Sample Essay On The Human Lifespan:
Past, Present, and Future
Death comes to all living beings, and human beings are no exception to this rule. In fact, death is something looming every moment, and it is this uncertainty that motivates many of us to aspire to new and amazing things, to take challenges and risks, to essentially, feel alive. Death is such an influence that it motivates scientists and doctors to devote entire lifetimes to researching and investigating the length of a human life. Much of this research has been done to gain perspective on where human beings have come from, evolutionarily and physiologically. Research is presently done on the trends of the human lifespan. Perhaps most importantly, research is ongoing in how to prolong the human lifespan through a variety of methods like pharmaceuticals, dietary habits, and even some far-fetched solutions like genetic engineering and cryogenics. The fact remains, however, that death looms, and because of this we are extremely interested in the trends and factors that concern the human lifespan.
There are plenty of arguments in support of the human lifespan, and perhaps more accurately, life expectancy, increasing in age. As noted in the article, “Human Lifespans Nearly Constant for 2,000 Years,” “life expectancy for men in 1907 was 45.6 years; by 1957 it rose to 66.4; in 2007 it reached 75.5” (Radford). This term, ‘life expectancy,’ is often confused with ‘lifespan,’ and contrary to this perception that we are able to live longer lives as time continues on, this is not necessarily true. Yes, the average life expectancy is higher than in years past, but the lifespan is much the same. According to Benjamin Radford, “The fact is that the maximum human lifespan — a concept often confused with "life expectancy" — has remained more or less the same for thousands of years.” This is fascinating news because of the false preconception that somehow we have increased our longevity, even our evolutionary biology. Looking back at the trends in lifespan, then, is not as pertinent as once thought. It is important to note that the figures for ‘life expectancy’ are based on averages, and the important trends to note are the decrease in infant mortality rate and the huge advances in medicine (Radford).
Perhaps it is important then, to look at the present trends in the human lifespan. As noted earlier, the human lifespan has been relatively unchanged over the last two millennia. However, the current life expectancy is currently at 78 years of age (Radford). A broadcast titled, “The Oldest Living Things on Earth,” nicely summarizes the extremes of a human lifespan: “The oldest person ever certified died in France in 1997 at age 122. The current oldest lives in Japan, she's 116. The maximum human lifespan seems to be around 120 years.” This is a fascinating revelation as this is remarkably different from the average. So what is responsible for this vast variation in the human lifespan? Of course disease impacts this, and the natural process of senescence of aging is ongoing. But this doesn’t quite explain the incredible differences. Scientists believe there are many factors that contribute, and it all comes down to microbiology. The aging process naturally occurs and results in the dying off of cells and the introduction of free radicals into the body. According to David Walker, “The idea that toxic by-products of normal metabolism (reactive oxygen species or free radicals) contribute to the aging process has been around for more than a half-century. An enormous body of evidence points to oxygen radicals being key players in a number of age-related diseases” (338). As this is a function of metabolism, it comes down to what we consume, not only food and drink, but environmental products that enter our system through breathing and through our skin. Walker goes further to explain, “Today, many of the molecules and biochemical reactions that have been shown to modulate life span in laboratory organisms are considered separately in clinical research focused on Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and cancer” (338). These chronic illnesses that are most common in the elderly give us a glimpse into the effects and processes of aging, and the influence it can have on the human lifespan.
All of this information leads to a big question: If we know so much about the processes involved with aging and how it impacts the human lifespan, do we have the right to manipulate this life span by lengthening it? Do we have the right to play god? Should we direct our efforts into extending this life expectancy or is it something that should be avoided? Clearly, with such a controversial issue and with the ever-looming death over our shoulders, there is no easy answer.
Those who oppose the idea of extending the human lifespan have several valid reasons. The most common reasons in opposition are because it is against nature, unknown psychological consequences, and on moral grounds (Dvorsky). The first of which is fairly easy to understand. Much like any argument about human beings playing god, this one is no different. According to Dvorsky, “the quest for life extension goes against the natural cycles of birth and death, and if we attain immortality we will have stepped so far outside the natural order that we could no longer be considered as humans.” This is a valid argument because the world is governed by natural cycles, and that keeps everything in equilibrium. However, there is the opposing viewpoint that the human brain also naturally evolved to be able to comprehend and manipulate things like this.
The second reason for opposition uses an argument of unknowns, which is only effective as long as those unknowns are ‘unknown.’ But the arguments are worth mentioning. Dvorsky elaborates: “We're going to be bored when we have indefinite lifespans. We would be bored and life would be full of repetitious tedium. So severe would this boredom be actually that we should probably forgo life extension altogether. It is an unpredictable social experiment—we do not know what will await us beyond our expected normal lifespan right now.” This is an interesting point of contention because it is unknown, and it connects back to the naturalistic argument because it is not natural to be immortal.
The third reason relates to moral grounds. Dvorsky explains that “meaning to life is somehow something that you pull out of your mortality—a limited lifespan motivates people to spend their time wisely, and it is through a sense of urgency, they argue, that we are able to refine and exploit our best qualities.” This is an argument based on morality and what drives a human being, which is really a philosophical question, so it is difficult to argue, but it is important to consider all of these things when the topic of human lifespan comes up. Dvorsky brings up some good points: “life extension would create a population that is lazy, spoiled, apathetic, self-centered and indulgent, and that life would not be serious or meaningful without death.”
But extending the human lifespan clearly has so appeal, mainly due to the presence of death, and so it will continue to be a discussion and a viable option of investigation. The positives are more clearly defined: we want to live longer so we don’t have to die. Clearly, this would put further strain on the natural resources because population growth would continue to swell, and overpopulation could possibly be an even bigger issue in the future. Still, it is the future that is the most interesting as far as the human lifespan is considered. Even so, it might be worthwhile to consider how much the human race can alter the human lifespan, especially with the huge advancements in medicine and understanding about the human life over the past century and still, as Radford, states in the title of his article that the human lifespan continues to remain unchanged for 2,000 years. Of course the area of research is a ripe one, and interest into this matter will continue to grow and inspire new ideas and new arguments. Perhaps the most relevant thing here is that the human lifespan is interesting and should be looked into and studied more and more in order for any moral or ethical decisions to be made, especially as research seems to be heading this way.
It might be worth asking the question on a personal level: would you want to live forever? I’m sure many people would hesitate, at least at first, because there is something almost as frightening in death as there is in immortality. There is something frightening about absolutes and the lack of change and dynamics that seem to really make life worth living. And yet, none of us want to die. The issue is a paradox, but the human lifespan is a fascinating topic of discussion, from the past to present, and to the unpredictably frontier that is the future, the human lifespan and our manipulation of it is something to consider. Death does loom all around us, but is never dying a better alternative? The questions remains. However, as Benjamin Radford explains, the human lifespan has been relatively unchanged since Homo sapien evolved, and this is another powerful argument for nature in opposition of human lifespan extension. The answer to the above questions will be mainly a very personal one, but it is worth asking, especially if the future may push us to answer these questions in perhaps the not so distant future.
Dvorsky, George. "Radical Life Extension: An Overview." Extending the Human Lifespan. Ed. Tamara Thompson. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2013. At Issue. Rpt. from "Popular Arguments For and Against Longevity." IEET.com. 2007. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.
Radford, Benjamin. “Human Lifespans Nearly Constant for 2,000 Years.” LiveScience.com. 21 Aug. 2009. Web. 21 April 2015.
"The Oldest Living Things in the World." Living on Earth 30 May 2014. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.
Walker, David. "Achieving Immortality." American Scientist 96.4 (2008): 338+. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.