Steven Johnson: How We Doubled Life Expectancy in the 20th Century

The Extra Life author on past scientific breakthroughs, COVID-19 vaccines, and renewing trust and confidence in public health agencies.


"It took us four years just to identify the virus that caused AIDS in the '80s," says Steven Johnson. "Imagine COVID where it's four years before we even know what is causing the outbreak. That's what would have happened if we just shifted 20 years, 30 years earlier in terms of when this outbreak happened."

Johnson is the author of the new book Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, which is also running as a series on PBS (watch online here). The rapid advance in vaccine technology, which is bringing an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, is best understood in the context of a series of innovations that more than doubled the life expectancy of the human race over the last 100 years. Extra Life explores how innovations in epidemiological statistics, artificial fertilizer, toilets, and sanitation systems, along with vaccines and other measures, have allowed billions of people to flourish until old age. By 2016, global life expectancy at birth had reached 72 years, according to the World Health Organization. 

Johnson was a founder of the pioneering website Feed in the 1990s and has authored a shelf full of books about human progress, including such bestsellers as The Ghost Map, which recounted how doctors and researchers ended the threat of cholera in 19th-century London, and Future Perfect, which argued that the modern networked world is far more resilient than previous iterations.

He talks with Nick Gillespie about how we managed to massively increase our lifespans in the 20th century, and whether we can do even better in the 21st. They also talk about performance of the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration when it comes to COVID-19 and how those agencies might rebuild trust and confidence in the post-pandemic world.

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  1. So longer lives, older population, fewer births. More automation fewer jobs education is marxism - communist paradise? jk

    1. You would have everyone die young and miserable instead?

      A shorter work week might be an insult to the Protestant Work Ethic, but it doesn't come from communism, it comes from the capitalism that increases everyone's wealth. Affluence means more leisure is in demand, and thus shorter work weeks.

      While the Marxists may dream of it, only a free market can deliver it.

      1. I'd have you die young and miserable, because otherwise you'll spread your misery to the rest of us.

        1. Another gem from nardz. How surprising.

          1. Now you know why Nardz is here. He got banned everywhere else.

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      2. Wait a sec... vacation time, the 40 hour work week, unemployment insurance, the right to organize, mandated leave policies and other worker goodies didn’t come from the hard work of communists within the labor movement? What history are you reading? Ayn Rand? She sucks you know.

        1. The testimony of millions of defectors and escapees from your "Worker's Paradises" (including Ayn Rand) is quite sufficient to show that Communism and Socialism deliver none of their promises without terrible consequences.

      3. ^Hear! Hear!^

        1. With American Socia1ist, shouldn't that be: Heil! Heil!?"

  2. Perhaps it's worth talking about populations which have seen a reversal of longer life expectancy, and why it might be important.

    1. The average American could expect to live 78.6 years, down from 78.7 years in 2016, according to the report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

      The average American could expect to live 78.6 years, down from 78.7 years in 2016.

      This is the first time since the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 that the U.S. has reported such a trend in lost life, said Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics with the National Center for Health Statistics.

      Date of article: 2018. So no, media hyperventilators, this shit has been ticking away since long before the coof.

      1. We'd want to see the breakdown of who exactly is bringing the average down. The article linked to notes: "But Anderson said the latest data suggest this mortality trend is heavily influenced by the ongoing drug epidemic and a rising rate of suicides nationwide. And many people dying as a result of those two causes tend to be younger than in recent decades, he said." The article goes on to extrapolate a bit on these two things, while also noting that while heart disease and cancer remain leading causes of death, they have not changed much in that they mainly affect older people and do not influence the trend downward.

        1. IIRC, the reason for the drop was due to the suicide and drug-related deaths among (relatively) young males.

          1. Well, that comment ended up in the wrong place.....

  3. "imagine covid where it took 4 years to identify the cause"

    Pretty sure 70% of the people in the comments were saying Wuhan lab after about 4 weeks

  4. Don't worry, anti-vax idiots are angrily trying to turn the tide against science and reason.

    1. Are science and reason so weak that some anti-vaxers can destroy it? Besides, doesn't their anti-vaxiness make you happy? By your "reasoning" aren't they all gonna die horrible Covid deaths leaving the world to the "enlightened"?

      1. No, my understanding is they'll be asymptomatic super-spreaders, somehow avoiding the consequences of death themselves, but spreading it to everyone else, infecting them, vaccinated or not, because the vaccine is only 96.5947650234% effective, and the anti-vaxxer asymptomatic spreading powers will always slip through the .4%

        That's the logic as it's been explained to me.

    2. I'm proposing a version control system for Science and Reason.

      Starting with Beta Fauci 0.1, moving all the way to Fauci 27.495.765.

      Each with release notes:

      This patch corrects critical bugs and errors made in Fauci 27.495.764, size: 945tb.

      Patches released every Tuesday.

  5. The #1 reason for the long life expectancy most of us can expect to enjoy is a decline in infant mortality. Most deaths used to happen in the first 5 years of life due to diseases, so if you made it past 5, you probably would live until late middle age (60s) at least. Yes, people actually are living longer now thanks to drugs like statins and better treatment for heart attacks, but for most the later years aren’t spent in good health.

    1. Wrong. It's masks. Masks are the reason for longer life expectancy.

  6. No need to live a long life. Just enjoy the time what God has gifted you. Old age is a curse. You will feel depressed and lonely in long life. Better leave this body and stay near to god.

    Rest while you are alive enjoy shopping coupon codes and save money for better life.

    1. Youre trying to hard for your $.50

    2. So if Earth is not your home and you're "just passing through," why would you need coupons? And why would you need to flog this crap off on us?

  7. Now let's deal with the deadly pandemic of government.

  8. Cheap, reliable energy from fossil fuels. Without that we would all still be shitting in a hole in yhe yard.

    1. And Nuke power promises to be even better. If only we could combine them to get: "Atomic batteries to power!...Turbines to speed!"

  9. This guys' "how we got to now" educational series is one of the best things Ive watched on TV over the last 10 years.

    If you like non political educational programming, I highly recommend renting it on amazon.

  10. As a libertarian, I kind of expected to see a statement along the lines of "The increase in human life expectancy, is best understood in the context of a series of innovations that more than doubled the life expectancy of the human race over the last 100 years, thanks to government that protects the inventions of individuals so they can get compensated for their risk and investment to make the world better".

    It's also the reason I'd rather donate to organization that work to protect and increase our freedom, than to medical research. Without that freedom to benefit from our inventions, we're unlikely to get any more advances in medical research. AFAIK, nearly all the big medical advances occurred in a free country.

    1. Naturally, it's best to do both/and with libertarian and medical donations where possible. A free society full of Voodoo Doctors, Acupuncturists, and faith healers couldn't and wouldn't accomplish greater life expectancies and would quickly sink into government dependence and tyranny to boot.

  11. I've said it before and it bears repeating: If "eternal vigilence is the price of freedom," shouldn't we work on getting immortal?

  12. What?

    Growing food without being buried in animal manure full of pathogens is a healthy thing to do? Nitrogen fertilizer is made using natural gas, a "fossil fuel". That is unacceptable.

  13. People are exploring the possibility that covid-19 never would have happened if it wasn't for gene splicing technology.

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