Specialization and Evolution: Life Through the Lens of Pokémon

In the world of Pokémon, there’s a species named Ditto. It stands at a foot high, and is a pinkish blob of cells, ready to transform into any physical object or Pokémon it sees. It levels up fast, and can breed with any other Pokémon to produce eggs of the other species. But no serious Pokémon trainer wants a Ditto. When Ditto transforms into another Pokémon, it’s not as strong as the real thing, and it always transforms back to the normal-type blob of cells after a while. Ditto has so much potential but never ends up reaching it.

Serious Pokémon trainers would rather have a diverse team of different types. Ash Ketchum, the main character in the Pokémon TV series, had Pikachu, a chubby, loyal rodent that could electrocute enemies, the fully-evolved Dragonite, and the ghost-type Pokémon Gengar. Although they all had weaknesses, their specialization and strengths outweighed them.

In the discipline of biology, stem cells are the category of cells that have pure potential and can differentiate into any other type of specialized cell – a red blood cell, gut epithelial cell, or even a brain neuron. But if the stem cells never differentiate, the specialized cells cannot grow and develop and you’re just left with a Ditto-esque bundle of cells.

On more of a macro-scale, the same is true in human beings. Childhood is where we are introduced to as many new experiences as possible, and as we grow into adults our identity begins to harden and our potential decreases. In Pokémon, a Charmander evolves into a Charmeleon at level 16, and then into the fully-formed beast Charizard at level 36. Ditto never evolves. Evolving is a scary, unknown process, and once evolution occurs you can’t go back. That’s what induces the fear in us as humans, because we’re scared of making the wrong decisions in life. We’re in a generation petrified of commitment in relationships and in our careers.

But in the end, we get to choose. So what are you going to choose to be? A full-fledged, powerful and respected Charizard; or the archetypal Peter Pan-style Ditto?

“Those who do not choose a direction are lost. It is far better to become something than to remain anything but become nothing.”

Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order

Ageless: Andrew Steele’s Advice on How to Live Longer

Ageless is a book by science writer Andrew Steele. Most of the book goes into the physiology of how we age and how we can potentially stop that from happening.

In one of his final chapters he does have some recommendations on what we can do or not do to give ourselves a statistically better chance of living longer. Here they are:

