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You will live for longer than 1% of the entire history of human civilization.
86 points by GraffitiTim on July 27, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments
The first civilization started in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE (more or less), which is 7,000 years ago. If you live until age 80, that's more than 1% of the history of civilization.

Just throwing it out there for anyone else who'd never thought about it before. Certainly changed my perspective a bit.

Yes, but there's a catch. The human race has existed for 140,000 years or so (edit), but has only been civilized for 7000.

The population of nomadic humans was lower, but there's evidence that they were much healthier than those who settled down to grow crops full-time. Agriculture was a win because it allowed for many more people to be born, but it's not a life for which we're well adapted.

ADDED: If this guy is right, 99% could turn out to be an underestimate or an overestimate:


Some people argue that significant evolution has occurred within the human species after the civilisation started, most likely in response to the changing selective pressures brought on by civilisation itself. The book 'The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution' makes this case.

I'm not sure accelerated evolution is the right term, but the idea makes sense. Changing conditions exert selections pressures.

Dietary changes would have been a substantial. Lactose tolerance, for example is almost certainly new.

You can accelerate without changing speed - it's a vector.

evolution is not directional

I think that if the rate of genetic change increases then acceleration is an fair word.

If one defined the prevalence of each gene in the population you would get a vector were you could possibly 'change direction'. None of this requires any metric of 'goodness' to be defined if that is what you are worried about.

We've domesticated cows, pigs, sheep, goats, cats, horses, donkeys, chickens, and rabbits in, more or less, that time, creating substantial selective change. Even lab mice are pretty genetically different from wild mice, and that's within the last century or three, at most. So it wouldn't be that surprising if we had also domesticated ourselves.

Even our age as a species (it's a range depending on which estimate you take and how widely you define species) is very young. Even less if you consider our long generations (which we are). A thousand generations is nothing on an evolutionary scale.

What evidence is that? The average lifespan is on the increase, not the decrease.

Or are you using some other metric to measure what you call "healthier"?

There's always wikipedia:


The first subsection is "variation over time". The drop between the paleolithic and neolithic coincides with the development of agriculture.

This is a pretty contentious issue. The idea that humanity's single most (evolutionarily) successful technology caused a massive decline in individual quality of life is pretty disturbing, and some of the evidence is contradictory. It seems like a debate best left to experts, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

I still agree with the original post -- we're very lucky to be alive now.

Check out Jared Diamond's "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race": http://www.awok.org/worst-mistake/

I was actually going to point to Jared Diamond as well! In his book The Third Chimpanzeem Jared writes about the immediate decline of health that followed the introduction of agriculture. By measuring the health of teeth, and etc we can see a noticeable drop in the years immediately following agriculture.

Looks like the article you linked to covers the same material.

If "healthier" is measured by number of mastodons killed with bare hands, yes, it's been a precipitous decline.

This article mentions it in passing:


"We know roughly when and where farming began, because of the archæological evidence: domestication is a shock to the physiology of man and beast. The skeletons of people change, they temporarily grow smaller and less healthy, as the human body adapts to a protein-poorer diet and a more arduous lifestyle. Likewise, newly domesticated animals get scrawnier at first."

I'm sure some google wizardry could find a real source.

I'd say increases in the prevalence disease would have been the biggest factor in the reduction of lifespan for 'civilised' people.

Read "Guns, Germs and Steel" and "The Third Chimpanzee" by Jared Diamond. He talks a lot about the rise of agriculture.

When we look at how the average lifespan is increasing, we're only looking at the lifespan since the start of civilization as we know it - allowed by agriculture. It's possible that our quality of life is only now catching up to what our hunter-gathered ancestors had.

I can't up vote you enough for sharing the Aubrey de Gray talk. I can't believe I haven't seen that one!

Exciting isn't it. I quit smoking because of that talk, or rather, as part of a series of life changes inspired by that talk.

Fingers crossed!

You will also probably outlive three nines of humans historically. A woman at my church passed away recently, tragically young at 68. (That is about a decade below the life expectancy of Japanese women of her generation.)

Also, while I generally scoff at scifi, it is entirely possible that we will make big strides against aging this century. I expect my chilren will grow up with their grandparents. I expect their grandkids will not even understand the import of that sentence.

My grandparents are still alive, and are actually doing quite well.

I'm 19 years old, and I hold a strong hope that they will hold my children in their time.

I can't explain how much that would mean to me.

I still have a great-grandmother who is almost 100. It was a very surreal experience when her daughter died, at about 68 or so, and she hosted the viewing.

Can you imagine burying your own elderly daughter?

