Everyone knows that human life expectancies have been improving. But just how extraordinary and incomparable that improvement has been is not widely understood. Demographers Oskar Burgera, Annette Baudischa, and James W. Vaupel offer two remarkable sets of comparisons in “Human mortality improvement in evolutionary context,” which appears in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences (October 30, 2012, vol. 109, no. 44, 18210-18214). From their abstract:
“The health and economic implications of mortality reduction have been given substantial attention, but the observed malleability of human mortality has not been placed in a broad evolutionary context. We quantify the rate and amount of mortality reduction by comparing a variety of human populations to the evolved human mortality profile, here estimated as the average mortality pattern for ethnographically observed hunter-gatherers. We show that human mortality has decreased so substantially that the difference between hunter-gatherers and today’s lowest mortality populations is greater than the difference between hunter-gatherers and wild chimpanzees. The bulk of this mortality reduction has occurred since 1900 and has been experienced by only about 4 of the roughly 8,000 human generations that have ever lived. Moreover, mortality improvement in humans is on par with or greater than the reductions in mortality in other species achieved by laboratory selection experiments and endocrine pathway mutations.”…
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