Home > Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics > Living to 150: A quick reality check

Living to 150: A quick reality check

January 19th, 2015

Our fact challenged Treasurer, Joe Hockey raised some eyebrows when he suggested that we need to reform Medicare because children born today might live to 150. He got some support from University of New South Wales faculty of medicine dean Peter Smith, who cited the increase in life expectancy over the last century, from 55/59 (for men and women respectively) in 1910 to 80/84 today.

There’s an apparent paradox here: If life expectancy is 80/84 years today, how can a newborn child expect to live 150 years. The answer is that “life expectancy” is nothing of the sort. It’s the average age at death if current age-specific mortality rates remain unchanged. On average, people born in 1910 actually lived well beyond their “life expectancy” because death rates fell through their lifetime. So, if medical progress continues, people born today may live, on average, well past 80/84.

But how much more? Unfortunately, on past indications, not much more. Most of the 20th century extension of life expectancy came from a reduction in death rates for the young. A 65-year old in 1910 could expect to live to 76/78 (since death rates don’t change much over a decade, that’s an actual expectation not just a statistical construct). Today, that’s increased to 84/87, from 11/13 years of extra life to 19/22. For Hockey to be right, over the next 100 years or so, the conditional expectancy has to rise five-fold, to 85 years. The basis for all this, it seems, is a 2011 press release of the kind we see every week or two announcing a breakthrough that might, perhaps, lead to a cure for this or that disease.

But even in the unlikely event that this extension of life occurs, what possible relevance could it have to the amount we should pay for medical care today? Even under current rules (which would certainly change with extended life expectancy) Hockey’s hypothetical Methuselah wouldn’t be eligible for the age pension until 2085 and (given the anti-aging breakthrough he hypothesises) wouldn’t seriously burden the health care system until well into the 22nd century. Coming from a government that dismisses concerns about climate change as a problem for the indefinite future, this solicitude for Treasurers yet unborn seems misplaced.

Update Via Twitter, I discover that the source of Hockey’s claim is someone called Aubry de Grey, who is obviously in the tradition of wealthy British eccentrics, with his own foundation, journal and so on; a much more appealing instance of this kind of thing than Lord Monckton, but still not to be taken seriously.

Further update Defending Hockey’s silliness, Mark Kenny makes the point that what Hockey actually said (restating de Grey) was that it is “remarkable that somewhere in the world today, it is highly probable, a child has been born who will live to be 150”. This shift from mean to maximum helps the demographic plausibility of Hockey’s case, but only marginally (we still need an advance of nearly 30 years on 122, the longest lifespan ever recorded), but it makes the argument even weaker. Suppose that some child in, say, China is going to live to 150. What possible impact can that have on our health system. More generally, what can it matter to the budget if a handful of people live very long lives. It’s the average (measured by numbers like life expectancy at 65) that matters. As an indication of the minuscule scale of the fiscal problem posed by those with very long lives, there are currently only about 4250 Australians aged over 100, amounting to about 0.02 per cent of our population.

Yet further update It’s worth pointing out that, with pension age eligibility rising from 65/60 when the age pension was introduced around 1910 to 70/70 by 2035, men will have lost half of the extra retirement years gained from higher life expectancy and women the whole gain. The big problem we face is underemployment of prime-age workers, not the fact that we aren’t dying early enough.

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  1. Megan
    January 19th, 2015 at 18:03 | #1

    It seems reasonable to suggest that all those people living to 150 wouldn’t be the sickly type. So there shouldn’t be a problem.

  2. Ikonoclast
    January 19th, 2015 at 19:19 | #2

    Various interesting takes on this below. The weight of evidence suggests Joe Hockey is talking through his hat. Why are we not surprised?

    “Maximum life span is a measure of the maximum amount of time one or more members of a population has been observed to survive between birth and death. The term can also denote an estimate of the maximum amount of time that a member of a given species could survive between life and death, provided circumstances that are optimal to their longevity.

    Most living species have at least one upper limit on the number of times cells can divide. This is called the Hayflick limit, although number of cell divisions does not strictly control lifespan (non-dividing cells and dividing cells lived over 122 years in the oldest known human).” – Wikipedia.

    “The longest-living person whose dates of birth and death were verified to the modern norms of Guinness World Records and the Gerontology Research Group was Jeanne Calment, a French woman who lived to 122. The maximum (recorded) life span for humans has increased from 103 in 1798 to 110 years in 1898, 115 years in 1986, and 122.45 years since Calment’s death in 1997 (See List of the verified oldest people and List of verified supercentenarians who died before 1980), among steady improvements in overall life expectancy. Reduction of infant mortality has accounted for most of this increased average longevity, but since the 1960s mortality rates among those over 80 years have decreased by about 1.5% per year. “The progress being made in lengthening lifespans and postponing senescence is entirely due to medical and public-health efforts, rising standards of living, better education, healthier nutrition and more salubrious lifestyles.”[3] Animal studies suggest that further lengthening of human lifespan could be achieved through “calorie restriction mimetic” drugs or by directly reducing food consumption. Although calorie restriction has not been proven to extend the maximum human life span, as of 2014, results in ongoing primate studies have demonstrated that the assumptions derived from rodents are valid in primates as well [Reference: Nature 01.04.2014].[4]


    It has also been observed that the VO2max value (a measure of the volume of oxygen flow to the cardiac muscle) decreases as a function of age. Therefore, the maximum lifespan of an individual can be determined by calculating when his or her VO2max value drops below the basal metabolic rate necessary to sustain life —approximately 3 ml per kg per minute.[10] Noakes (p. 84) notes that, on the basis of this hypothesis, athletes with a VO2max value between 50 and 60 at age 20 can be expected “to live for 100 to 125 years, provided they maintained their physical activity so that their rate of decline in VO2max remained constant.

    A theoretical study suggested the maximum human lifespan to be around 125 years using a modified stretched exponential function for human survival curves.[11] – Wikipedia.


    “The Hayflick limit[Note 1] (or Hayflick phenomenon) is the number of times a normal human cell population will divide until cell division stops. Empirical evidence shows that the telomeres associated with each cell’s DNA will get slightly shorter with each new cell division until they shorten to a critical length.[1][2]

    The concept of the Hayflick limit was advanced by American anatomist Leonard Hayflick in 1961,[1] at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hayflick demonstrated that a population of normal human fetal cells in a cell culture will divide between 40 and 60 times. The population will then enter a senescence phase, which refutes the contention by Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel that normal cells are immortal. Each mitosis slightly shortens each of the telomeres on the DNA of the cells. Telomere shortening in humans eventually makes cell division impossible, and this aging of the cell population appears to correlate with the overall physical aging of the human body.” – Wikipedia.

    * * *

    In search of Methuselah: estimating the upper limits to human longevity.
    Olshansky SJ1, Carnes BA, Cassel C.
    Author information


    Estimates of the upper limits to human longevity have important policy implications that directly affect forecasts of life expectancy, active life expectancy, population aging, and social and medical programs tied to the size and health status of the elderly population. In the past, investigators have based speculations about the upper limits of human longevity on observations of past trends in mortality. Here the estimate of the upper bound is based on hypothesized reductions in current mortality rates necessary to achieve a life expectancy at birth from 80 to 120 years and an expectation of life at age 50 from 30 to 70 years. With the use of conditional probabilities of death from complete life tables for the United States, reductions in mortality required to achieve extreme longevity (that is, 80 to 120 years) were compared with those resulting from hypothetical cures for all cardiovascular diseases, ischemic heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Results indicate that in order for life expectancy at birth to increase from present levels to what has been referred to as the average biological limit to life (age 85), mortality rates from all causes of death would need to decline at all ages by 55%, and at ages 50 and over by 60%. Given that hypothetical cures for major degenerative diseases would reduce overall mortality by 75%, it seems highly unlikely that life expectancy at birth will exceed the age of 85.”

  3. Cambo
    January 19th, 2015 at 19:55 | #3

    I am surprised you don’t point out to Joe the small detail that “life expectancy” is a population statistic and not comparable to anybody’s actual life expectancy.

    Population life expectancy has improved due to improved medicine and nutrition resulting in fewer infant and childhood deaths meaning a higher percentage of the population survives to old age. Old age hasn’t changed very much, but more people are getting there.

    Worldwide there is nobody over 125 years and everybody over about 95 is an outlier.

    Nobody in Australia is over 120. Statistically nobody in Australia has ever been that old. Nobody anywhere ever will be 150 years old.

    In the future a higher percentage of our population will be in the “oldies” grouping (assuming Mr Hockey doesn’t actually succeed in reducing Australians’ health, education and employment prospects).

