Nothing like grandma's love
Pia Heinemann*

BERLIN - It is a scientific theory of longevity that has the whiff of homemade pie: people live longer thanks to the grandmothers who help raise them.

Though first put forth more than a half-century ago, the “grandmother hypothesis” has gotten renewed attention with a recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences by University of Utah anthropologist anthropologist Kristen Hawkes.

While other mammals like chimpanzees chase females who are no longer fertile from their midst, Hawkes notes that human women are among the very few mammals who live for decades after menopause.

In 1957, American evolutionary biologist George Christopher Williams came up with the the "grandmother hypothesis" based on the fact that a woman could have more children at shorter intervals when her mother was available to care for her grandchildren. In effect, the “grandmothers enhanced their daughters’ fertility by taking care of grandchildren,” explains Hawkes.

Her study used a computer simulation of evolution to support the grandmother hypothesis. And with grandmothers on hand to look after them until they can feed themselves, children’s survival rates are higher. Hawkes says this important role explains why women live so long.

Not everyone agrees. James Vaupel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, says that studies regularly appear that appear to show such effects. But "grandmothers have a very high mortality rate, and historically not many children had a grandmother to care for them,” he points out.

Vaupel also dampens the fun of another study that appears to support the grandmother hypothesis. A month ago, Emma Foster of the University of Exeter published a study of orcas in Science. The killer whales live in social groups and are one of the very few mammals where females, like humans, undergo menopause. Orcas can live to be 90 years of age.

Orca females mainly stay with their sons and the sons’ offspring. Both sons and their offspring frequently died if the mother or grandmother did.

Is this proof that grandmothers play a role in extending our longevity? "Not at all," says Vaupel. "That study doesn’t take into account that for orcas generally there are good and bad years, depending on environmental circumstances. In bad years, more orcas in general die, so that means more orca grandmothers, mothers, sons, grandsons die too."

"Grandmothers are not the reason humans live longer," Vaupel states. Together with his colleague Oskar Burger he favors another explanation. They published a study in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that natural evolution (which the grandmother hypothesis is based on) is not what makes longer human life possible – cultural factors are.

"We have a better grip on environmental dangers, and better nutrition, medicine and care as we age," Vaupel says. In countries like Germany, over the past four generations, this means that a 72-year-old man today has the same mortality rate as a 30-year-old man 200,000 years ago.

*This is a digest item, not a direct translation.

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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