Many years ago Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner had a very famous comedy bit about an interview with a 2,000 year old man (Brooks). Of course the notion of a 2,000 year old man is nonsense but the bit was funny and it highlighted the differences of everyday life today as viewed from the perspective of 2,000 years ago.
Very few of us would want to live for 2,000 years (can you imagine filing 2,000 tax returns?) yet we find in the Bible the ascertain that the early patriarchs from Adam down to Methuselah lived between 800 and 970 years. Methuselah was the champion living 969 years. According to the Bible the lifespan changed significantly after the flood and mankind began living the ‘normal ‘ lifespans that we enjoy today. Of course this lifespan is a highly variable thing, predicated upon war, disease, nutrition, lifestyle, climate, but you get the idea. You and I expect to live somewhere around 80 years. Very few of us will ever see 100 and almost none of us will live past 110. Even at that, would we really want to live that long? Those we see who are that old are certainly not capable of the active lifestyles that are commonly associated with a good quality of living that we aspire to.
So, what’s the deal with these claims of nearly millennial lifespans we read about in the Bible? Are they fantastical tales meant to perpetuate some mythological superstition or are they merely accounting errors, or translational misunderstandings? Surely they couldn’t be true – or could they?
My purpose with this blog is not to preach any particular variety of religion, rather, my goal is to explore issues where science and religion seem at opposite ends of the matter and see if there is any common or plausible ground. Having said that let’s explore this issue of age. I will use generalities and try to avoid the hard statistical data, but, if anyone wants to challenge me on this I am more than happy to provide the data upon which I present these things.
Genetic researchers today have a pretty good grasp of the mechanisms of life and the marvel that is the DNA molecule. While there is much to be done still to decode every single segment of the multi-billion component DNA strand, we at least know that the DNA molecule exists and we understand that the various elements of it control and establish every single element of our physical existence. Our blue eyes or brown hair, our long legs, large or small breasts, high or low body mass index, light or dark skin, all these things are determined by the particular and unique combination of genes that is the result of negotiations between our mother’s DNA and our Father’s DNA. In each cash one gene was more dominant than the other gene. In some cases recessive genes took hold. All these ‘negotiations’ resulted in the product that popped out of your mother to form the unique and singular being that is you. Geneticists understand this and spend their day exploring this fascinating and mysterious arbiter of life. In some cases they have been able to tinker with and modify the gene sequence thus bringing about the associated change that the gene regulates. This is valuable for fighting some diseases and maladies.
One of the areas that most fascinates researchers is the area of aging; specifically, why we age. In theory our DNA should work continuously to regulate and repair our bodies. The same code that helps us stay slim and keep our muscle structure sound should continue to do that for us. If we are blessed with good eyesight, lucky us – our DNA gives us good eyes. So why don’t we keep good eyes? Why as 20 year olds can we eat anything and not gain weight and later, as 40 year olds we smell a piece of pie and gain 2 pounds. What happens to our DNA to let this happen? Well, researchers have found that certain genes in our DNA turn themselves off (Gene suicide?)! They simply quit telling cells to repair themselves. They allow us to start dying – a little bit at a time but dying nonetheless! Scientists understand this process and are able to adequately describe it. What they don’t know – what has them completely baffled – is WHY this happens. Theoretically our DNA molecule should keep us alive forever! The same DNA formula that defines us should continue to regulate our bodily systems and cellular repair. We should be immortal! But, alas, we are not.
Now to Methuselah! Our exploration of the Biblical claim that he lived 969 years might best be commenced with a look at ante-diluvian atmospheric conditions. While I shall save a discussion of the processes that could have brought about the flood for another day let me just say here that every ancient culture has a flood legend. Names are changed a bit but the gist and the timing of all the accounts are the same. All these cultures claim descendancy from one of the sons of the principle character in the accounts. For the purpose of this blog let us accept, for a moment, that some sort of a worldwide deluvial event did in fact occur far back in world history.
In a previous blog I discussed Plate Tectonics, the mechanism by which continents are made. Most anthropologists and Proto-climatologists agree that early Earth’s atmosphere was much more humid or water laden than it is today. Depictions of pre-historic times almost always show tropical, vine laden and vegetation choked jungles. We see depictions of giant creatures from butterflies to dinosaurs. Almost every creature of very ancient times was like creatures we have today except much bigger and more lethal. How could this be? Well, it is not so difficult to accept as one might think. It turns out that water, or more specifically, water vapor, is the most predominant greenhouse gas! It is far more important than CO2 and other gases are and it picks up about 90% of the greenhouse load. While it does a good job keeping us warm it also does something else even (Perhaps) more important. It helps filter out Ultraviolet light.