  4. January 19th, 2015 at 20:45 | #4

    Shorter Joe Hockey: We can’t afford to extend people’s lives now because we may extend the lives of their children in the future.

  5. January 19th, 2015 at 21:06 | #5

    Anecdotally, if my Dad lived 50 years ago, and survived into his late 70’s, then Parkinson’s and other things would have killed him pretty quickly. He’s coming around to 86, but only thanks to medical science.

  6. Flann O’Brien
    January 19th, 2015 at 21:30 | #6

    Funny,too, that The co-payment was supposed to fund medical research – to help make us live longer

  7. Flann O’Brien
    January 19th, 2015 at 21:31 | #7

    Funny, too, that the co-payment was supposed to fund medical research – to help us live longer

  8. Uncle Milton
    January 19th, 2015 at 21:40 | #8

    Who would want to live to 150 in any case? Not me.

  9. January 19th, 2015 at 21:51 | #9

    Sad to say I have grown used to innumerate Treasurers, starting with Jim Cairns when I hit secondary school in 1975 and now arriving with Joe Hockey in 2015 as I reach the tail end of middle-age. Forty years of Treasurers who can’t add up. Thank God for econocrats!

    But what really irks me is that a Professor of Medicine at a high-ranking university can make such howlers. Every school boy knows that most of the hard yards of increasing life-expectancy was done by improving infant mortality, given that early deaths, by logical necessity, cut most meat off the average life expectancy bone. Back in the day most women had four or five children, usually two or so died before the age of ten. So high infant mortality effectively cut life expectancy by at least 30%.

    And the basis for the Second Demographic Transition, which raised life-expectancy by about 50% in most countries, was not revolutionary new drugs, apart from penicillin. It was…plumbing. Speak to Mr Bill Gates about that.

    How can a Professor of Medicine not know this stuff?

    Although I would bet good money that typical life-expectancy of a 65 year old in 2080 would be well north of 100, based on plausible trends of two-three years improvement in longevity every decade. The Daily Telegraph reports:

    Living beyond 100 will become the norm for children born within the next generation, official projections show…The projections, contained in a new report analysing the make-up of the British population, means that typical life expectancies would have increased by around a decade since the 1980s. It is also now predicted that average life female expectancy will reach the once unimaginable milestone of 100 in 2057.

    The basis for this optimism is not revolutionary technology but simply improved anti-ageing drugs. The NYT report:

    Now scientists studying the intricacies of DNA and other molecular bio-dynamics may be poised to offer even more dramatic boosts to longevity. This comes not from setting out explicitly to conquer aging, which remains controversial in mainstream science, but from researchers developing new drugs and therapies for such maladies of growing old as heart disease and diabetes.

    “Aging is the major risk factor for most diseases,” says Felipe Sierra, director of the Division of Aging Biology at the National Institute on Aging. “The National Institutes of Health fund research into understanding the diseases of aging, not life extension, though this could be a side effect.”

    For instance, right now drug companies are running clinical trials on new compounds that may have the “side effect” of extending life span. These include a drug at Sirtris, part of GlaxoSmithKline, that is being developed to treat inflammation and other diseases of aging. Called SRT-2104, this compound works on an enzyme called SIRT1 that, when activated, seems to slow aging in mice and other animals. It may do the same thing in humans, though this remains to be proven.

    “Many serious attempts are being made to come up with a pill for aging,” said Dr. Sierra, though he suspects that there will not be a single anti-aging pill, if these compounds end up working at all. “It will be a combination of things.”

    As against this S J Olshanksy has been pointing out for over a decade that there is no magic bullet for aging since most crucial body parts are designed to wear out or become subject to cancer, from the age of three score and ten onwards. Even if carcinogens and cardio-vascular disease was cured overnight there are still plenty of ways to die. The big one is, of course, neuro-degenerative diseases for which there is no magic bullet, yet.

    And even if such cures could be developed we still have to organize an efficient and equitable health system to deliver them in a timely manner. Olshansky’s research shows that a polarised class and cultural structure is actually reducing life-expectancy for lower-status Americans.

    The only way that life-expectancy could be ratcheted up to 150 years would be revolutionary advances in bio-tech, requiring some kind of merger between molecular (genetic) and cellular (phenetic) biology. There is some evidence that this might occur, according to the NYT:

    Still to be determined is the most cost-effective way to deliver stem cells.

    Scientists presumed, for instance, that a patient’s heart would repair itself better when injected with its own stem cells. But the study that Mr. Irastorza volunteered for at the University of Miami showed that patients fared just as well with someone else’s stem cells, and their bodies didn’t mount an immune attack against the cells. If supported by further studies, this means that future patients won’t need immune suppressants, and that stem cells can be made in large batches — and therefore more cheaply.

    “That’s incredibly important, because that means off-the-shelf therapy is possible,” said Joshua Hare, founding director of the University of Miami’s Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute, who led the research trial.

    “Progress comes in fits and starts,” said Dr. Scadden, of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, comparing the halting advances in the field to the “war on cancer” declared in 1971.

    “No one would say it has fully delivered, but many thousands are alive today because of it and the smaller-scale, very real triumphs along the way. And those triumphs increase with every year,” he said. Using stem cells to routinely treat disease “will take time, but when we look back 20 years from now, I think medicine and human health will be transformed by it.”

    Bottom line: the longer you live, you improve the odds on living longer.


  10. plaasmatron
    January 20th, 2015 at 00:17 | #10

    Professors of all sorts know good and well that their claims are dubios. JQ nailed it with the line

    “of the kind we see every week or two announcing a breakthrough that might, perhaps, lead to a cure for this or that disease”.

    The current KPI for academics has moved on from impact factors and h-indecies, to press releases, twitter retweets and facebook likes. Getting attention means getting grants, however dubious the claims. Most breakthroughs leading to cures for this or that disease are chimeras, aimed at providing a topical application for research that used to be “blue sky”. The number of times I read “with potential application in cancer diagnostics” in physics journals…

  11. BilB
    January 20th, 2015 at 04:13 | #11

    Our country is being “run” by the three stooges. It is just one stupidity after another punctuated by moments of astonishing meanness.

  12. Jason
    January 20th, 2015 at 07:20 | #12

    great point PQ, but the deeper (sadder) point is Hockey is clutching for reasons to do what he is doing – he either doesn’t know the perceived rationales or is unwilling to stand by them – possibly because he knows they are garbage and serve particular interests

  13. L1ttl3j1m
    January 20th, 2015 at 07:21 | #13

    @Megan sicklypoor

    Fixed that for you

  14. rog
    January 20th, 2015 at 07:31 | #14

    Here’s another Hockey blunder, this time on income tax rates. Business Insider pulls no punches and challenge the comprehension and, by default the competency of our Treasurer.

  15. Ikonoclast
    January 20th, 2015 at 08:21 | #15

    @Jack Strocchi

    These wonderfully optimistic estimates of future human longevity do not factor in the following impending developments (some flow from others earlier in the list);

    (a) Limits to Growth and Resource collapse;
    (b) Global warming above 2 degrees C;
    (c) Death of the Oceans;
    (d) Weather disruptions;
    (e) Topsoil depletion;
    (f) Food shortages;
    (g) Antibiotic resistance.
    (h) Economic Collapse;

    In 50 years time, the last thing anyone will be worrying about is whether humans will live too long. Most will be worrying about how to survive for another month.

  16. Paul Norton
    January 20th, 2015 at 08:32 | #16

    Jack Strocchi @9:

    …most of the hard yards of increasing life-expectancy was done by improving infant mortality, given that early deaths, by logical necessity, cut most meat off the average life expectancy bone. Back in the day most women had four or five children, usually two or so died before the age of ten. So high infant mortality effectively cut life expectancy by at least 30%.

    And the basis for the Second Demographic Transition, which raised life-expectancy by about 50% in most countries, was not revolutionary new drugs, apart from penicillin. It was…plumbing. Speak to Mr Bill Gates about that.

    To this we could probably add (in advanced capitalist countries) that after 1945 there have not been large percentages of the younger generations of males who have either died, or experienced life-shortening injuries or illnesses, as a result of wars in which most young men were liable for service.

  17. Paul Norton
    January 20th, 2015 at 08:36 | #17

    Ikonoklast @13, if we can deal with (a) via a managed transition to a steady-state economy we stand a good chance of pre-empting (b) through (h). Be optimistic!

  18. T. Oppermann
    January 20th, 2015 at 08:52 | #18

    Aubrey de Gray is big in Singularitarian circles, which is odd from one point of view – you’d think that once the Jesus computer uploads us all, there will be no use in life extension for mere flesh – but not at all odd from the point of view of transhumanism being packed full of middle age nerds scared of death.

