February 6th, 2012 by Paula Derry
The philosopher of science Mary Midgley (1995) doesn’t mince words. She tells us: “The theory of evolution is not just an inert piece of theoretical science. It is, and cannot help being, also a powerful folk-tale about human origins.” Along these lines, stories about reproductive physiology are important folk-tales about what’s natural for women and what their life course should be.
What are the stories about menopause? One is that living beyond menopause is a biological puzzle. The argument goes like this: Most animals reproduce up until, or close to, the end of their natural life span. This makes sense, because theoretical biology tells us that animals reproduce as much as possible to leave as many offspring as they can. Why women live beyond menopause is therefore a puzzle. One answer is that we can expect to live thirty years past menopause because technological innovations have resulted in the conquest of infectious disease, the generation of great food stores, and other advances. As recently as the turn of the century, the average woman lived 47 years. Far longer, probably, than our prehistoric forebears: prehistoric hunter-gatherers were probably old at thirty. Living many years past menopause is therefore a recent historical development. Not surprisingly, if aging women are “outliving their ovaries,” menopause is associated with a variety of unpleasant experiences and health problems.
What are some facts relevant to this story? First, is living past menopause a new historical development? Well, ….No. Old age is not an invention of the twentieth century. Betsy Ross died when she was eighty-four. Classic Greek and Roman medical writers (including Hippocrates himself) and traditional Eastern medical systems all discuss menopause. In the Old Testament, Sarah laughed when God said she would bear a child even though it had “ceased to be with her after the manner of women.” Might the Bible have been referring to menopause?
What about the idea that prehistoric humans died before menopause? Studies by anthropologists suggest that modern hunter-gatherers do live to old age. Therefore, perhaps our prehistoric hunter-gatherer forebears did so as well. Richard Lee (1985), for example, studied the !Kung San in Botswana. About 10% of the population were over sixty years old, and it was not unusual to find !Kung aged 70 or 80. Lancaster and King (1985) found, when twenty-four hunter-gatherer and horticulturalist groups were examined, that 53% of the women who lived to age fifteen could expect to still be alive at age 45.