Ultraviolet light rays, or UVs as they are commonly called, are an integral component of natural sunlight. UVs are also extremely dangerous. If a fully exposed human body were to get a full dose of sunlight as it exist in space before being filtered by our atmosphere, that body would receive a lethal dose in about :20! Even after being filtered by our atmosphere an untanned body can receive a life threatening dose after a number of hours of bright sunlight exposure. Luckily, our bodies are prepared for this with tannins in our skin that react with UV light by turning the pigment in our skin dark so that they can protect the more vital tissues underneath from the deleterious effects of the UVs. A nice side benefit of this process is that we get a nice tan (From Tannin). Now days people are so scared of sunlight that they spend literally billions of dollars a year on goop that they slather on their skin to block UVs and avoid the skin cancers that can result. Of course a gradually acquired tan is the body’s own way of doing this and our ancestors did not have nearly as much skin cancer as we do today. But I digress – We try to stay pasty white and as a result our skin does not age as quickly (Good) but neither does it protect itself from harmful UVs (Bad). Also, sunlight is far and away the best source of Vitamin D for our bodies. For the first time in a century our doctors are again seeing rickets in children as overprotective parents obsessively keep their kids out of the sun.
Could it be that these UVs are the key to this whole aging deal? Let’s see. In the 1970s a Japanese architect designed a building for downtown Tokyo. Fiber optic cables were a new and fascinating thing then and he decided that they could be employed in his building to bring sunlight into interior offices. This architect thought sunlight was good and its presence in an office would brighten up the day and make people feel better. He designed a huge bundle of fiber optic cables to be affixed to the roof and then make their way into every office in the building. He also had a large bundle that fed light directly into an atrium in the interior of the building. In this atrium were planted all types of plants and even (Being ever practical) vegetables! Well, the plants grew huge! So did the vegetables, particularly the Tomatoes! They were huge! Scientists were called in to study the matter and it was quickly determined that the fiber optic cable was transmitting pure sunlight but filtering out the UV which could not make its way through the glass cable (Glass is a UV filter which is why you don’t get a sunburn driving in your car with the windows up and the AC on but your dad, who drove with no AC and the windows down always had a ‘drivers tan’ left arm). Ultraviolet light has been proven to be very destructive to living organisms.
Now back to the ‘old days’ prior to the flood; Consider the plausibility of the idea that the water laden atmosphere (which, through a number of mechanisms could also have had much higher concentrations of Ozone and other UV blocking constituents) could have blocked virtually all of the UV and prevented any of it from getting to the surface! This brings up interesting ramifications for Carbon 14 dating but we’ll save that for another day.
Is it possible that in our everyday life UV exposure is the aging agent that not only ages our skin but also, through genetic damage, triggers the turning off of our genes that do the repair work? Could an overall increase in UV exposure be the cause of a foreshortened life span? If we look carefully at the scriptural account of the times surrounding the Great Flood we see something very interesting. While Moses (The author of the account) states that God decreed that man should no longer live as long as he had heretofore lived, was this decree a mandate or mearly a statement of fact realizing the realities of the post-deluvian world? Do we not, as parents, make blanket statements to our children about things in the world, not because we create those situations but rather because we recognize that that is just how it is? The account shows that the change in life span was brought about very slowly. Methuselah (Before the flood) lived 969 years. Noah (Before, during and after) still lived 950 years. Noah’s son Shem however, who was 100 when the flood occurred, lived 600 years. Shem’s grandson Selah lived 433 years and his grandson Peleg lived 239 years. Peleg’s great grandson Terah, the father of Abraham, lived 230 years. Abraham, of whom the scriptures say he was an “old man” at 100 years old when he had Isaac, lived another 75 years for a total of 175 years. Biblical geneologies indicate that life spans continued to drop after that. Today we expect to live about 80 years.
Whenever I see a gradual trend like this I see a natural process. The Great Flood was obviously a cataclysmic event and it was the demarcation between the anti-diluvial atmosphere and the post-deluvial atmosphere we live with today. As with other great events in world history and in the Bible, are we seeing here God’s use of a natural occurrence to bring about his ways? Is it so hard to believe that this could have been part of the overall plan from the beginning? This idea that God must go around acting like Cecil B. Demille and doing dramatic things in an instantaneous way just doesn’t pan out when you read the scriptures carefully.
It seems very reasonable to me to assume that humans could have lived much longer life spans prior to the flood than we do today. This would have fit well with the need to procreate and quickly populate the world. The fact that natural processes could have played well into the plans of a wise creator should not be surprising at all. After all, eveertything else about our ability to live and thrive on this planet is governed by the things of this world, why not life spans? Scientists and researchers are always beating the drum about our awful atmosphere and pollution and such and how that affects our health; why not apply the same passion to the notion that before all the pollutants, before all the other awful things happened to the atmosphere, perhaps it was a very life friendly place for humans and other animals in which to grow and live. I’ll bet that a serious, concerted study on this subject would yield some very surprising results. In a few days I’ll write about Carbon 14 dating and the implications of this discussion on that.