  19. dan
    January 20th, 2015 at 09:17 | #19

    LOL you think you know what is going on and you have never heard the name Aubry de Grey before? Mate next you will be telling us that the line of the graph for improvements in medical technologies is a straight line, well here is a reality check for you, it is parabolic. In simple terms that means that the next 5 years can see as much change as the last 20, or more, depending on the part of the curve you are on. We are not talking about our destination due to a given velocity, we are talking about the rate at which our velocity itself is constantly increasing.

    I am sorry but there is no nice way to say this, you have made yourself look like a complete buffoon and a classic example of the Dunning–Kruger effect!

  20. January 20th, 2015 at 09:17 | #20

    As JQ noted in his update, apparently the source of this nonsense came from some British wingnut. But, I’ve been hearing this sort of thing for over a decade from some people I vaguely know, who, to no-ones’ surprise, are also rabid greenhouse denialists and general loons. My understanding is that “we are on the verge of extending life, perhaps indefinitely” is a well worn theme on the loony Right, part of their world view and possibly ties into one of the over-arching reasons for much of what animates the Right – the desire to protect and entrench existing social order. No point living forever if the solution to global issues (warming, inequality, environment) is to backtrack on neoliberalism (capitalism) which may diminish these peoples’ comparative advantage. It also plays to the pseudo-scientific, tech-will-find-a-way yawn-fest that goes on in these circles.

    Anyway, makes you wonder who Hockey is talking to.

  21. David Irving (no relation)
    January 20th, 2015 at 09:45 | #21

    I’ve got a feeling I’ve heard of Aubry de Gray – wasn’t he out he a few years ago, all over the media with implausible claims of immortality? Anyway, he sounds like just another computer nerd glibertarian with delusions of intellectual respectability.

  22. BilB
    January 20th, 2015 at 09:53 | #22

    No matter what technology does to extend the operability of the human body, there is nothing that can be done to rejuvenate the brain. The brain thrives on the pleasure of experience and starts out in life with no experience and a huge need to develop, and through life progresses to a state of having experienced everything and having little need to further develop. Along the way its mass transitions from mostly grey matter and little white matter (connections) to equally white matter and grey matter. It is a one way trip, which is that way for the very purpose of ensuring that the body is ready for the challenges of self sustenance, reproduction, education, and finally being ready for death (no further desire to live).

  23. Ikonoclast
    January 20th, 2015 at 10:12 | #23


    I tend to agree BilB. I have noticed, even at the age of 60, that physical ills and niggles increase and the pleasure that the body can deliver lessens. No matter how “philosophical” or “intellectual” one becomes or attempts to become one cannot disguise from oneself that at some level intellectual and emotional feeling is quite heavily dependent on bodily feeling.

    We evolved to grow, mature, reproduce, care for young and then die. A life span of forty years is sufficient for this. Living into your fifties makes you an elder in any other era. The deterioration of most people after 50 confirms this in my mind. It is very rare to see anyone with any worthwhile quality of life after 85. It begs the question. Why would one want to live beyond 85?

  24. Jim
    January 20th, 2015 at 10:16 | #24

    Perhaps the numerically challenged Treasurer is softening us up for more increases in the minimum eligibility age for the pension….

    …..or perhaps he is just not that bright.

    I’ll let the readers make up their own mind.

  25. Ken_L
    January 20th, 2015 at 10:22 | #25

    Interesting extended article on de Gray at http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/403654/do-you-want-to-live-forever/. He’s someone who deserves more respect than the Moncktons of this world; at least he’s published in relevant peer-reviewed journals and has his PhD (albeit in a different discipline). The linked article points out that ‘researchers have not come close to solving a single one of the seven problems’ that de Gray needs to solve to prevent ageing, although there has been some promising progress in some.

    On the main point, Hockey does seem to have given up trying to act like a serious, sober Treasurer and reverted to the persona of light entertainer on morning television. A man being progressively undone by tasks he’s not intellectually equipped to cope with, I suspect.

  26. A Falkingham
    January 20th, 2015 at 11:14 | #26

    Jesus I hope that doesn’t mean might Hockey live to 150 – otherwise as well as shafting me and my child – he’ll then target my grandchildren, my great grandchildren and, my great great grandchildren.

  27. January 20th, 2015 at 12:21 | #27

    Putting aside Joe Hockey’s silliness, for just a little while and replacing it with my own silliness, looking at what ratteries do we could probably get human beings to regularly live to 150. Also looking at what ratteries do it’s pretty clear that we’re not going to like what would be necessary. And it would take many generations and wouldn’t be much use to anyone alive today. Except Nazis. So the trick would be to cheat and give people’s bodies the benefits of generations of breeding for longetivity without actually bothing to do it. This does not seem impossible and I presume some progress will be made that will assist some people in dying later. On average of course.

    But this approach runs into limits just as rat breeders run into limits with how old they can get rats. So if you want a long lived small animal one should get a parrot or a tortise rather than a rat, and if you want a long lived human, you should get rid of that nasty human DNA and replace it with something better.

    Now without care this does mean the end of natural human reproduction. If you have Windows 9 DNA you can’t reproduce with someone who has Windows 8 DNA and expect to have Windows 8.5 kids. And god help those with Vista DNA.

    How far are we from replacing people’s shoddy cells with their globs of cruddy DNA in the center? Well, we’ve replaced the DNA of bacteria with an artificial genome and succeeded in making less effective bacterium, so we just need to work our way up from there. And sideways. And down.

  28. Bernard J.
    January 20th, 2015 at 12:49 | #28

    I’m pleased to see that JQ picked the wings off this fly so effectively – it was irking me and my colleagues and John and the commenters above have saved us the need to refute Hockey ourselves.

    It doesn’t change the fact though that there’s something profoundly wrong with our political system when it permits ignoramuses (ignorami?) of this enormous calibre to hold positions of such responsibility in our federal government. This is the sort of blather one expects from the worst tabloid press. The only characteristic of Hockey’s that I can see that helps him to retain his position is that he seems absolutely dedicated to increasing the wealth of the already-rich at the expense of the poor, fact and logic and ethics be absolutely and totally damned.

  29. Alec
    January 20th, 2015 at 13:19 | #29

    Oh my goodness. This is a distraction. It might have been an oddball transhumanist throwaway comment but a throwaway comment was all it was. Who cares??

    The important questions have nothing to do with life expectancy and everything to do with health policy. In the interview, he said that he was outraged because he wasn’t allowed to pay for his son’s x-ray, and that it’s unfair that he should get free healthcare because he’s on a high income. What about pointing out that, given all money raised by the co-payment will go to the medical future fund, the only way money could be saved in the circumstances is if the co-payment was high enough that he wouldn’t actually go to the doctor? What about asking him how what level of co-payment would be required to prevent him from getting x-rays? What about asking how much his son’s health is actually worth to him?

    Or failing all else, what about pointing out that, if it is his high income that makes public healthcare unfair, we should target new taxes at income rather than use of the health system…

    Beat ups over sideshows like this one are the worst part of the 24hr news cycle.

  30. derrida derider
    January 20th, 2015 at 13:19 | #30

    CURRENT “life expectancy” derived from life tables does indeed have the definition John puts, and if using them to project FUTURE life expectancy a longish way ahead you should correct for projected future falls in the death rate. But that’s exactly what the demographers do.

    Hockey was taken out of context – his remarks were not so absurd if you read what he actually said. I don’t think he confused population life expectancy and maximum lifespan of an individual at all.

    They’re still misleading in more than one direction, though. For example the biggest component of most projected future increases in health costs is not population ageing or increasing life expectancy at all. They mostly reflect the fact that health is a superior good – as we get richer we spend a bigger proportion of our lifetime income on it – and also that its a very labour intensive service industry and hence subject to Baumol’s curse.

  31. derrida derider
    January 20th, 2015 at 13:21 | #31

    Oh, and @Jack Strocchi is mostly right, but has got one thing wrong. Increases in life expectancy up to about 1960 were indeed mostly driven by decreases in infant and child mortality. But in the last few decades the increase in overall life expectancy has mainly come from increase in the lifespan of those already old, with a lesser contribution from reduced deaths among young men (less bloody wars, safer cars, etc).

  32. Michael
    January 20th, 2015 at 13:29 | #32

    If the goal was to crowd out sensible policy discussion with nonsense then this government has more than achieved it.

