Life expectancy and the length and value of life: On a historical overimagination

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History of Russia (1992–present)

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About 10 years ago, I was looking through a book on populations changes in the Czech lands. It consisted of pretty much just tables of data with little commentary. But I was shocked when I came across the life expectancy charts. But not shocked at how short people’s lives had been but how long. The headline figure of life expectancy in the early 1800s was pretty much on par with expectations (I don’t have the book to hand but it was in the high 30s or low 40s). How sad, I thought. So many people died in their 40s before they could experience life in full. But unlike most of the comparisons reporting life expectancy, this one went beyond the overall average. And it was the additional figures that shocked me. Turns out the extremely short life expectancy only applies right at birth. Once you make it to 10, you have a pretty good chance to make it into your late 50s and at 30, your chances of getting your ‘threescore and ten’ were getting pretty good. The problem is that life expectancy rates at birth only really measure child mortality not the typical lives of adults. You can see from this chart: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005140.html that in 1850, the US life expectancy at birth was a shocking 38 years. But that does not mean that there were a lot of 38-year-olds around dying. Because if you made it to 10, your life expectancy was 58 years and at 30, it was 64 years. Now these are average numbers so it is possible that for any age cohort, exactly half the people died at the start of it and exactly half died at the end of it. But that was not the case after a certain age. Remember, a population where exactly half the people born die at or near birth (age 0) and exactly half live to be 60 will have the average life expectancy of 30. If you reduce child mortality to 10%, you will have the average life expectancy of 54. If you reduce it to 1%, the average life expectancy will be 59.4 years. Most people still die at sixty but very few die at 1. Massive gains in child mortality reduction will have made no difference to the end of life.

In reality, as the US charts show, the life expectancy at birth doubled but life expectancy at 10 went up by only about a third. That’s still a significant gain but shows a much different profile of life span than the normal figure would have us believe. It was not unusual to live into the late 50s and early 60s. And there were still a large enough number of people who lived into their 70s and 80s. Now, there are exceptions to it, during famines, epidemics and wars and for certain groups in society, the life span was significantly shorter (notice the life expectancy of whites vs. non-whites in the US). But for most populations throughout history, the most common age of death for any given person born was before the age of 10 not in their 30s.

I don’t understand why this is not commonly known. Even many historians (particularly the ones who write popular history) either don’t know this or are unwilling to distrub their narrative of how young people died in the past (in other words, they lie). I certainly was not taught this during my brief (long-ago) studies of ancient and medieval history.

What brought all this to mind is a most disturbing example of this is in a just published book called Civilization by the prominent public historian Niall Ferguson. In the preface he quotes a poem about death and suffering from John Donne and he comments on it:

“Everyone should read these lines who wants to understand better the human condition in the days when life expetancy was less than half what it is today.”

To say I was aghast is an understatement. I nearly threw my Kindle against the wall. Here’s this public intellectual, historian who goes about preaching on how it is important to understand history and yet he peddles this sort of nonsense. If he had said days with high child mortality and a shorter typical life span, I’d have no problem with it. But he didn’t and didn’t even hint that’s what he meant.

He then goes on blathering about how awful it is that all these historical luminaries died so young. Spinoza at 44, Pascal at 39. Saying:

“Who knows what other great works these geniuses might have brought forth had they been granted the lifespans enjoyed by, for example the great humanists Erasmus (69) and Montaigne (59)?”

Common! Bringing forth great works! Really?!? Pathos much? He then goes on comparing Brahms (died old, disliked by Ferguson) and Shubert (died young, liked by Ferguson). So much for academic distance. Why on earth would Ferguson think that listing artists who died young means anything. Didn’t he ever hear of Jimmy Hendrix or Kurt Cobain?

But more importantly, he doesn’t seem to notice his own counterexamples. Erasmus died almost a hundred years before Spinoza was born. What does that tell us about life expectancy and historical periods?

And since when has naming random people’s ages been considered evidence of anything? What about: Isaac Newton 84, Immanuel Kant 79, Galileo 77, John Locke 72, Voltaire 83, Louis Pasteur 72, Michael Faraday 75, Roger Bacon 80. Isn’t that evidence that people live long before the advent of modern medicine?

Or what’s any of that have to do with how much people may have contributed, had they lived l

Louis Pasteur

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onger? I don’t think longevity can serve as a measure of intellectual or cultural productivity. Can we compare Plato (80) and Aristotle (60). It seems to me that Aristotle produced a lot more and varied work than Plato with 20 fewer years to do it in. Aquinas (49) was no less prolific than St Augustine (75). Is it really possible to judge the impact of the inventive John L Austin (who died at 49 – in the 20th century!) is any less than of the tireless and multitalented Russell who lived pretty much forever (97)?

But there are still more counter examples. Let’s look at the list of longest reigning monarchs. The leader of that board is a 6th dynasty Pharaoh (who arguably acended to the throne as a child but still managed to live to a hundred (2200BC!). And most other long-lived monarchs were born during times when life expectancy was about half of what it is now. Sure, they were priveleged and they are relatively rare. And there were a lot of other rulers who went in their 50s and 60s. But not typically in their 40s! Maybe there is already a study out there that measures the longevity of kings with relation to their time but I doubt a straightforward corellation can be found.

Finally, I can match Ferguson poem by poem. From the ancient:

Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
(Psalm 90:10)

to the modern:


Sadness is all I’ve ever known.
Inside my retched body it’s grown.
It has eaten me away, to what the fuck I am today.
There’s nothing left for me to say.
There’s nothing there for me to hate.
There’s no feelings, and there’s no thoughts.
My body’s left to fucking rot.
Life sucks, life sucks, life sucks, life sucks.
http://www.plyrics.com/lyrics/nocash/lifesucks.html

Clearly all that medicine made less of an impact on our experience of life than Ferguson thinks.

Perhaps I shouldn’t get so exercised about a bit of rhetorical flourish in one of many books of historical cosmogeny and eschatology. But I’m really more disappointed than angry. I was hoping this book may have some interesting ideas in it (although I enter it with a skeptical mind) but I’m not sure I can trust the author not to surrender the independence of his frame of mind and bend the facts to suit his pet notions.

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