My granddad just visited me, he's 87, does every day 40 x 25m pool laps, dances, sings and almost beats me at armfight. :P

EDIT: he's also great-granddad to my kid :) My great-grandmom from grandmom side lived to 95...

Reminds me of the abc documentary "Live to be 150... can you do it?" where the profile several centenarians. They look in surprisingly good shape considering they are over 100 years old. See http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Longevity/Story?id=4559263&...

My grandmother, still living, became a great-great grandmother last month. Living members of 5 generations of the same family.

I'm curious where you get your statistics on the detailed distribution of historical human lifespans. They have never been, you know, Gaussian. I think it's always been the case that several humans per thousand survive into their 80s.

My dad goes the senior center a few times a week with my grandmother... and he's not visiting :)

Longer generations mean we stay mired in the past, and our elders are around to advocate for the world views of their era in a way that can be good and bad, my guess that its leans more toward the latter.

Also, considering how much time I waste now, who's to say I won't just take more resources to complete what I'd have done in a shorter span?

The goal of life is to live it, not to go anywhere particular. No matter what we as a species do or where we go, we're trapped in the universe. There's no escape, ultimately.

Yet you're arguing that people should hurry up and die so 'we' can move on and not stay 'mired in the past' and 'wasting time'. What do they matter? Where are we moving to that's so important?

If we can live until we choose to die or die by accident, feed everyone, keep the planet in good condition, hit virtually 100% nanomechanical recycling / construction and have enough resources for people or virtual people to set off exploring the universe, what else matters? Why do we need everyone to be young? And we might be able to step usefully close to those things in a thousand years or so - and if you agree with Kurzweil, 1000 years of progress will happen in much less than 1000 years. We might even live to see it.

"Yet you're arguing that people should hurry up and die so 'we' can move on and not stay 'mired in the past' and 'wasting time'. What do they matter? Where are we moving to that's so important?"

For instance, the decline in institutional racism against black people in America wouldn't have been nearly so successful if it wasn't for all the old segregationists dying off in recent decades. There are definitely real costs and benefits to social conservatism.

I didn't say that we should all die young, but instead that aiming relentlessly to extend the quantity of life misses the qualities that make it worth living, including hope and the stunning curiosity that comes with youth.

There's beauty that no matter how burdened an individual is by experience, they will die and the next generation will get to try again, hopefully without too much of the negative baggage passed on.

instead that aiming relentlessly to extend the quantity of life misses the qualities that make it worth living, including hope and the stunning curiosity that comes with youth.

Misses the qualities that make it worth living? Have you checked out what death is? The only way you can have hope and curiosity is by being alive to experience them. Prolonging the state of being alive is a much much better way to address "quality of life" than saying "death is for your own good - you'd probably be miserable otherwise anyway".

There's beauty that no matter how burdened an individual is by experience, they will die

I think not, because there is nobody outside "people who are alive" to be experiencing the alleged beauty. The next generation don't get to try "again", they get to try ... full stop.

Try what, though? Humanity as a whole isn't trying to do anything. There's no outsider giving points for space exploration and underwater colonies and disease eradication. The only point to progress is to progress the lives of people who are alive, and anything other than that about "the next generation" is a holdover from the fact that we don't have enough power to affect big changes in one lifetime but we can argue that they are worth changing for the next generation. It would be even better, not worse, if we could be changing things to improve our own lives a hundred years on.

haha, I'm hardly saying that "you'd be miserable otherwise anyway."

I'm saying that death and birth together, but only together, allow new starts. Any wild deviations in individuals, be they bad, such as depression, or great, like genius, end with that individual. We lose some wonderful and some damaged people, but the steady stream of endings and beginnings permits us to continuously renew and reassess our values and direction as a society and species.

Yes, you will not get to live forever, but it also means that human beings are healthier for having had so much variety of experience.

I'm saying that death and birth together, but only together, allow new starts

OK - but why is that desirable?

Yes, you will not get to live forever, but it also means that human beings are healthier for having had so much variety of experience.

What do you mean to say human beings are healthier?

I'd hope the species as a whole is benefitting a lot from the 150,000 people who die every day. How is the species benefitting (in ways that could not happen without mass unplanned death)?

I'd hardly say those deaths are unexpected. And planned/unplanned deaths is another discussion entirely. They're quite normal for the most part, and in fact significantly lower than the rate of death in most other species.

Human beings benefit because of resource use and culture change. Imagine if we double the lifespan of the majority of people on earth how insane things would quickly become.