  33. January 20th, 2015 at 13:34 | #33

    If you go to the ABS life expectancy tables from 1881-2012 and do a tiny bit of reformatting to even up the spaces between censuses you can see that life expectancy in Australia has gone up by approximately three months a year, with the 150-year trend lines putting the average LE for men in 2065 up to 117 and women to 122. There are, as pointed out above, a number of reasons why this might change; but that growth line has been rock steady (part from a minor glitch in the 1960s) for the last 130 years, and I wouldn’t bet against it.

  34. BilB
    January 20th, 2015 at 13:38 | #34

    But Alec, that is very much the point. Rather than solve the problem of under funding by adjusting the funds source, the Medicare Levy, Hockey is determined to reduce the service and make people pay when they are sick rather than pay while they are healthy and earning as was the intention of the Medicare Levy in the first place.

    And you are right, the 150 catch line is and is intended to be a distraction. Its purpose is to draw the discussion away from practical solutions and into the dark alley of making Medicare appear to not work. The fact is that if the communities need for medical services has increased then the funding should be adjusted to compensate.

    Hockey’s very intentional distraction ids to prevent the national system being adjusted as that would throw affordability pressure on the private scheme, exactly what neo clutz right wing do not want to have happen.

  35. Vegetarian
    January 20th, 2015 at 14:35 | #35

    Hasn’t he heard the predictioon that this generation is likely to be the first to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, because of the obesity epidemic? He should know!

  36. Uncle Milton
    January 20th, 2015 at 14:52 | #36

    @derrida derider

    that health is a superior good – as we get richer we spend a bigger proportion of our lifetime income on it

    Alternatively, the more we spend on health care, the more likely we are to be productive (because it’s hard to work if you are sick) and so we get richer.

  37. john goss
    January 20th, 2015 at 16:43 | #37

    Chrisb. Your arithmetric is quite wrong with your le estimate for 2065. 50 years will only add 12.5 years to current life expectancy

  38. john goss
    January 20th, 2015 at 18:51 | #38

    Of course people in grass houses should be careful about throwing stones of correction.

  39. David Wyatt
    January 20th, 2015 at 20:13 | #39

    i think these reality checks are based on normal biological limits. It is quite likely that these will be overcome by technologies. Humans as a species have overcome many biological limits & age is just another.
    I doubt if Joe is aware of the research & is just shooting the breeze.

  40. Ben
    January 20th, 2015 at 22:58 | #40

    Oh well, good to see the Libs having a crack at a problem with a long time horizon for once!

  41. sunshine
    January 21st, 2015 at 06:09 | #41

    – There are predictions that the current generation of kids will be the first to have a reduced life expectancy .Looking around my local shopping mall I can believe that, but my suburb ranks at or near bottom for all the relevant social indicators.
    – To me a huge part of the scientific endeavor seems aimed at immortality .Sometime ,for the rich, life expectancy might approach amortality (where you only die from accidents) if our planet can sustain our civilisation long enough.
    – I wish Government and the markets would stop seeing the elderly only as a burden. They are immense assets too. Also ,as an individual, having the chance to age is a gift (spoken like someone not suffering yet!).
    – In a pre -agricultural setting if you survived past 10 years you had a good chance of living to 50 or 60 even with the risk of injury/infection -harder for women due to pregnancy/birth risks. They were much healthier and probably ,on average,happier than us.

  42. Ikonoclast
    January 21st, 2015 at 08:40 | #42


    “… life expectancy might approach amortality (where you only die from accidents)…”

    No, I don’t think we are going to spontaneously turn into Tolkienian Elves. Ageing is inbuilt in our biology. I suspect the limit is about 125 years. The oldest verified person ever was French woman Jeanne Calment, who died at the age of 122 years, 164 days.

    A few species show “negligible senescence” but homo sapiens is not one of them. It might be possible to develop negligible senescence in some humans via scientific methods. I am not sure this will be a good idea but that won’t stop the attempt of course. I am sure the oligarchs are funding such research on their own behalf right now.

  43. January 21st, 2015 at 08:50 | #43

    Damn. Correct that to 2165 (150 years out).
    “…the 150-year trend lines putting the average LE for men in 2165 up to 117 and women to 122.”

  44. Fran Barlow
    January 21st, 2015 at 09:28 | #44


    Given the absence of dental hygiene, I doubt you’d call a Pleistocene human lucky to be alive much beyond 35.

  45. sunshine
    January 21st, 2015 at 11:13 | #45

    Iko I dont want to rule it out given the progress of science so far, the size of the effort ,and that its not logically impossible .It seems unlikely due to environmental and human limitations ,but there could still be 100’s of years of progress to come -maybe 1000’s .Too late for us tho. Rupert looks good for his age ……

    @Fran Barlow
    Fran I think our ancestors didnt need dental hygiene like we do as their teeth were better .Ironic that one of the signs of a savage in the movies is a mouth full of bad teeth .Like wild animals they didnt have teeth problems much. Our sugar rich mouth environments dont have the bacteria in them that we evolved with ,meaning that gum disease is common .So bacteria etc are constantly leaking into our bloodstreams ,this affects our immune systems ,and that is why gum disease is correlated with so many different illnesses. (according to a Catalyst show). Blood in your toothpaste is a bad sign.

  46. January 21st, 2015 at 11:47 | #46

    Fran, for all we know Australians had a longer life expectancy than the British when they first arrived here. But we do know it didn’t take long for their life expectancy to drop below that of the British.

  47. January 21st, 2015 at 14:23 | #47

    I find it amazing that conservative politicians have this incredible talent for turning humanity’s greatest health achievements into a boring fiscal nightmare.

    e.g. we are continually extending life expectancy = oh my god the economy will collapse

    e.g. we have finally reduced fertility rates to a point where women can control how many children they have and minimize the risks to their health of pregnancy = oh my god our society will dwindle away

    To me these two things are an unalloyed good, representing the realization of two dreams that human society has been chasing since we came out of the trees.

    To Joe Hockey and Peter Costello they’re an existential threat. Tells you a lot about how they think …

  48. Fran Barlow
    January 21st, 2015 at 14:25 | #48

    @Ronald Brak

    You’re missing my point. I strongly suspect that our Indigenous folk did on the whole live longer than did the British in the great cities of the UK prior to 1788. AIUI, life expectancy in the UK then was probably the wrong side of 60.

    Poor dental hygiene though would have made life very unpleasant for people of that era, British or Indigenous. They would have been in constant discomfort from gum disease and tooth decay and broken teeth.

  49. sunshine
    January 21st, 2015 at 14:58 | #49

    Apparently hunter gatherers had better teeth than us and didnt need oral hygiene. Like wild animals they rarely had teeth problems. Because our mouths are now sugar rich environments the bacterial balance we evolved with in there is gone. That protected us from gum disease (and tooth decay I think). Also- having open wounds in your mouth means that bacteria etc are often leaking into your blood -this affects your immune system and is why gum disease is correlated with so many and varied diseases. Blood in your tooth paste is bad. Its ironic that one sign of the savage in movies is a mouth full of bad teeth. (This was on the Catalyst science show.)

    As far as general health goes ,their diet was superior ,they did less work, and each person did a wide range of mental and physical activity. Mentally we are set up for coping with sudden big stresses that then go away -not for the constant low level of background stress associated with modern life. Life had inherent meaning ,they were not raised to be always thinking ‘whats wrong with me?’ or ‘how can I get more?’.

  50. derrida derider
    January 21st, 2015 at 15:02 | #50

    Actually, Fran, the cliometricians (historians who use econometrics) tell us life expectancy among the proletariat of the industrial revolution was longer than that of the peasantry from which they came – stinking cities meant more sickness but much less famine. And said peasantry would have almost certainly had a longer life expectancy than most hunter-gatherers, groups which generally have truly horrible infant, maternal and war-caused death rates (don’t underestimate the last, BTW – aboriginal clan warfare almost certainly killed off an awful lot of young men).

    Which just shows how much being a hunter-gather, a peasant or a proletarian must all have sucked – though as you point out they often would have very literally sucked.

  51. Julie Thomas
    January 21st, 2015 at 15:15 | #51

    No way did the blackfellas have bad teeth when they ate their traditional diets. They were often a bit toothless because they did knock their own teeth out – as status indicators.

    They also beat themselves up to the point of creating scar tissue – particularly the woman when they were grieving.

    They seem to at times in the past – like several thousand years ago – been so healthy that men could run as fast as Usain Bolt. This is according to a TV series First Footprints which puts together very well the up to date information and speculation from anthropology that we have about the life our first people lived.

    In the second of the three programmes in this series there is one scene, where there are a group of anthropologists and bio-mechanists and a couple of old blackfellas in the middle of the desert talking about a set of fossil footprints left thousands of years ago by a group that consisted of at least 3 men and 3 to 4 women and a couple of children.

