Life Expectancy, Happiness, Etc.

Abhilash asked a number of questions:

We are repeatedly talking about life expectancy. But as per my understanding, long back there were many people who lived hundreds of years, right? Not only that in today’s world even if life expectancy has increased, are we living a happy and satisfied life? Probably because the resources available here are not enough or because we are not satisfied with that, we have started looking at other planets. This is what our forefathers were also doing, right? That is the reason why we have reached this level of comfort. It is true that, with the advent of technology things started evolving fast. But the process of evolution is there from the very beginning. Like Meet mentioned, since they were not aware of the comforts that will come in the future, they might not have felt that their life is detrimental. What is your thought on this?

Here are my thoughts on the matter in the order the questions were presented.

Life expectancy over the ages have been estimated quite rigorously by scientific researchers from various fields such as anthropology, history, archeology, genetics and biology. Their estimates are not “just so” stories from ancient books written by ignorant goatherders of a pre-scientific era — the Bible has stories of people living hundreds and thousands of years — or random guesswork. Scientists back up their conclusions with evidence and theory.

We are forced to rely on the testimony of scientists since we weren’t around in the past to witness things firsthand.

Consider the following graphic which lists the maximum life spans of a few extinct and a few living animals.

That is from an article which claims that “Humans have a natural lifespan of only 38 years.” Quote:

      • Australian scientists at CSIRO worked out animals’ lifespan using 42 genes
      • Using the human genome, the found the natural lifespan of humans is 38 years
      • The bowhead whale, which is the longest-living mammal, can live for 268 years

Using the human genome, the researchers found that the maximum natural lifespan of humans is 38 years, which matches anthropological estimates of lifespan in early modern humans.

They found Neanderthals and Denisovans had a maximum lifespan of 37.8 years, similar to modern humans living around the same time.

The reason the life expectancy of modern humans is more than double that length is down to advances in living standards and modern medicine, according to the researchers.

(I was quite astonished to learn that the bowhead whale has such a long lifespan — the longest by far among mammals. I ended up watching a lot of videos about bowhead whales after I learned that. Such is the magic of the internets.

Trees, however, beat all other kinds of life. Bristlecone pines live for thousands of years. There are some that were born before the Buddha was born.)

There’s simply no credible evidence that people use to have incredibly long lifespans in the past. There is evidence that life expectancy at birth has been going up monotonically over the last several hundred years.

In the recent past, according to World Bank data, life expectancy at birth has gone up an astonishing 20 years (53 to 73) between 1960 to 2018. There is no reason to expect that secular trend not to continue in the future. Advances in biotechnology will be explosive in the coming decades and life expectancy can be expected to increase rapidly.

But are people living happier and satisfied lives? Yes. Because the past people used to be miserably off materially. Material wellbeing matters because it is the foundation for all other things that matter. We are material beings and no matter how spiritually advanced one is, one still needs food and shelter from the elements. Only when one is not struggling to survive does one have the opportunity to think about higher needs — what’s the meaning of life. Having to see half your children die — a condition common across the world not too long ago — is not conducive to happiness.

Happiness and satisfaction are not objectively measurable and interpersonal comparisons are not possible. We can’t tell if Joe is happier and more satisfied with his life than John is, generally. But if we know that Joe is healthier, wealthier and works at a job that he enjoys, and that John is in poor health, hardly has any money, and toils at a very hard job, then we are justified in believing that Joe is most likely happier than John.

It is just not reasonable to believe that people who used to endure immense deprivation and suffering were happier and more satisfied with their lives than the present generations are. But I am willing to be proven wrong.

About running out of resources: no, we are not. Our available resources are continually expanding. As we have been stressing, available resources is a function of technology, and since there are no known bounds to the growth of technology, there cannot be any practical bounds on available resources.

We don’t have to go to other planets to get resources. In any case, mining planets for resources we need on earth is a silly idea. I will expand on that if you really wish to know.

 

 

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

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