Or are we only talking about doubling the lifespan of those who can afford it? In which case wouldn't it be better to focus these research resources into raising universal quality of life (ie developing malaria drugs), rather than further raising QoL for the rich in the 1st world?

Yeah and missing the age of immortality by just a century or so would be a bit of a bummer.

I plan for the entire history of human civilization to be less than 1% of my lifespan.

To accomplish this, you must both (a) live to be at least 100(x+7000) years old, and (b) destroy human civilization within x years.

I hope you're already working on your immortality elixir and your doomsday device.

Funny you say that: E is working on something that is both.

Hey, I said human civilization, not humane or human-originating civilization.

I believe he means that he intends his consciousness, in some form, to dramatically outlast corporeal human existence as we know it. This simply requires some mechanism to upload one's consciousness, and then all you have to do is wait.

I want this pleasant summer afternoon to last forever. Can I upload that too? Because that makes about as much sense.

Your subjective experience of it can last quite some time after the physical event is over.

That sounds like an awfully boring existence. What will you do for the remaining 99% of your uncivilized life?

"You should probably die because I'm worried you'll get bored otherwise"

There's nothing to say the latter 99% will be an uncivilized existence. Far more likely is that it would be very civilized, but no longer human.

Anything he wants? There is a whole universe of things to do. So many books to read, so much music to listen to, so many things to learn and build and understand.

I just can't imagine being bored, not in a million lifetimes.

Reminds me a little of "The Last Answer" by Asimov...


Ahum, no civilization: no books, no music, no building.

No, just no new books. Still plenty already written for a few hundred lifetimes' worth of reading, though.

What about a million and one?

And change happened at a much slower pace for most of that 7,000 years. The 21st century is going to be very interesting.

I think we've hit local maximum in civilisation (perhaps we're just beyond the cusp). If the last century was defined by technological innovation, this one unfortunately I think will be defined by over-population crises.

If we haven't solved the over-population issues by 2100 then I think the 22nd Century will be defined by ecological disaster.

I'm not sure if I'm being too pessimistic or not!

Pessimism IMO. Generally brought about through age (older people are generally more negative about the future) or fears of immigration. I'd bet we can sustain WAY more people then we have at the moment.

Its not the older people are generally negative about the future.

Its that the more experienced people of ANY organization are generally negative. The world pop is an organization, but you can put this idea towards any organization that exists.

More perspective change: according to the 1903 Ladies Home Journal, half of people then died before they were sixteen. One in a hundred lived to 65.

Something else to mention to people who ignore science.


since this is all about the past evolution of the species, let me throw in a few proposals about the future evolution:

http://geaugailluminati.wordpress.com/2009/07/01/the-human-r... (and) The Moral Imperative of Our Future Evolution: http://www.prometheism.net/moral.html

more things were invented in the last 100 years, than during the entire world history combined

note: I'm note sure if that's right or not, but it sounds like it might be

I wonder how advances in CPU design compare to slight variations in arrow design. In 10,000 years they might consider computer evolution to basically be mechanical, vacuum tubes, transistors, optical, then quantum. Even if we see huge advantage to smaller and faster transistors it's still mostly learning how to make a better version of the same thing.

I don't doubt that you can say "in the last 40 years" and you will still be right...

There's a most excellent vintage 1980s lecture by Robert Anton Wilson titled "The Jumping Jesus Phenomenon". The gist of it can be found at the rawilson.com website as well as elsewhere.

Wilson defines the "jesus" (small j) as the number of scientific facts known at the time of Jesus. Then he goes on to count how many years it takes to double that number. By his count, humanity accumulated 2j by about the year 1500. Then 4j by the year 1750, and so on. I forget the exact numbers but the point of the lecture was that our j-factor was increasing at an ever-increasing rate. By Wilson's estimation the curve would go vertical sometime around ... wait for it ... the year 2012.

This reads a lot like Kurzweil's singularity hypothesis (among others) but I'm not sure who developed the concept first.

It's Terence Mckenna's Timewave theory (from the 1970s).

Kurzweil was following along after a lot of other people.

Vernor Vinge, for instance, came up with the term Technological Singularity in 1993, Teilhard de Chardin had the Omega Point in 1950, etc.

You're saying this is the end of civilization?

I have multiple relatives that are 100+. I wonder what percentage of all people they have lived longer than.

This gets at the root cause of what is wrong in our civilizations today. Most of our genes were evolved pre-civilization. Civilization itself is just an experiment. An experiment that hasn't been going all that well if judged by what has been happening to our planet. There is wisdom from the pre-civilization days I hope we can tap into while using new technologies to actually have sustainable civilization.

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