    This group were walking across a muddy flat and at one stage the men take off running and measurements of these footprints show how fast they were able to run. There is also a one legged man with them who apparently hopped and kept up with the group.

    Very good doco. I recommend it. There are some photographs taken at first contact, before we wrecked their culture that show that there were some very old people, and clearly show how very healthy they were.

    Lots of the British certainly did have very poor teeth and from some antho research I have read people lived years with abscesses that were eating holes in their gums, I can’t imagine how anyone could function with that amount of pain or why they would want to.

  52. Julie Thomas
    January 21st, 2015 at 15:36 | #52


    Do you have some recent anthro refs about the numbers of young men killed in war in hunter-gatherer societies?

    The consensus that I am aware of is that the Australian traditional foragers did not make war on other groups; the raiding and fighting were one of the ways they avoided war. War is fighting over territory and the blackfellas did not own their land; they shared it.

    There are significant differences between hunter-gatherer cultures in different environments.

    Also, “a new study of violence in modern hunter-gatherer societies, which may hold clues to prehistoric human life, suggests that warlike behavior is a relatively recent phenomenon.”


  53. Julie Thomas
    January 21st, 2015 at 15:47 | #53

    But also there must have been some very healthy Europeans who settled in the Darling Downs area, as there are quite a few graves in the local cemetery of people who died around the 1890’s aged in their ’90’s; according to the gravestones.

    The cemeteries in small towns are very peaceful places and quite beautiful; in my town – well out of town – it is set amongst large ghost gum trees and ‘the bush’.

  54. Megan
    January 21st, 2015 at 16:08 | #54

    I don’t recall stories of bad teeth from any of the stuff I’ve read about early white settlement.

    A diary entry from a settler in SA from 1836 includes:

    I fell in with a native, a fine-looking, manly fellow, whose appearance at once gave the lie to all past descriptions of the looks of the New Hollanders. He was a young man about 25 years of age, five feet ten inches in height; strong and well built, though the chest was rather narrow; with a very good-humoured face and a mouthful of the finest teeth I ever saw.

    On general happiness, health and wellbeing, apparently (I don’t have the source) Cook wrote in about 1770:

    … they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them … the Earth and sea of their own accord furnished them with all things necessary for life …

    I don’t know what the life expectancy was but quality of life appeared to be quite good.

  55. jungney
    January 21st, 2015 at 17:32 | #55

    We are again learning that everything we were ever taught or told about Aboriginal Australia is nothing but a lie. It astounds me, the depth and the breadth with which these lies were spread and are still held as gospel truth by possibly a majority of Australians.

    The true sign of a genocidal society is repeated attempts to erase all traces of both the existence of the degraded other and any evidence of the genocide. That’s us.

    In the last decade or so we have learned of the phenomenal death toll of the Aboriginal Wars in Qld, about 60,000 Aboriginal deaths by one account, of the recency of massacres, of enslavement and the refusal of state governments to pay out Aboriginal workers who are owed perhaps millions, especially in Qld but NSW too, of the fact that Australia, far from being ‘terra nullius’, was, as GAmmage describes it, ‘The Biggest Estate On Earth (ie, totally managed, from East to West and North to South) as well as, just recently, of Aboriginal housing structures the existence of which totally denies the idea of the ‘ignoble savage’ as nomadic nothings.

    Much as I love Australia it is only roughly about a third of Australians for whom I have any respect. They are the ones who have, through fortune or decision, naturalized themselves to Australia by engagement with Aboriginal people; such people always stand in defence of Aboriginal Australians against the most unholy predators that the Empire ever unleashed on a forlorn continent.

    A putrid stink arises from this so called nation. It emanates as much from history’s unacknowledged corpses as it does from the tongues of the liars who imagine that they rule us.

  56. Megan
    January 21st, 2015 at 17:59 | #56


    Gammage should be compulsory reading.

  57. Julie Thomas
    January 21st, 2015 at 18:42 | #57

    and this series also that is available free on SBS – with lots of online ‘resources’


    The Frist Footsteps series and there are 4 not 3 programs is not free.

  58. Robert (not from UK)
    January 21st, 2015 at 18:55 | #58

    In the days when ABC television would broadcast This Day Tonight (you would need to be 45 years old, or more, to have the faintest clue of what that name signified), there was at least one documentary broadcast as part of that program called “Could We All Live To Be 100?”. I’m talking about circa 1969.

  59. Tony Lynch
    January 21st, 2015 at 20:32 | #59

    The Independent recently reported a “significant decline in life expectancy” in the UK. It seems to be happening to a degree in the US, according to Forbes. Now why might this be, Joe?

  60. Donald Oats
    January 21st, 2015 at 20:45 | #60

    I’ve said this before, but I’m fairly certain that in primary school, we were shown old film taken of Aboriginal people in chains. I say fairly sure, because I have had a bit of a look around to see if any footage is online, and I haven’t seen it. The chains, if I am recalling it correctly, were neck collars; the footage, as I remember it, had maybe a dozen Aboriginal people daisy-chained together—I’m guessing the footage was early 1900’s, 1910 perhaps. This article gives some corroboration of this being a fairly common practice in SA and WA at the time. The films also showed Aboriginal people within their tribal context, basically doing what they more or less would have done before the colonial appearance. We also saw footage of Aboriginal people who had been Christianised by missionaries, all Sunday best. I don’t know what my classmates made of it all, but it made a significant impression on me. We weren’t shown all the horrors, but nor were we particularly shielded from it—for which I’m grateful.

  61. Luke Elford
    January 21st, 2015 at 21:05 | #61

    @Julie Thomas

    This website (http://ourworldindata.org/data/violence-rights/ethnographic-and-archaeological-evidence-on-violent-deaths/) summarises (with references) the evidence concerning violence-related deaths in prehistoric and non-state societies. The evidence suggests that violent deaths accounted for about 15% of all deaths in hunter-gatherer societies. It’s not easy to distinguish between deaths relating to inter-group conflict (which is presumably what DD meant by warfare, cf your definition) and other violence, but so what? The data clearly indicates that hunter-gatherer societies were generally incredibly violent by modern standards.

    With respect to the article that you linked to: the rest of it doesn’t actually support the opening paragraph from which you quoted; in fact it directly contradicts it. Rather than demonstrating that “warlike behaviour” is a relatively recent phenomenon, it shows that it—along with other types of violence—has been part of hunter-gatherer life. And it doesn’t demonstrate that it’s increased over time, either.

  62. January 22nd, 2015 at 01:27 | #62

    Robert (not from UK), i recently visited a Japanese elderly care home, and saw a sign on a blackboard saying congratulations to some person for reaching 100. I remarked on how cool this was and my guide at the care home replied “not really, it’s happening all the time now. It’s not so special.” The question for us moderns is not whether we make it to an elderly age, but the state in which we get there.

  63. Julie Thomas
    January 22nd, 2015 at 07:03 | #63

    @Luke Elford

    “The data clearly indicates that hunter-gatherer societies were generally incredibly violent by modern standards.”

    Modern standards are very much over-rated as a way of judging the functionality and intelligence and value of other people’s cultures.

    If one lives in a harsh and extremely variable environment, one way of coping with this is to embrace what you call ‘violence’. Being better at tolerating pain and injury becomes a way of achieving status and admiration and also a way for the individual to develop a thing, “intrinsic motivation” which provides a way for people to thrive as individuals in terms of personal self-development and self-respect and derive respect from the other group members.

    The idea that ‘violence’ is not a good thing is a very new idea in terms of human values.

    Your confusion about me being confused and contradicting my self arises because the definitions of words like ‘war’ and ‘violence’ are not clearly defined and we are using them in different ways and also the time scale of “relatively recent” seems to be problematic in the way we are using this term.

    It would be better if you didn’t use words like “incredibly’; is it really incredible?

    Hyperbole, in my experience indicates that the person using these words is not being as rational as they could be if they stepped away from their current assumptions about the state of knowledge and looked with an open mind the knowledge that is emerging from the more recent technologies that we have available to understand and interpret how cultures worked in the past.

    If you think that article is all I have, you are mistaken. But this is off-topic I think – and I should stop.

  64. January 22nd, 2015 at 07:20 | #64

    Fran, average lifespan of British people in 1788 was about 40 or less. For people of European decent in the United States in 1850 it was about 39.

    And yes, hunter gatherer Australians did tend to become more dentally challenged as they aged, for example Mungo Man’s molars showed major wear by the time of death at about 50, but fortunately for them they did not appear to become as dentally challenged as the agricultural British people.

