, could we live without a large intestine?”
Metchnikoff has answered this question in an astonishing way. He ■says :
“Not only is the whole of the large intestine in man superfluous, but it is no longer rash to state that its removal would be attended with happy results. ’ ’
What? Should we have not only the appendix, but the whole intestine cut out? Is this what lie means? And is not long life very dearly purchased at such a price?
Cases of appendicitis, argues our scientist, are fatal eight times out of ten, yet the vermiform appendix can be removed without disturbance of the body’s functions, and so, also, can the large intestine, which, in like manner, is an arch-enemy to normal health.
But should we have it taken away now?
Metchnikoff is moderate. He replies to this question :
“It will, perhaps, in the distant ¡future, be considered normal to remove by operation the whole of the large intestine. At present, it is more reasonable to attack the harmful microbes which assail that part of us.”
This, according to our authorit}%
can be done only by the proper sort of diet.
Obviously, he tells us, we should eat no uncooked food. The soil in which vegetables grow contains microbes; the fertilizers used in kitchen gardens contain microbes. Every quart of uncooked strawberries (or berries of any kind), every head of lettuce, every spray of celery, every peach, shelters quantities of these unseen enemies, which we thus, through our diet, take unwittingly into our systems, where they begin their deadly work. It is microbes, says Metchnikoff, that make our hair turn gray ; it is microbes that weaken the muscles and produce the flabby appearance and wrinkles in aged flesh.
But is there something more to be done than merely to have all fresh tomatoes and fruits and salads cooked before eating them? Is there a positive remedy to be found for these intestinal microbes?
The slow poisoning going on in the body may be arrested by the use of sour milk as a beverage. There is some property in sour, milk, buttermilk, or képhir; which Metchnikoff believes to act as a resisting power against the infection from mircobes in the large intestine.
So much for diet. There are other sides of the question into which the scientist has also gone deeply.
One might almost say that it is nowadays “old-fashioned” to be a Darwinite, to suppose that “ man is descended from the same common stock as the monkey.” Scientists since Darwin have proved many things disconcerting to the “monkey” theory. But Metchnikoff reverts to this idea, which has fallen somewhat into disuse.
“Man,” he says, “is the descendant of some anthropoid ape. He has inherited a constitution adapted
to an environment very different to that w7hich now surrounds him.”
In other words, there are various parts of the human body which might be useful to an ape, but which ean play no part in the life of a man. The most familiar of these is the vermiform appendix. Others are the muscles of the ear, the cocyx or vestige of a tail.
Just as there are physical troubles caused by the presence of these useless heirlooms, so there are problems of another nature brought about by man’s having more brains than the monkey. The monkey eats only what is good for him, being guided in his choice of food solely by instinct.
Man enjoys his meals not merely because they satisfy his appetite— he eats when he is not hungry, he drinks what he knows is bad for him, he deliberately exposes himself to disease. He ought to make his will power as strong as an instinct, and protect himself wisely by limiting the amount he eats, and by drinking almost no alcohol. These are two more things which would contribute, says Metchnikoff, toward our living to be one hundred and twenty jmars old without becoming decrepit.
Perhaps the most astounding part of what Metchnikoff claims is that man having, through diet and moderation, reached the ripe age of one hundred and twenty will then want to die.
The goal of existence, according to this cosmopolitan scientist, is for man to live so long that he shall have enough of life. Indeed, in somewhat more classic terms he makes this very statement himself:
“The goal of existence,” he puts it, “is the accomplishment of a complete and physiological cycle in which occurs a normal old age, ending in the loss of the instinct of life and
the appearance of the instinct of death.’1
It is easy for us to follow him in the desire for very old age without decrepitude, ^everybody would like to live a hundred and twenty years provided they could remain as alert and resolute as at twenty. But the question we cannot help putting to ourselves about this “instinct of death” on which Metchnikoff insists is:
“Do we want to die?”
Is there not something distinctly inhuman in wanting to die at any age? And does not the very fact that we should arrive strong And vigorous at our one hundred and twentieth birthday make it seem all the more improbable that we should desire to be dead before our one hundred and twenty-first anniversary came around?
Of course Metchnikoff’s theory cannot be proved until numbers of people who have followed his regime —going perhaps even to the heroic extreme of having all of the large intestine removed—reach a .qreat old age in perfect soundness of mind and body.
This reduces the theory to the realm of scientific speculation. We might dismiss it even as idealism were it not that Metchnikoff bases all of his prophesies upon strict scientific research and observation. Moreover, his world-wide reputation as a scientist has been established through his election as sub-director of the Pasteur Institute.
