Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Trouble With Life Expectancy

Life expectancy is something I see getting brought up occasionally in pagan conversation. The trouble is, a lot of people don't really seem to understand what life expectancy means. The person who most recently brought this up to me was attempting to say, well, the ancient Greeks had an average lifespan of only 30-40 years old, so a lot of them probably never communicated with a deity. (So whatever they had to say was probably not worth listening to? Ironically, this person was only 30, so...) I find this a very, very bizarre statement all around, but mostly because... well, it's not like people in Ancient Greece were all just falling over dead at the age of 35.

See, the thing about those lifespans that look so low to us now, is that they include infant deaths. Death was indeed very common for infants and young children. All those young deaths brought down the average as a whole. However, if you made it out of young childhood, you had a much better shot at leading a fairly long life. Sure, disease was still an issue, war, and of course childbirth itself was very dangerous, and social status played a part as well, but you know, a lot of people still managed to live into their 60s, 70s, and so on.

I mean, after all, you had to be at least 60 to be a member of the Spartan senate. And it's not like they had a hard time with this, getting into the senate was quite a competitive thing, and people who did enter the senate often served for quite a while.

So life expectancy doesn't really tell us about any of that, how long people might live once they were out of early childhood. What we can see from life expectancy is that, say, in the modern US, thanks to medical advancements, many infants and children are no longer dying so early. And yeah, that's a good thing. I'm not knocking modern life, modern medicine, modern technology. I'm a fan of all that good stuff. Just don't think we should misunderstand or underestimate our ancestors, the lives they lived, what those lives were like, and yes, the things they did accomplish. Because they accomplished a lot.

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