  65. Julie Thomas
    January 22nd, 2015 at 08:24 | #65

    Ronald, Mungo man’s teeth showed wear but not decay. Wear and tear on teeth was probably one of the limitations to longevity for hunter-gatherers or foragers or proto-agriculturalists – these are more accurate term for groups of people who live traditional lives – because they didn’t have blenders.

    It’s interesting that there are some more recent analyses of the foods that were available for and eaten by our traditional aborigines and some of these plants have been found to have far more vitamins and other nutrients that contribute to good health, than we assumed when we claimed that they didn’t do agriculture – so that without much effort their diet would have provided them with the potential to be very healthy.

    Tooth decay seems not to have been a problem for any animal – and humans are animals – that eats a ‘natural’ diet. Pets in our modern life get dental problems because they eat the food that our wealth creators produce to make our lives so much easier and less violent of course, and then Vets get to make a profit by cleaning our dog’s teeth. Works well.

    Not my dogs though, they eat pumpkin, chicken frames and bones from any animal and have never had any teeth problems.

    There were the Okinawa Japanese who consistently lived to be 100 or more – that was a big thing a while back and the Hunza people were famous with the hippies for their longevity – it was apricot kernels that did it 🙂 – but there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on what is the critical factor.

    As with intelligence the genetic component of longevity seems to depend on any number of genes and the way these genes combine in individuals and the way they are expressed in response to environmental stimuli.

  66. sunshine
    January 22nd, 2015 at 08:27 | #66

    Derrida Derrida –
    Generally hunter gatherer people did not face constant risk of famine ,that only came about with agriculture .That is part of the constant stress of post agricultural revolution life .As a surplus of 1 or 2 kinds of food was made each year population could grow by relying on those staple foods, there were suddenly more and more sicker people. Agriculture meant the rise of repetitive, physically and mentally damaging ,specialised work too .HG people did not worry about job security -you place was assured. Evolution cares not for happiness ,it only matters how many babies you have. Socially/psychologically we are set up to live in tribe sized groups where we either know ,or know of ,everyone else and have shared child rearing etc. Really, it is no surprise that HG people were mentally and physically better off than us as we evolved over millions of years to live like that .On evolutionary time we have only lived like we do now for the blink of an eye.

  67. David Wyatt
    January 22nd, 2015 at 08:36 | #67

    apparently Centenarians is now our fastest growing demographic albeit from a very low base of about 1 in 5000.

  68. Ikonoclast
    January 22nd, 2015 at 08:42 | #68

    @Julie Thomas

    “Some raw apricot kernels are promoted as an alternative therapy for cancer treatment. However the Cancer Council of Australia states that they are not only ineffective at treating cancer but could also be very dangerous.

    There have been reports of poisoning incidents in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom and Europe from eating raw apricot kernels. In 2011 a consumer in Queensland was hospitalised after consuming raw apricot kernels with high levels of cyanide. At the time, FSANZ warned consumers not to consume raw apricot kernels.

    Since that time, FSANZ and the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries have completed a survey and risk assessment of cyanogenic glycosides in certain foods. Of all the foods surveyed, only raw apricot kernels were found to pose a public health and safety risk.
    Consumer advice

    FSANZ advises that it is unsafe for adults to eat more than three raw apricot kernels per day. Children should not eat any.

    Consuming processed foods derived from apricots such as apricot nectar or products made with apricot kernels as an ingredient (e.g. amaretti biscuits, almond finger biscuits, apricot jams) doesn’t pose a risk because processing or cooking these foods reduces cyanide to safe levels.
    Apricot kernel proposal

    FSANZ conducted a risk assessment on a number of foods containing cyanogenic glycosides and found only raw apricot kernels (both with and without skin) pose an acute public health and safety risk?. Based on this assessment FSANZ has called for submissions on a proposal to prohibit the sale of raw apricot kernels.? Submissions close 10 February 2015. ” – Food Standards ANZ.

  69. Luke Elford
    January 22nd, 2015 at 08:46 | #69

    @Julie Thomas

    “It would be better if you didn’t use words like “incredibly’; is it really incredible?”

    I don’t wish to offend you, but it’s clear from this sentence and your post generally that you have difficulty understanding how other people use language. Because of this, I suggest that you consult a dictionary before questioning other people’s use of language. If you had done so, you would have seen that “incredibly” does not—by its generally used meanings that descriptive linguists dutifully record—necessarily imply that something is impossible to believe, or even hard to believe. It can also mean “to a great degree”, which is the meaning I intended.

    The main point of my post was to provide evidence in support of the contention that people in hunter-gatherer societies had high rates of death through acts of violence perpetrated against one another, a point relevant to a discussion on life expectancies. If you think that these high death rates are evidence of successful societies, fine.

    Also, I didn’t say you were confused or that you contradicted yourself. I said the article contradicted its own opening paragraph.

  70. Julie Thomas
    January 22nd, 2015 at 09:04 | #70


    So what was the secret of the Hunza’s long life or was that a myth?

  71. Julie Thomas
    January 22nd, 2015 at 09:11 | #71

    @Luke Elford

    Feel free to try and offend me. I don’t have that much difficulty in certain contexts and in my experience marking university assignments, it is nurses who inappropriately use hyperbole when it is unnecessry. The idea is to impress the reader with how personally they find the concept.

    I never contended that hunter-gatherers did not have ‘high’ rates of violence and yes the short lives lived by those h-g’s who died from accidents or human violence do affect the average life-span but understanding human nature and longevity by looking at the average is also an over-rated way to understand the dynamics.

    I don’t know how you judge ‘successful’ in terms of a society; what are your criteria? And of course it is fine that I have a different point of view than you, why wouldn’t it be?

    And I do think that the discussion is confused because people use words to mean different things; that is why academic disciplines need to develop jargon words so as to ensure that people who are looking at things more objectively, perhaps.

  72. Collin Street
    January 22nd, 2015 at 10:18 | #72

    > There were the Okinawa Japanese who consistently lived to be 100 or more

    I would suggest caution in interpreting records from okinawa, on account of some of the things that have happened there over the past hundred years.

  73. January 22nd, 2015 at 10:55 | #73

    An Okinawan was the only green person I’ve ever met. Not bright green, but khaki. I tell you, in Australia she would so totally be the hide and seek champion. And I must say, the natural camouflage of every other human I’ve met has been really lousy outsides of some rather limited settings. And of all the primates we’re the only ones with anti-camouflage eyes. Our eyes have whites that signal to other humans what we’re looking at. Maybe that’s why tigers always attack from behind. They hate looking at our freaky white eyes. Or maybe they just don’t want to be seen.

  74. January 22nd, 2015 at 10:56 | #74

    I should mention the green Okinawan person I met was exceptional. They’re not all green there.

  75. jungney
    January 22nd, 2015 at 16:40 | #75

    @Luke Elford
    Luke, I’m presuming here that you count pre-invasion Aboriginal Australia among “hunter gatherer” societies. This depiction is a bit old hat.

    In fact, the entire anthropological category of “hunter gatherer” can be shown to be a colonial construct whose ideological purpose (I know, I’m attributing agency to the superstructure, but that’s how it goes) was to justify dispossession of First Nation’s Peoples on the grounds of the lack of evidence of sovereignty.

    Some of the tests for sovereignty were: is the ground tilled or broken? are their fences? are there fences delineating individual possession and so on. None of these tests acknowledged the real evidence of both individual possession of land and rights or communal possession. On top of that, colonial eyes carefully failed to observe Aboriginal land and water management all of which required the presence of a near permanent population.

    So, if you want to argue issues to do with historical violence among Australian Aboriginals then maybe you cannot extrapolate facts to do with other “hunter gatherers” and apply them here because doing so is merely repeating ideology, not dealing with the facts.

    On the subject of observed violence among and between Aboriginal Australians there are numerous sources. On of my favourites is John Morgan’s account of William Buckley’s time living with Aboriginals. This story, which has enjoyed a renaissance as one of the few eye witness accounts of Aboriginal life prior to the great dislocation, illustrates almost constant brawling, fighting, territory disputes and wife stealing expeditions, among other types of violence.

  76. jungney
    January 22nd, 2015 at 17:03 | #76

    @Donald Oats
    I never saw footage like that as a kid. I did read a social science text in year 1, with a few dismal, grainy images, that described Aboriginal people as “stone age” and destined to “die out”. The stuff we were taught as children about Aboriginals was the vilest of lies for which there can be no forgiveness towards the sanctimonious authority of white sliced history.

    Years after my social studies reader chapter, on another project, I read the work of Daisy Bates, her ‘The Passing of the Aborigines’ (1938), which is without doubt the most revolting and putrid text by the most revolting and putrid person to have ever been published in Australia.