This institute is free from graft and wire-pulling of any sort. It is not a government institution. The money which supports it is paid in by voluntary contributions. In the original amount subscribed to start the Pasteur Institute, money came from every source. The Rothschilds
made donations, and so did many a poor working man—which generosity and sacrifice go to show how general is the interest for scientific work in France, and how well-fitted, consequently, a body of contributors, like those which support the Pasteur, would be to choose as sub-director a thoroughly able man.
This Metchnikoff undeniably must be.
He carries on investigations of the most important nature, and if his present experiments succeed, he will have contributed toward relieving humanity from one of its principal scourges—thus multiplying again the chances of long life.
But to return to his theory about the “instinct of death.” He says:
“Some think it impossible to modify our way of living and our constitutions sufficiently to attain a ‘natural’ death. I am of a diametrically opposite opinion. I see no reason why science, which has already made such tremendous progress, should not some day bring about a state of affairs such as existed in biblical times. ’ ’
It is known, of course, that certain diseases which afflict us to-day were unheard of in the time of Abraham. But it is not to disease alone that Metchnikoff refers. He says:
“The men in biblical days attained to much greater age than the modem man, and they were evidently ready to die. The expression ‘full of years’ lí interpret to mean that they had had enough of life. We read that Abraham died in a good old age and full of years. The days of Isaac were an hundred and four-score (180), and being old and full of days, he died. With Job it was the same, and of Moses we learn that ‘he was an hundred and twenty when he died and
his eye was not dim nor his natural forces abated.’ ”
Some people have objected to this argument, saying that the years in 1900 B.C. were not of the same length as those in 1900 A.D. Metchnikoff affirms that certain passages in Numbers clearly establish the years counted then to be the same as ours.
There is another objection which can be made, however, and which is unanswerable. The conditions existing in the days of Abraham were not the same as those that now-adays surround us. To go back to the primitive civilization of three thousand years ago would be to wipe out all the progress that has been achieved in those years. Then the gain would not be a real gain. It would be the sacrifice of one benefit for another benefit.
Perhaps if the life of the ordinary citizen of to-day could be compared to the life of the ordinary citizen in the days of Abraham, it would be found that there is quite as much now crowded into eighty years— with telephones, railroads, telegraphs, automobiles and the rest—as was formerly spun out over one hundred and twenty years.
Yet the, fact remains that people do not want to grow old, and do not want to die.
Of course the expression “full of years,” may mean the patriarchs wanted to die ; but it might also mean that it was God’s will that they should end their days, having lived enough. We have no record left in writing by any one of that time saying that he actually had the instinct of self-preservation replaced by the instinct of death.
The great discoveries of the world and those which remain lastingly renowned are of two sorts : those which
give pleasure to man, and those which help to relieve his sufferings.
Among the great discoveries bringing relief to suffering are to be named specific remedies to certain diseases. These cures have been arrived at by experimenting on animals. At the Pasteur Institute there is a whole menagerie of animals. According to the effect produced on them by treatment, inoculation, etc., definite conclusions may be drawn as to what this same treatment will do for man. Working from the animal up to the human seems to have been the only successful way for scientists to obtain salutary results.
Doubtless Metchnikoff’s prophecies with regard to life being prolonged by careful diet, abstienence from alcohol, moderation in one’s manner of living, are scientifically demonstrable. What he has observed in animals and birds permits him to make definite affirmations regarding man.
This all has to do with man’s physical side only. Our diet, our battle with microbes, our length of life, affects chiefly our bodies.
The question of an instinct of .death, of a desire to die, affects our souls. No conclusions can be drawn from animals regarding the soul of man. To declare arbitrarily that man at a given age shall want to die is to speculate about that part of man which does not reside in matter, but in mind. Metchnikoff here goes over from the realm of knowledge to the realm of belief. We are ready to be Informed and instructed about all scientific truths which have been proved and established. When it cames to the matter of beliefs, each one of us prefers to choose his own.
Metchnikoff is an atheist. It pleases him to believe that he shall -one day want to die. Feeling this
world to be the only one, and knowing that he must eventually leave it, he comforts himself by arguing that, if he can only live long enough, he will logically attain to the instinct of death.
For those whose belief is not purely materialistic, for those who have faith in a life hereafter and in the immortality of the soul, there is no reason for following Metchnikoff in the speculative parts of his prophecy. The good he will have done, and will
be remembered for, lies in the directions he has given man for healthful living, and in his persistent endeavor to find a remedy for that disease which is visited unto the third and fourth generation.
True it is that he gives his whole life to work, with earnest conviction. His own philosophy he sums up in the following way:
“For the love of our fellow creatures, we should seek the best way of making them happy.”