Surendhar Reddy

Progress and doubling of human life span

Steven Johnson, writing for NYTimes:

Another reason we have a hard time recognizing this kind of progress is that it tends to be measured not in events but in nonevents: the smallpox infection that didn’t kill you at age 2; the accidental scrape that didn’t give you a lethal bacterial infection; the drinking water that didn’t poison you with cholera. In a sense, human beings have been increasingly protected by an invisible shield, one that has been built, piece by piece, over the last few centuries, keeping us ever safer and further from death. It protects us through countless interventions, big and small: the chlorine in our drinking water, the ring vaccinations that rid the world of smallpox, the data centers mapping new outbreaks all around the planet. A crisis like the global pandemic of 2020-21 gives us a new perspective on all that progress. Pandemics have an interesting tendency to make that invisible shield suddenly, briefly visible. For once, we’re reminded of how dependent everyday life is on medical science, hospitals, public-health authorities, drug supply chains and more. And an event like the Covid-19 crisis does something else as well: It helps us perceive the holes in that shield, the vulnerabilities, the places where we need new scientific breakthroughs, new systems, new ways of protecting ourselves from emergent threats.

How did this great doubling of the human life span happen? When the history textbooks do touch on the subject of improving health, they often nod to three critical breakthroughs, all of them presented as triumphs of the scientific method: vaccines, germ theory and antibiotics. But the real story is far more complicated. Those breakthroughs might have been initiated by scientists, but it took the work of activists and public intellectuals and legal reformers to bring their benefits to everyday people. From this perspective, the doubling of human life span is an achievement that is closer to something like universal suffrage or the abolition of slavery: progress that required new social movements, new forms of persuasion and new kinds of public institutions to take root. And it required lifestyle changes that ran throughout all echelons of society: washing hands, quitting smoking, getting vaccinated, wearing masks during a pandemic.

It is not always easy to perceive the cumulative impact of all that work, all that cultural transformation. The end result is not one of those visible icons of modernity: a skyscraper, a moon landing, a fighter jet, a smartphone. Instead, it manifests in countless achievements, often quickly forgotten, sometimes literally invisible: the drinking water that’s free of microorganisms, or the vaccine received in early childhood and never thought about again. The fact that these achievements are so myriad and subtle — and thus underrepresented in the stories we tell ourselves about modern progress — should not be an excuse to keep our focus on the astronauts and fighter pilots. Instead, it should inspire us to correct our vision.