Living to 150: A quick reality check

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.

97 thoughts on “Living to 150: A quick reality check

  1. 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.

  2. DD

    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.”

  3. 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’.

  4. 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.

  5. @Megan
    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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. @jungney
    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.

  9. @Julie Thomas

    This website ( 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.

  10. 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.

  11. @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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

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

  16. @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.

  17. @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.

  18. @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.

  19. > 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.

  20. 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.

  21. @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.

  22. @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.

  23. 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.

  24. @jungney

    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: 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.

  25. @jugney

    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: 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.)

  26. Luke

    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.

  27. @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.

  28. @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.

  29. @Ikonoclast

    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.

  30. Jungney

    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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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 …

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.”

  36. 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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