    She is to Australia what Kurtz was to the Congo.

    You can look her up.

    We live with the residues of genocide. Its our job to expose it to light.

  77. David Wyatt
    January 22nd, 2015 at 18:05 | #77

    Many of these comments seem to drift way off topic…albeit interesting.

  78. Julie Thomas
    January 22nd, 2015 at 18:23 | #78

    There are many reports of whites who were taken in by the blacks during the contact or invasion period and welcomed into the tribe or group. It is difficult to understand how people continue with the stories that our blackfellas were ‘warlike’ and had a ‘violent’ culture and that is the reason for their problems now.

    Another report about this sort of encounter is from John Fahey, a life sentence prisoner who escaped from a road party in 1842. The New England blacks took him to the Bunya’s where he was adopted by one of the tribes there and he stayed with them until he was brought to Brisbane in 1854 .

    He had nearly forgotten his own language and had been through initiation ceremonies because he was scarred with the tribal markings.

    It isn’t recorded that he was horrified by the level of violence he noticed among these people, he had nothing to say about the appalling levels of violence against the women – something that the Quadrant type ‘anthropologists’ become quite incensed about – and it seems from a white man account of the diet of the blacks in that area that he would have been eating fresh water mullet and cray fish and roast root of the Cambooya plant which is “quite equal to asparagus”.

    I’d think that having been a prisoner who in that life had probably been lashed for trivial and arbitrary offenses against person and property, that he might not have regarded the violence that he saw and experienced in traditional culture as a big problem or anything strange and worth talking about.

    He possibly was smart enough to have noticed and understood that there were rules – the law – that applied to the occurrence of this violence and violation of the law incurred severe penalties.

    There is film footage of an old couple who came in from the desert in the 1930’s I think, where they had lived for 30 years having been ostracized from all the local tribes because they violated the ‘skin’ laws by marrying each other and/or refusing to marry the right person. This couple must have managed to survive for as long as they did because people helped them and that wouldn’t have happened when the law was being applied without the disruption that the arrival of white people created.

    And Jungney poor Daisy Bates, was just trying to make a buck and get ahead; from some thing I read she was urged by people to write what they wanted to tell their readers. But she was a very strange woman, as were so many of the white people who came here to interact with ‘the natives’. They certainly had ‘issues’ as Kath and Kim would say.

    Oh dear off topic again.

  79. jungney
    January 22nd, 2015 at 18:44 | #79

    Thanks for the info. We’re on the same page.

  80. Luke Elford
    January 22nd, 2015 at 18:49 | #80


    Why are you directing these comments to me?

    Julie Thomas wrote (to DD): “Do you have some recent anthro refs about the numbers of young men killed in war in hunter-gatherer societies?” I responded with a link to references. I’ve (very deliberately) not made any comment about Australia at all.

    If you find the term “hunter-gatherer” unacceptable, why are you telling me, rather than “sunshine” who introduced the term to the discussion? If you find describing pre-invasion Aboriginal societies as “hunter-gatherer” unacceptable, why are you telling me, rather than “sunshine” who first made the link? Why are you directing your comments about Aboriginal land ownership to me, when Julie Thomas wrote “blackfellas did not own their land; they shared it”?

    The link to statistics that I provided does include a small amount of evidence concerning Aborigines (but not enough to draw conclusions, so I didn’t). But you didn’t bother looking, did you?

    Are you aware that researchers who’ve studied relative rates of violent deaths in different types of societies generally think the critical factor affecting rates is the presence or lack of a central government that can enforce peace? (Jared Diamond has a brief explanation here: http://www.jareddiamond.org/Jared_Diamond/Rousseau_Revisited.html). If this is the case, it makes the question of the extent to which a non-state society was nomadic or agricultural or whatever moot as far as this issue goes.

  81. Luke Elford
    January 22nd, 2015 at 18:56 | #81


    Why are you directing these comments to me?

    Julie Thomas wrote (to DD): “Do you have some recent anthro refs about the numbers of young men killed in war in hunter-gatherer societies?” I responded with a link to references. I’ve (very deliberately) not made any comment about Australia at all.

    If you find the term “hunter-gatherer” unacceptable, why are you telling me, rather than “sunshine” who introduced the term to the discussion? If you find describing pre-invasion Aboriginal societies as “hunter-gatherer” unacceptable, why are you telling me, rather than “sunshine” who first made the link? Why are you directing your comments about Aboriginal land ownership to me, when Julie Thomas wrote “blackfellas did not own their land; they shared it”?

    The link to statistics that I provided does include a small amount of evidence concerning Aborigines (but not enough to draw conclusions, so I didn’t). But you didn’t bother looking, did you?

    Are you aware that researchers who’ve studied relative rates of violent deaths in different types of societies generally think the critical factor affecting rates is the presence or lack of a central government that can enforce peace? (Jared Diamond has a brief explanation here: http://www.jareddiamond.org/Jared_Diamond/Rousseau_Revisited.html). If this is the case, it makes the question of the extent to which a non-state society was nomadic or agricultural or whatever moot.

    (Professor Quiggin, please delete the comment that is in moderation.)

  82. Julie Thomas
    January 22nd, 2015 at 19:19 | #82


    Why not direct comments at you? You are free to ignore them if you wish; that would be the grown up thing to do.

    So where do our blackfellas fit in this categorisation of societies you are thinking of? Probably you should reply in the Sandpit.

    Check out this fella; he is much more interesting and up to date in his speculation than Jared Diamond; just don’t believe anything he says about the paleo-diet.


    The above is an old blog from where he begins to look at the role of war in the development of civilization. I hope you find it useful but ignore it if not. No need to ask me why I am recommending a blog to you.

    And comments go into moderation if there are more than two links and clicking on relpy – which I didn’t in this comment -counts as one link. This is the way it works as I understand it and now I am definitely going to stop this off-topic thing.

  83. Ikonoclast
    January 22nd, 2015 at 19:58 | #83

    @Julie Thomas

    I find it interesting that you mention Turchin. I was vaguely aware of him so I checked your link. Some disparate thoughts occur me.

    1. I would like to read him so I will have to add him to my growing list. I have declared 2015 a year of reading (of books rather than blogs) for myself.

    2. He mentions Tolstoy’s theory of history which immediately recommends Turchin to me.

    Now I have purloined the Tolstoy quotes below from Duncan Green, strategic adviser for Oxfam GB, to save me writing my own views which are very similar in at least some respects.

    Tolstoy on causation and attribution

    “‘It is beyond the power of the human intellect to encompass all the causes of any phenomenon. But the impulse to search into causes is inherent in man’s very nature. And so the human intellect, without investigating the multiplicity and complexity of circumstances conditioning an event, any one of which taken separately may seem to be the reason for it, snatches at the first most comprehensible approximation to a cause and says ‘There is the cause’……” – Tolstoy.

    Tolstoy on Command and Control and the fallacy of hindsight

    ‘History shows that the expression of the will of historical personages in the majority of cases does not produce any effect – that is, their commands are often not executed and sometimes the very opposite of what they order is done…. Every command executed is always one of an immense number unexecuted. All the impossible commands are inconstant with the course of events and do not get carried out. Only the possible ones link up into a consecutive series of commands corresponding to a series of events, and are carried out.

    Our erroneous idea that the command which precedes the event causes the event is due to the fact that when the event has taken place and out of thousands of commands, those few which were consistent with that event have been executed we forget about the others that were not executed because they could not be.’ – Tolstoy.

    Tolstoy on Freedom

    ‘All man’s aspirations, all the interest that life holds for him, are so many aspirations and strivings after greater freedom. Wealth and poverty, fame and obscurity, power and subjection, strength and weakness, health and disease, culture and ignorance, work and leisure, repletion and hunger, virtue and vice are only greater or lesser degrees of freedom.’ – Tolstoy.

    Tolstoy on free will

    ‘In history, what is known to us we call the laws of necessity; what is unknown we call freewill. Freewill is for history only an expression connoting what we do not know about the laws of human life.’

    3. It seems likely to me that societies follow certain mathematical laws (as probabilistic laws or relationships). For example, there is plenty of evidence that food prices when they become excessive in poor countries lead to a higher probability of civil strife or insurrection. For example, work has been done on food riots around the world in the last decade related to the FAO Food Price Index. There is a correlation as we might expect.

  84. Ikonoclast
  85. rog
    January 22nd, 2015 at 21:45 | #85

    Heard this today, about shipwrecked Europeans being adopted by aborigines


  86. jungney
    January 23rd, 2015 at 08:04 | #86

    @Luke Elford

    Why are you directing these comments to me?

    But why not?

