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June 26, 2003


One of the many things that annoy me is the prevalence of fallacies about population issues. So to vent my spleen I’m planning a few notes on common population fallacies.

I’ll start with the idea that in the ‘old days’ (paleolithic, neolithic, medieval, pre-industrial, or whenever) everyone died young.

It’s quite true that in pre-20th century societies the average lifespan, or life expectancy at birth, was usually between 30 and 40, as compared to over 70 in most Western countries now. From this it is inferred that hardly anyone lived beyond the age of 45, that someone would be considered old at 50, and that real old age (70 or older) was extremely rare.

But I trust it is obvious to GNXP regulars that average (mean) lifespan tells us very little about the distribution of mortality. An average lifespan of 40 would be consistent with half the population living to 80. To say anything useful about the age structure of the population we need to know not just the mean but the distribution of lifespans.

Pre-20th century mortality patterns varied, but the main feature of all of them was that infant mortality was high. Typically over 15% of children would die in their first year, and between 30% and 50% would die before age 10. These high infant mortality rates had a dramatic effect on life expectancy at birth, dragging it down well below present levels.

But for those who survived the perils of childhood, life expectancy was not so bad. Admittedly, mortality between age 20 and 60 due to epidemic disease (smallpox, cholera, etc) and chronic infections (syphilis, TB), was higher than we would like, but from 20 up to about age 55 the risk of death in any given year would only be between 0.5% and 2% - worth saying your prayers to avoid, but not worth losing sleep over. There was a reasonable prospect of reaching old age.

These points can be illustrated by some figures calculated by Charles Babbage based on the experience of the Equitable Life Assurance Society in 18th century England. Of a given cohort at birth, based on this pattern, we would expect 65% to survive to age 10, 62% to survive to age 20, 57% to age 30, 51% to age 40, 45% to age 50, 35% to age 60, 25% to age 70, 14% to age 80, and 2% to age 90. This gives a median life expectancy at birth of about 41, and an average of about 39 (assuming that infant mortaliy is concentrated in the first year.)

This is lower at every age than we expect today, but even so, a quarter of all those born could expect to live to the age of 70, which is not bad going. If we consider the life expectancy of those who had survived childhood to reach age 15, about half would live to age 63, a quarter to age 78, and a tenth to age 85. About 3% would survive to age 90, which is rare but not extraordinarily rare.

For amusement I have also checked the lifespan of major C17 and C18 philosophers. To the nearest year this gives: Bacon 65, Berkeley 68, Condillac 65, Descartes 54, Diderot 71, Hobbes 92, Hume 65, Kant 80, Leibnitz 70, Locke 72, Malebranche 77, Priestley 71, Reid 86, Spinoza 44, Voltaire 83. Average lifespan 71.

Of course these aren’t representative samples. People who die young seldom become famous philosophers, and the customers of the Equitable were all wealthy enough to afford life insurance. Probably a cohort of peasants or coal miners would have fewer people living to real old age. But the figures do show that even with average life expectancy below 40, there can be lots of old people around. There may be some societies or occupations where the stereotype of ‘all dead by 50’ is accurate, but this needs to be proved from specific data, not a general assumption.


Posted by David B at 01:30 PM

The French philosopher Fontenelle lived 100 years! (1657-1757)

Posted by: eufrenio at June 26, 2003 02:41 PM

is there any difference between hunter-gatherers and agricultural and early industrial lifestyles? (by early industrial, i mean the victorian era situation, before modern medicine)

Posted by: razib at June 26, 2003 08:12 PM

One of the candidates for the oldest man in the world is (was?) Daniel Harekeb - http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,211754,00.html
.. a San bushmen from Namibia. He likes getting drunk too.

The countries with the highest longevity (ignoring the very small countries) - http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/hea_lif_exp_at_bir_tot_pop
... all seem to be ones which a culture (like the bushmen?) of equality and social conformity. (not imposed, soviet-style equality; but something within the culture itself)

Posted by: fredrik at June 27, 2003 01:52 AM

Razib: I don't know for sure - hunter gatherers don't usually have accurate birthdates!

According to Carr-Saunders on Population, hunter gatherers have high infant mortality, partly because if they have kids they can't support they get rid of them.

I would guess that each lifestyle has its occupational hazards - hunter gatherers are more likely to die in hunting accidents or inter-group warfare and feuds, early-industrials are more likely to die of industrial accidents or occupational diseases, e.g. stonecutters got stone dust in their lungs, hat-makers got mercury poisoning, cotton workers got byssinosis.

I'm very glad I live in the 20th/21st centuries!

Posted by: David B at June 27, 2003 06:02 AM

Neither hunter-gatherers nor early agriculturists kept death records, but they did often bury their dead, so some statistics can be deduced from archeological excavations. It's quite clear that in the period when agriculture was getting started, hunter-gatherers that survived until adulthood were better-nourished, healthier, and considerably taller than the farmers of that era, or most pre-industrial farmers in general.

It's also obvious that far more farmers' babies survived to reproduce, because eventually the farmers overran the Earth and pushed the remaining hunter-gatherers onto the most worthless land. Since the farmers were small, diseased, and had less skill with weapons, but still won, they must have had a considerable numeric advantage... (Once agriculture really took over, the surviving hunter-gatherers often became smaller and far less healthy, due to trying to scrape a living from land the farmers didn't consider worth stealing. Pygmies may be an extreme example of this.)

It's harder to measure life expectancy, because in general you can't consider the bodies you find as anything like a random sampling. Hunter-gatherers generally didn't use cemeteries.

Posted by: markm at June 28, 2003 02:48 PM