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Anthropologist Asks ‘Age Old’ Question: Does Older Mean Wiser?


Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson says wisdom in old age can only come to those who are willing to learn from other cultures and religions, as well as from their children.
Photo by Janet Sassi

With breakthroughs in medicine leading to a longer life span for many people, the American family has evolved over the past century from three generations to four.

But do we listen to what our eldest generations have to say?

Writer and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson tackled that question on Sept. 11 at “Across the Generations: Legacies of Hope and Meaning,” the international conference of the Institute of General Semantics.

Bateson, the only child of famed anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, noted that in the 20th century average life expectancy jumped from 47 years in 1900 to 78 years near the century’s close.

“We have a new pattern emerging . . . a new stage in evolution,” said Bateson, professor emerita in English and anthropology at George Mason University. “For the first time, we have substantial numbers of great-grandparents, and larger numbers of old people than any society has ever had in history.

“[Our] grandparents . . . are fundamentally different than the image coming out of the 19th century,” she explained. “We’re talking about people who are starting new careers, traveling around the world, eloping, getting doctorates, going into politics. It’s a whole new layer of the population—a whole new life stage that you can think of as ‘second adulthood.’”

For this four-generation phenomenon to affect the process known in general semantics as time binding—humans’ ability to accumulate knowledge and improve their circumstances from one generation to the next—elders must continue to be lifelong learners and to reflect on their life experiences.

“Time binding is a wonderful thing, to be able to pass on the knowledge from one generation to the next,” Bateson said. “But if humans stop learning . . . and stop reflecting on their experiences pretty much when they are 40, 20 more years isn’t going to help.”

The process of passing on accumulated knowledge, in fact, isn’t all that simple, Bateson said. Each generation engages in a “negotiation” with the next one coming up, creating opportunities for the human species to test, self-correct, and to adapt selectively, subsequently modeling that adaptation.

“I am sure everyone in this room has had to revise something they once believed, or took to be true, very often an ethical position,” Bateson said. “Perhaps it was someone you thought was moral, and maybe was not. Or someone you thought was an enemy turned out to be a friend.”

She said the sweeping social changes in the 20th century in civil rights, women’s rights and the peace movement, were examples of inter-generational negotiations leading to a “shift of consciousness” in humans.

“The claim to wisdom on the basis of long life must depend on an ongoing willingness to learn from other cultures, religious traditions—and to learn from our children.”

Bateson delivered the 57th annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture at the Lincoln Center campus, capping off day one of three days of seminars, lectures, screenings and panel discussions. Korzybski, a 20th century Polish-American philosopher, developed the time binding theory and theory of general semantics.

The conference drew 300 attendees from around the world and was co-sponsored by Fordham University.

Lance Strate, Ph.D., professor of communication and media studies at Fordham and a conference organizer, said that a “new kind of logic” was necessary to help humans make sweeping progress in ethics, as they have done in science and medicine.

“Korzybski’s aim was to alleviate and counter the currents of hate and fear that so often dominate the world,” Strate said. “On this day of Sept. 11, so heavy with symbolism, especially here in New York, we would do well to remember that [his]legacy is indeed one of hope and meaning.

“It’s our responsibility to move that legacy forward, not as an artifact, but as an activity evolving across the generations.”

Bateson’s appearance at Fordham brought her back to the campus that her mother, Margaret Mead, helped grow. From 1969 to 1971, Mead was a professor of anthropology at Fordham Lincoln Center; she helped found and then chaired the University’s Division of Social Sciences.


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