The Age of Methuselah

March 01, 2009

There’s been an increasing amount of discussion about human lifespan and the potential through medicine and technology to extend it past what could be considered natural. Hans Rosling and others have described the massive jumps the last century has seen in life expectancy and relative quality of life. These jumps have occurred around the world, not just in the more developed countries.

An American in 1907 would have expected to live 50 years. In Germany, you’d expect to live to 44. In China, 32. In India, 24.

In 2007, those numbers are dramatically different. The American life expectancy now is 78. Germany is 79, China is 73, and India is 65. The rest of the world has caught up. Africa has the lowest numbers now, but they’re accelerating the way Europe did during the 20th century.

There’s no reason to expect these rising rates won’t continue in the future, although the character of the advances that fuel them may change. Leading the way towards these changes are people and organizations that seem more and more mainstream: Aubrey De Grey and other “biogerontologists”, Ray Kurzweil and proponents of the singularity. These people have a lot to say about the potential increases for human life. Whether or not their science or ethics is valid, the size of their audience is growing rapidly.

Let’s assume for a moment that some of what they claim will be true. That in the future we all might expect to live far longer than we do now. What changes would have to be made to the human social contract?

As a thought experiment, let’s say we have successfully extended human life out for another century at the same level of increase we saw in the 20th century. If true, the average life expectancy would be somewhere north of 150, and we’d certainly see some 200 year olds. Middle age would extend past 100. These numbers shouldn’t seem too outlandish. The oldest person ever, Jeanne Calment, lived to 122. She stayed healthy for a remarkably long time, fencing in her 80s and riding a bicycle at 100.

If we lived that long, retirement would be completely different. Work would have to be completely different. Who could expect someone to work in a cubicle for a hundred years? Instead, work and retirement would be better integrated. Time off would be spread throughout one’s life. Education would be different too. The idea of a specified interval at the beginning of your life to accumulate degrees would be deemed ridiculous. Multigenerational homesteads would be more commonplace. Up to 15 past U.S. presidents would be alive. Would lifetime offices - the Supreme Court or the Papacy - need to be rethought? Or would the median ages simply increase?

Fascinating ideas and questions, but the most interesting thing to think about is what might be accomplished over a lifetime. As an aide, I’ve compiled a cross section of people who might still be alive (and their ages) if we already lived this long (barring suicide, execution, etc). What could these people have accomplished with more time?

  • Teddy Roosevelt - 151
  • Winston Churchill - 135
  • Robert Frost - 135
  • Walt Whitman - 190
  • Charles Darwin - 200
  • J.R.R. Tolkien - 117
  • Oscar Wilde - 155
  • Albert Einstein - 130
  • Adolf Hitler - 120
  • John von Neumann - 106
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff - 136
  • Marie Curie - 142
  • Bertrand Russell - 137
  • Leo Tolstoy - 181
  • J. Edgar Hoover - 114
  • Josef Mengele - 98
  • Gandhi - 140
  • George Bernard Shaw - 153
  • Abe Lincoln - 200
  • Mao Zedong - 116
  • Vincent Van Gogh - 116
  • Augusto Pinochet - 94
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein - 120
  • Pablo Picasso - 127
  • Claude Monet - 169
  • Queen Victoria - 190
  • Rasputin - 140
  • Alexander Graham Bell - 158
  • Nikola Tesla - 153
  • Charles Dickens - 197
  • Holy Roman Emperor Franz Josef - 179
  • Wyatt Earp - 161
  • Soren Kierkegaard - 196
  • Frank Lloyd Wright - 142
  • Mark Twain - 174
  • Josef Stalin - 131
  • Freidrich Nietzsche - 164
  • Henry Ford - 146

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