Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The History of Stayin' Alive

 No, not this blog, the actual fact of stayin' alive. I mentioned in a previous installment that human life expectancy fell after the agricultural revolution and didn't recover until the 20th Century. Here's a look at the last 250 years.



Something happened toward the end of the 19th Century.  What was it? It wasn't medical advances -- physicians couldn't do us more good than harm until maybe 1930 or so, at the earliest, and they still don't actually contribute all that much to life expectancy. Just concentrating on Europe and its settler outposts in North America, society had mostly completed its evolution from feudalism to nation states, with first mercantile, then industrial capitalism considerably before the inflection point. 

To be sure, some of the gains early in the 20th Century can be attributed to the discovery of pathogens -- the "germ theory" of disease and attendant measures to supply uncontaminated drinking water in the cities, but the trend began considerably before then and continued thereafter. What happened is that humanity escaped the Malthusian trap. After the Industrial Revolution our ancestors finally achieved a growth rate that exceeded the rate of growth of the population. More people reliably had enough to eat. This was associated with many other profound changes, among which was a stark difference in the terms of political and policy debate. It's very important to understand where we are situated historically as we think about what is to be done today.

To be continued . . .

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