Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Long life, thank man!

To understand one of the main benefits of living in an industrial civilisation, just think for a moment about life expectancy. 

Since America's Industrial Revolution, life expectancies have essentially doubled, from a life expectancy of 38.3 for a man born in 1850 (and 40.5 for a woman), to 75.7 for a man now, and 80.8 for a woman.  [See the tables here, hat tip Stephen Hicks.] 

What that means is that just one-hundred-and-fifty years ago, anyone over the age of forty in the US was considered old.  And with the exception of the last one-hundred-and-fifty years, that was the way it was for most of human history -- and still is in those places that haven't yet experienced genuine industrialisation.

Thank goodness then for the Industrial Revolution, the single biggest boon for the human environment in all recorded history (and thank goodness too for the source of that blessed revolution: man's reason). 

As Ayn Rand suggests, anyone over 38 years of age today should give a silent "Thank you" to the nearest, grimiest, sootiest smokestacks you can find.

PS:  I wonder how many readers will see the link between this post, and the post on morality a couple of days ago?  Anyone?

UPDATE: On a related theme, Yaron Brook characterises the ongoing conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil as that between the "flat world" and the "free world." Those who see the victory of the latter "powered by inexorable forces of technology and history" should think again, he says.


  1. "anyone over the age of forty in the US was considered old"

    This is a common misconception. The "life expectancy" of 38 is not a literal description implying that people would drop dead at 39 or 40, but a statistical figure which describes the horrific number of children who died before they were 6 months or a year old.

    If a child made it to four or five years old, they were fairly likely to live to a ripe old age of 65 or 70, just as they are today.

    But you're forgiven, PC - it's a common mistake. :-)

  2. What is a common mistake, Luke, is you commenting before you've put your brain in gear, or checked the actual data supplied.

    Why don't you follow the link supplied, "an eye-opening historical table with data on Life Expectancy by Age, 1850-2004," which provides real figures for the "ripe old ages" you're talking about.


  3. The table says exactly what I said!

    (eg for 1850)

    When you are born, you are expected to make it to 38.

    If you made it to 10, you were expected to make it to 58.

    If you made it to 20, you were expected to make it to 60.

    If you made it to 30, you were expected to make it to 64.


  4. Wikipedia: "It is important to note that most people who quote pre-modern life expectancies include infant mortality in their calculations ... If one survived childhood one could expect to live into old age in any time throughout history."

    I was merely questioning the way you described life expectancy, Peter.

    The importance of precision in thought and deed, etc etc.

  5. I think Luke's got you there Peter.

    Perhaps we should conclude that any person who made it past childhood should thank the nearest smokestack they can find.

  6. "I think Luke's got you there Peter."

    No he hasn't. If Luke's concern was already addressed in Peter's post it's hardly earth shattering to point it out again.

  7. Um, it's actually a little more complicated than that.

    First of all, it's important to note that Wikipedia is not a reliable source for anything even remotely controversial, so citing it here is unlikely to prove persuasive.Might I recommed some actual sources, rather than anonymous ones?

    Second, as Eric says, your 'point' is already contained in the post.

    And third, the analysis is a little more dynamic than your rather facile argument makes out.

    Look for example at this Flash depiction of Sweden's population pyramid for the period 1850 to 2000, or this of Holland's for the same period, and see how the proportion of oldsters changes dramatically.

    And then consider the following example, just to understand how one cohort flows down the table, and how those alive in one period are dependent on the figures of an earlier period:

    If Fred were born in 1890, on average he could expect to make it to 42.5 before kicking the bucket.

    If he made it to age ten (in 1900) he could then expect to make it to 60.59.

    If he made it to age twenty (in 1910) he could then expect to make it to 62.71.

    If he made it to age thirty (in 1920) he could then expect to make it to 67.65


    In other words, each cohort travels diagonally down through the tables, with each subsequent period depending for its content on the period before.

    So if we look at Fred's great-grandfather Abe, for example, who was forty in 1850, he had already been subject to the earlier (and lower) life expectancies from 1810 on. It was only having survived those lower life expectancies that he and his cohort were still around in 1850 -- and in fact the tables themselves are silent on this except as a trend.

    And when we look at other stats and records and accounts of these times, we're made aware of this quite clearly. Until recently the numbers living to your "ripe old age" were remarkably few. Just look, for example, at this simple population pyramid for Nebraska in 1874, one of the earliest uses of a graphic population pyramid (each horizontal band represents an age cohort of ten years). As one researcher puts it in comparing adult mortality pre- and post-industrialiation, "the probability of dying for adults, say between the age 15-60, declines drastically, from a level above 50%, and even close to 100% in extreme cases ... to levels around 10% and lower in post-industrial countries (13% or lower for males, and below 8% for females)." [Ref: http://eng.newwelfare.org/?p=56&page=4]

    Even in 1900, those living to your "ripe old age" were remarkably few. Just consider, in 1900 the US population aged over 64 (ie., born before 1835) was just 4% of US population. In the year 2000 it was 12% and still rising (about the same proportion as those aged 55 and over in 1900).

    In, 1900, the total population aged 45 and over was just 17%, less than one fifth of the population, whereas in 2000 the total population aged 45 and over was thirty-five percent, over a third of the US population (ie., about the same proportion as those aged 30 and over in 1900).

    That's a very different world we're talking about, in which the age at which one is considered old is seen somewhat differently -- and that's just one-hundred years ago. [REf: http://www.census.gov/statab/hist/HS-03.pdf]

    This is the trend I'm talking about, that requires some extrapolation back to see the trend.

  8. "anyone over the age of forty in the US was considered old"

    Your post was, and still is, worded poorly on this particular point. I called you on it. 'Nuff said.

  9. No Luke. You've made yourself the fool here! You got it wrong and now you've missed his point. Don't try to wriggle out by trying to fib. Keep going down that path and you'll really be looking silly indeed.

    Anyway, the issue at the heart of this is that people are presently living longer because of Man's industrial activity etc. That relies on freedom to apply the faculty of reason and act on it.



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