    When it comes to diminishing violence between humans over time Norbert Elias is much more nuanced than Jared Diamond. The former, in ‘The History of Manners’ (1939):

    traces the historical developments of the European habitus, or “second nature,” the particular individual psychic structures molded by social attitudes. Elias traced how post-medieval European standards regarding violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table manners and forms of speech were gradually transformed by increasing thresholds of shame and repugnance, working outward from a nucleus in court etiquette. The internalized “self-restraint” imposed by increasingly complex networks of social connections developed the “psychological” self-perceptions that Freud recognized as the “super-ego.”

    His second volume (1939), ‘State Formation and Civilization’, attributes agency to the state, as the title suggests.

    I tried grinding my way through another of Diamond’s works which ought to have been called ‘My Thoughts on Everything’ but gave up when I checked the index and noted that he only gives a few pages to hygiene in pre-modern societies. One of these pages is devoted to his own gut issues.

    The ongoing effort to identify higher levels of violence in pre-modern societies is flogging a dead horse. Elias provided that evidence in 1939 and in relation to Europe so he is free from the taint of the global racist discourse that is anthropology. There must be a reason why people keep dragging up the violence of pre-modern societies and it appears to me to be a way of attributing violent tendencies to current generations of colonised people which goes to evidence of either their unfitness for modernity or inclusion within liberal democracies.

  87. Julie Thomas
    January 23rd, 2015 at 08:14 | #87


    Thanks for that, Tolstoy certainly was a insightful philosopher/psychologist who was interested in seeing the patterns and laws of human nature as they were expressed by the behaviour of the people in his society. There were many of these men – Dostoevsky and Freud and the James’s, William and Henry also – who had insight into themselves and others and they all provide us with some valuable descriptions of the dynamics of human behaviour as it occurs in particular cultures.

    Turchin is a fascinating thinker and I’ve been keeping up with his blog for years now wondering when he will become interested in how our aborigines and their ‘civilization’ fits into his theory.

    I agree with him that ‘dynamics’ is the way to conceptualise the ‘laws’ of human behavior in all it’s complexity.

  88. Fran Barlow
    January 23rd, 2015 at 09:20 | #88


    There must be a reason why people keep dragging up the violence of pre-modern societies and it appears to me to be a way of attributing violent tendencies to current generations of colonised people which goes to evidence of either their unfitness for modernity or inclusion within liberal democracies.

    There probably is something in that, but I rather suspect the stronger impulse is to found the assertion that violence is innate — ‘human nature’ as it’s commonly called — and thus something modern folk should passively accept subject to it being implemented by the state in wars, prisons and by police. The idea that humans might devise societies where direct violence and bullying was seen as a perverse and repugnant and corrosive of human community and individual dignity is something that runs deep amongst the privileged.

  89. jungney
    January 23rd, 2015 at 09:27 | #89

    @Fran Barlow
    Oh yes, unchanging and violent ‘human nature’. I forgot about that angle. Thanks, that rounds it out.

  90. Luke Elford
    January 23rd, 2015 at 09:39 | #90

    Thanks Julie, I’ve actually read some of his stuff. I note that he disagrees with Fry (whose work featured in your other link), about the supposed absence of war before about 10,000 years ago. Like Fry he thinks that warfare became more common between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, but concedes there is a lack of evidence to prove whether warfare was more common or less common before this time.

    As I indicated in my first comment, I don’t think that the question of whether violent deaths resulted from warfare (however one might define it) or other acts has much bearing on discussions about life expectancies or levels of happiness. My understanding is that even those, such as Raymond Kelly, who think that hunter-gatherer societies were warless accept that they were very violent, with war representing a change in the type of violence only.

    Yes, I still make the two-link mistake now and then, sadly.

    Jugney, the issue of violence in pre-modern societies was raised in this thread because the issue of life expectancies (and levels of happiness) in pre-modern societies was raised. Anthropologists study violence in pre-modern societies because anthropologists study pre-modern societies. In public debate, some people raise the issue of violence in pre-modern societies because they are racists, but others discuss the historical trajectory of violence because fact-challenged utopians and those who react hysterically to small risks need a reminder that society has not gone down the toilet since the Neolithic Revolution, or the Enlightenment, or the 60s, or whatever historical juncture takes their fancy.

  91. Fran Barlow
    January 23rd, 2015 at 09:42 | #91

    Hmm … That concluding sentence wasn’t quite right:

    The idea that humans might devise societies where direct violence and bullying was seen as perverse, repugnant and thus corrosive of human community and individual dignity is something that causes deep angst amongst the privileged.

    Apologies all …

  92. Fran Barlow
    January 23rd, 2015 at 09:46 | #92

    I should make clear that my concluding paragraph referred to the privileged classes of the wider world rather than anyone posting here. I certainly didn’t mean to refer to Luke Elford above in my observation, just for the record.

  93. Julie Thomas
    January 23rd, 2015 at 10:23 | #93

    Luke, For me, the fact that some people raise the issue of pre-modern violence to justify their racism is more problematic than the romanticism or irrational utopians who fire up and express their hysteria. These beliefs, that violence is a significant feature of h-g life that renders it totally repugnant and worthless with nothing to offer ‘us’ when we think about human nature, is a huge problem compared to those who seem to annoy you.

    This is the variety of violence that I find, not incredible but appalling and so stupid because psychological violence does a lot of damage that affects us all.

    Prof Turchin is on the right track – you know imho – but as with his sudden conversion to the paleo-diet, there are things that he doesn’t see clearly. The wired piece was a quick and dirty reference I could find to offer someone who seemed to me – but them I lack a lot of social skills they say – to need a general introduction to the field.

    I suppose a violent society would need some substantial exposure to another society in which violence was not seen as something anti-social rather than normal behaviour and just what people do to solve problems. Our indigenous did not have contact with any other putatively peaceful societies until the British arrived and so many of these people with their peaceful Christian religion were not very good ambassadors for this peaceful and non-violent religion that they preached to the poor heathens.

  94. Luke Elford
    January 23rd, 2015 at 10:31 | #94

    My apologies for misspelling your name (twice), jungney.

  95. jungney
    January 23rd, 2015 at 13:27 | #95

    @Luke Elford
    I didn’t notice 🙂

  96. ZM
    January 23rd, 2015 at 20:57 | #96

    Re: claims of violence in “hunter gatherer” societies – this topic is not a particular interest of mine but it’s worth pointing out that Jared Diamond’s work is at least in part based on an uncritical acceptance of Napoleon Chagnon’s highly contested work, so I would be somewhat skeptical of his claims about violence in other cultures. Eg. :

    “I stumbled upon Napoleon Chagnon while reviewing Jared Diamond’s use of the ethnographic record in The World Until Yesterday. First reaction–Disbelief. Jared Diamond is using Napoleon Chagnon uncritically!? In 2013? But Brian Ferguson did the science on Napoleon Chagnon in 1995!
    My take from 6 February 2013:

    Brian Ferguson already did a complete empirical revision on the Yanomami evidence 20 years ago. After that work, no reputable scholar should be uncritically citing Napoleon Chagnon for empirical evidence. That this even must be done over again is a farce. Diamond cites only Napoleon Chagnon on the Yanomami. He does not mention Ferguson in his book, nor do we ever hear that there may have been a debate about Yanomami warfare. Somewhat ironically, Ferguson and others cleared this up in the scientific journals years ago, but Diamond gets the scientist label without paying attention to science.”


  97. adelady
    January 24th, 2015 at 18:37 | #97

    Donald Oats.

    I think I might have a vague recollection of a film or video. I know I have vivid disgust for a still photo of a group exactly as you describe it. It was taken in WA in the 30s. I think it might have been in a book that was culled from the shelves when we moved a couple of years ago so I don’t have the details handy.

    As for longevity. The issue isn’t life expectancy at birth. Regardless of how long the Hunzas or any other group were reputed to have lived, the issue for every society is life expectancy at 20, 40, 60 and beyond. The Hunzas very likely had the same kinds of high death rates for infants and children that all societies tend to suffer.

    30ish years ago we were doing some research for an essay for a public health subject and there was a sort of amusing oddity in collating the statistics. There were obvious differences between men and women in every age group. Once you got to the very old, if you were careless in reading or graphing the numbers you could make it look as though women in their 90s might never die because of the staggering decrease in the death rate for that group. Men in their 90s on the other hand had a death rate that simply continued and accelerated at much the same rate as it had for earlier life stages

    Of course the real takeaway was that, once you eliminated the effects of the two great wars of the 20th century, life expectancy at 20 or 40, at 60 & 80, had always been much, much greater than a naive reading of bare life expectancy numbers would give you.

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