  1. Don’t smoke. No real news here, smoking is really quite bad for you. If you’re under 30 and stop smoking, it’s likely that your life expectancy can recover back to normal. If you end up smoking most of your life, you can probably expect to take as much as ten years off your life compared to if you never smoked a single cigarette. Not only does smoking increase your chance of lung cancer, it also increases incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and dementia – so basically all the main causes of death (apart from maybe a certain virus…). Smoking also makes you look older too, thinning the skin, causing baldness, wrinkles and greying hair.
  2. Don’t eat too much. I once heard that you age at the rate that you produce insulin – so basically at the rate that you eat. Steele sort of backs this up. Being obese can definitely shorten your life. But it’s actually visceral fat that’s the most dangerous – the fat that can build up around your organs that can screw with your physiology and health. Subcutaneous fat around your butt and legs are less dangerous. What this basically means is: Avoid a beer belly as much as possible, since that’s an indication that fat is building up around your innards. What you eat can matter too – there’s evidence for vegetarianism and eating fruit and vegetables being good for you (who knew?). Meanwhile, sugary, processed, fatty food and alcohol should probably be limited. To sum up, look in the mirror and see if you could do with losing some weight – it could extend your life.
  3. Get some exercise. I bet you’re learning tons of new stuff today! Yes, whenever we’ve been told that exercise is good for you, they were probably right. Both cardio and resistance training is good for longevity, and generally the sweet spot is about 30 minutes per day. There is some evidence suggesting that you can exercise too much, but that problem probably won’t be applicable to most.
  4. Get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Data suggest that those that live longest sleep not too little and not too much. Even so, it’s hard to conclude that sleeping the right amount causes you to live longer, since there’s a chance that people who are more prone to sickness and illness have to sleep longer or have their sleep disrupted with pain or other symptoms. Nevertheless, sleep is a rejuvenative process for the body and especially the brain, so it probably should be treated with respect.
  5. Get vaccinated and wash your hands. Never before has this been better advice than right now, with people dropping like flies amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Usually we have to contend with the flu season which can leave us bed-bound for a few days each year – this is especially bad for the elderly who can even die from flu. That’s why vaccines are recommended to people over the age of 65, so they can be protected from infections that could wipe them out. There’s a case for the rest of the population to be vaccinated too, since flu in itself is a nasty illness that can wipe out health and productivity, and spread to unvaccinated people too. Infections like flu and HPV are implicated in other more serious diseases like heart disease, stroke, and cancer, so it makes sense to limit the number of infections that we have to overcome in our lives.
  6. Take care of your teeth. Steele highlights some research linking the lack of mouth hygiene with diseases as serious as dementia and heart disease. We’re not sure how or why this can be, but it’s a good excuse to brush effectively and frequently.
  7. Wear sunscreen. As annoying as it can be to apply, sunscreen can stop our skin from getting smashed by damaging ultraviolet rays from the sun, thereby preventing dangerous DNA mutations that could lead to cancer. Not only that, the sun can age our skin quicker by causing discolorations and wrinkles.
  8. Monitor your heart rate and blood pressure. High blood pressure can lead to events like stroke, heart disease and vascular dementia. The seriousness of these events mean that we should keep an eye on our blood pressure. Investing in a blood pressure cuff and periodically measuring our blood pressure is the only way we can know what our figures are, since there’s no other way of feeling that our blood pressure is high in the way that we can notice how fast our hearts are beating. Targets that we should aim for are blood pressures of less than 120/80 mmHg and around 60 beats per minute. The best way to lower these figures? You guessed it: Good diet and exercise.
  9. Don’t bother with supplements. As popular as they are, Steele doesn’t see the benefit of dietary supplements, and some like beta-carotene and Vitamin E could even increase the risk of mortality. It could be better to invest the money spent on supplements instead in a gym membership, or some healthier foods.
  10. Don’t bother with longevity drugs – yet. Most of the book covered treatments that are currently being developed to increase human longevity. But Steele advises not to seek out stem cells, metformin, rapamycin or low-dose aspirin just yet. Even though evidence from animal studies may look promising, in humans it could be different and as with taking any type of drug there are unwanted side-effects.
  11. Be a woman. Although there’s nothing you can really do about this, it’s true that women live longer than men on average. It might be due to men having fewer genes because of the slightly shortened Y chromosome, where women have two X chromosomes. Another possibility is that male sex hormones reduce lifespan – there have been observations that castrated males and eunuchs live much longer.

Think Again: Real Wisdom Is Knowing When to Change Your Mind

Most of us probably go through our lives amazed at how wrong other people’s beliefs are. We’ll even sometimes try to change their mind and prove that we’re right and they are wrong. Most of the time though, we’ll meet stubborn resistance and others will defend their viewpoints ardently, even denying a multitude of points based on logic. In the end, we’ll probably give up, or agree to disagree as the friendship hangs on a thread.

Adam Grant, the Wharton psychologist who wrote Think Again asks us: Why are we so laser-focused on changing other people’s minds when ours is set in stone? How can we expect others to be convinced of our arguments when we show no willingness to consider theirs? How sure are we really that we’re ‘right’?

What usually happens when we form a belief or opinion is that we have pride and conviction in it. We then allow it to become part of our identity – the belief becomes rigid, to the point that we distort our reality to only see what we want and expect to see so that it confirms the belief. Especially in today’s algorithm culture, it’s easy to get stuck in filter bubbles and echo chambers where the only stimuli that surround us are the ones that reinforce existing beliefs.

Grant shows that we form three different archetypes while arguing our own beliefs and opinions: the preacher, the prosecutor, and the politician. The preacher requires no proof for their idea and delivers sermons on his ideals; the prosecutor relies on flaws in the other individual’s reasoning and tries to prove them wrong and win their case; the politician campaigns for the approval of the audience and attacks the character of his opponents.

Grant invites us to think more like scientists – people who are willing to find out where they may be wrong, in the search of truth. They allow peers to attack their ideas to see if they can uncover blind spots in their thinking and their experiments. They have the humility to doubt their beliefs and they are careful not to become too attached to their beliefs. They have the mindset of curiosity and discovery – they’re happy to find out that they’re wrong because now it means that they’re less wrong than before.

Try to know what you don’t know. Dare to disagree with your own arguments. Too often we favor feeling right over actually being right. Our calcified ideologies are tearing us apart, and we banish other people purely for their beliefs without understanding how they got them in the first place, and in the scary possibility that: We might actually be the one who is wrong.