Extra Life

A Short History of Living Longer

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I listened to Nick Gillespie interview the author, Steven Johnson, about this book on his Reason Podcast. I must have been impressed enough to put it on my get-at-library list. I have been generally both favorable and unfavorable to Johnson's work in the past. This one gets an "OK for history, not great on policy" grade.

It's the story of how we (as in: First World Humanity) went from (in the UK) about 35 years of life expectancy at birth back at the turn of the 18th century, to nearly 80 years now. It's a great story, but Johnson's answer turns out to be: a lot of things (listed, for our convenience, on pp xxviii-xxix), from "AIDS cocktail" to (generally) "Vaccines". There's a PBS Documentary, if you prefer getting history that way.

The book's chapters each concentrate (roughly) on a single threat to human life and how that threat was (at least partially) solved: smallpox, cholera, raw/adulterated milk, bogus elixirs and medicines, bacterial infection, unsafe cars, famine. Johnson is a good, punchy writer and his relating of history is grabbing.

But he's way too moon-eyed about government regulation. Heroic efforts by the FDA, CDC, WHO, etc. are fawningly described. The white-knight bureaucrats ride over the hill to save us! But he wrote the book as Covid was in full swing; he could have (but did not) go into the bungling, foot-dragging, and "for your own good" nanny statism that probably cost lives in the US and abroad. That would complicate his story, sure. But it feels like this omission was probably intentional for that reason.

When reviewing his list of "life-saving innovations" he bemoans "how few of them originated in the private sector." Um, fine. But all of them were developed in rich countries with (I'm being redundant here) a thriving private sector. You don't get innovation from socialist countries, and you don't get it from poor countries (again, quite a bit of overlap there.) Johnson could have, but didn't, explore that.

And then, in his concluding chapter, Johnson speculates on radical life extension, using clever gene engineering to turn off the cell-level aging process in humans. Oh, oh, says Johnson: "Is it right to allow some people to live forever, while condemning others to death and the slow decline of aging, based solely on how much money they have in the bank?" (Emphasis added.)


Geez, Steve. Read Heinlein's Methuselah's Children and notice how much you sound like the bad guys here.

I can't imagine a world where you can't have life-extending medical intervention unless everyone else is provided with it at the same time. That logic would prevent every one of the innovations Johnson describes. I'm not sure he's thought that through, and his cheap demagogic point about "money in the bank" is a sure sign that he hasn't.

Last Modified 2021-10-13 6:17 AM EDT