What is living? – Danny

“Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting 'Holy shit, what a ride!'"

This quote, attributed to author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson, resonates deeply within me. The first level of resonance is as an evolutionary biologist. In this part of my life, I’m fascinated by how we develop adaptations which allow us to thrive in our environment. Since the first humans evolved in sub-Saharan Africa, we have spread far and wide throughout the world. This required us to adapt to a wide range of challenging climates. To survive above 4000m of altitude, the indigenous Andean people have evolved to carry more oxygen in their blood, and the Inuit peoples of the Arctic have developed heat-retaining body proportions, allowing them to live in sub-zero temperatures.  The driving force behind this adaptation is stress. Without stress, there would be no reason for the body to change, and there would be no adaptation. This is something all sportsmen are familiar with – in order to become stronger or fitter, they must stress the body though training to make it adapt and allow gains in performance. From an evolutionary perspective, life is about overcoming stress and challenge with adaptation. One cannot adapt if stress is avoided because the goal is to arrive at the grave in a well-preserved body.

Thompson’s quote is also important to me on a personal level as an adventurer. For me, adventure and exploration go hand in hand - you can’t have one without the other. As a kid, adventure meant exploring how many goals I could score in a football season, or how fast I could run the 100m. Later, as a student, I did the same with the sports of canoeing and rowing, exploring my own limits by pushing myself as hard as I could.

Then my horizons shifted. I became unsatisfied with the highly controlled nature of conventional sports, and felt constrained by the restrictive lifestyle they demanded.  I began to view the world as the most incredible playground, full of beauty and endless possibility. I felt an intense need to explore it, to feel it, and at times to lose myself in it. I began running in mountains, swimming in lakes, and sleeping out in forests. I was a child discovering the world for the first time.

After wrapping up my PhD, I flew to Mexico City and spent 6 months cycling to the Southern tip of Argentina, wild camping along the way. The jungles of Central America, the deserts of Peru, the highlands of Bolivia and the Andes of Patagonia were breath taking, rivalled only by the humbling generosity of the people we met along the way. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It helped me to understand that the world is there to be explored, and that my body is the vehicle that will allow me to do that. This will of course mean pulling out loose toenails by the light of a head torch, being woken in the middle of the night by a pack of feral dogs surrounding the tent, and endless cuts and scrapes. But that’s OK. In fact, that’s great. That’s what living is, skidding in sideways.

Danny Longman