Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

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Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die

Everyone wants to live long and enjoy good health. Almost all of us assume, too, that whether we do so will be a function of physical variables and emotional ones that translate into physical factors. Good habits, good diet, good medicine, good genes, combined with a good attitude that in turn produces a positive feedback loop with desirable physiological heath measures -- these are the secrets to living long and well.

Except that science seems not to bear this out, at least not entirely. As new research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society shows, people who live to be a hundred years old are statistically as likely to have engaged in unhealthy indulgences as their peers who die younger. Maybe they can thank a family genetic legacy for their long lives? In part, yes: having long-lived relatives is a predictor of longevity. But identical twins separated at birth may have life spans radically different from one another. So genes play some role but not a decisive one.

You get the sense that some hidden, perhaps unknowable logic, not reducible to material terms, plays a crucial role. In considerations of what makes a healthy diet, the ever-shifting advice we get from the media about what to eat and drink suggests this as well. My wife is currently reading and finding highly persuasive Nina Planck's Real Food: What to Eat and Why. It comes from the diverse genre of books, articles and websites that belong together on a shelf labeled, "Everything You Thought You Knew Isn't So."

The author advises that we can maximize health by eating "real," old-fashioned foods even if -- or it would appear, especially if -- they would conventionally be labeled as decidedly unhealthy. So high-fat or high-cholesterol items like whole milk, beef, liver, butter, eggs, so long as they haven't been tainted by modern, industrialized methods of cultivation and preparation -- these are all good.

Much of the stuff you thought was healthy -- low-fat products, egg whites, for example -- is now trefe and a threat to health. Studies prove it, or so says Nina Planck. I offer no judgment myself, except to say that I'm struck again and again by the extreme variousness, and the seeming persuasiveness, of the health advice that's out there. It would be wonderful if there was some reliable formula for eating in a wholesome way, but the more you read, the more it turns out that is not true.

If only human beings were automobiles! I know just what to do maintain the long-term operability of my car -- though I don't do it. There's no mystery about what keeps a car running. There is an enormous mystery about what keeps a person running.

The mystery deepens the more we know, suggesting again that our fates are under the control not only of choices we make about what to do with our bodies, not only of factors in our genetic heritage, but of a deeper system, a hidden framework, not answerable to the material world.