Many of us regret that if human lifespan were longer we could learn more from the minds like Einstein and Alan Turing.

Lets assume that the human race is evolved in such a way that the average life span is, say, doubled. Now can we assume that the advancement in knowledge and technology would be more than what we are seeing right now?

lets assume these constraints:

  1. The longevity is not spread uniformly during the human development, rather it kicks in after the teenage. (I think this assumption is not necessary)

  2. The reproductive rate is less since we don't want to see a overpopulated world. (Is it necessary?)

  • $\begingroup$ Do we half our reproductive rate accordingly, or are you looking to wonder what happens if we massively overpopulate the globe. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 18, 2015 at 6:33
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    $\begingroup$ lets say the longevity kicks in after the teenage. $\endgroup$
    – ramgorur
    Nov 18, 2015 at 6:33
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    $\begingroup$ The average lifespan of the human race has doubled, over the past two centuries. Just look around you to see the results. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Nov 18, 2015 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ <pedantic>It would be difficult to get more from Alan Turing since he died either by accident or suicide. No longevity improvements could change that (unless you add arsenic resistence).</pedantic> $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Nov 18, 2015 at 8:10
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    $\begingroup$ Life expectancy at birth has (more than) doubled. Life span has not changed too much. Historically, if you made it past the difficult and fragile childhood years, you had a great chance at a pretty long life. The idea that the average adult died at 40 for most of history is incorrect. See the wiki and follow the links there for more information. In early New England colonies, a 70 year old had a life expectancy of just under 80, and an 80 year old had a life expectancy of about 85. $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2015 at 18:10

6 Answers 6


I think you would see less advancement, not more.

First of all, fewer geniuses would be born (or raised/educated/self-made). The rate might be better than half, but not by that much.

Second, scientific paradigm shifts would overtake the aging scientists. After 50-100 years developing in a certain paradigm (i.e. classical Newtonian physics), the bulk of scientists would not accept a shift anymore. This would hold the geniuses, and their work, back. Quantum mechanics was not adopted quickly or easily in our world, and it would've been much harder if the authoritative scientists had been older and more conservative.

Third, education counts for a lot. Each generation after Einstein, Bohr and friends got a much better start in Quantum theory, learning the latest theories in their prime learning age, enabling them to build on that. New paradigms would develop much slower with fewer students starting out fresh each year.

The combination of these factors would slow down scientific advancement seriously.

Note: This answer concerns our current level of advancement, where the leading edge of science and technology features large teams of scientists, engineers, and rapidly changing computer technology. An individual could spend 50 years perfecting a theory, only to emerge and find that some computer had proved it 25 years earlier by simply brute forcing the math.

I don't want to disparage the value of experience or years of diligent work, but when it turns into numbers, half the smart people living twice as long is a bad fit for modern science.

In Newton's age, and even Einstein's, advancement would probably have been quicker with longer lifespans, but that would only have led to the current situation a bit sooner.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Nov 18, 2015 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ tl;dr - old people stifle everything. $\endgroup$
    – Gusdor
    Nov 19, 2015 at 7:54

I would tend to say that yes, somethings would speed up. Only because it HAS.

Wiki has a chart showing the average life expectancy of humans over the last several thousand years. Up through the 1800's world life expectancy was 31 years, in 2010 it was 67.2. So we have more than doubled life times.

Looking at the chart, ages of enlightenment the life expectancy of the top tier tended to be longer as well. As more people live longer, technology seems to be speeding up, (and the same technology is helping people live longer!)

So I think longer life spans could speed up tech development to a point, since longer lives would also tend to slow down social change. My observation is most major social changes come from new generations growing up pushing change, not old generations spontaneously changing their world view (usually).

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    $\begingroup$ While I would agree with your conclusion, I find your reasoning... lets say flawed. Your reason that in the "enlightened" years the longevity doubled doesn't count with an important factor: population. Through the years when longevity doubled, population growth ten times, and I think it is safe to assume that parallel research accelerated scientific and technological advance well - I wouldn't say by ten times, but a lot without doubt. $\endgroup$
    – mg30rg
    Nov 18, 2015 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ Also, don't forget that those numbers are severely skewed, especially for the purpose of this question: the life expectancy in, say, the middle ages, is biased by the extremely high infant mortality. Those people that did live to be more than, say, 30 months, also usually lived to be well over 30 years old, despite what the average lifespan suggests. So, the productive lifespan, let's say after the age of 20 until death was much higher than the typically quoted average of 30-35 would suggest. Still not as long as today, obviously, but closer. $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2015 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ Correlation does not equal causation. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Nov 18, 2015 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ It's also worth noting that the biggest changes in longevity occurred because children live to adulthood. This would clearly help progress because if Einstein died before twenty, he wouldn't have made any of his famous achievements. If Einstein died at fifty, then he would have done that same work. So even if the previous increases in longevity helped, future ones may not. Because the previous increases increased the number of geniuses working. Future ones will mostly increase the length of time working, because we've already done most of the early life increases. $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Nov 18, 2015 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ I think it's worth pointing out that there comes a point when longevity is actually detrimental. Far too often the academic world becomes mired in a belief which it is reluctant to let go of, even after it is shown to be flawed. This has been demonstrated time and time again, as humanity is flawed, and biased, and professors enjoying their reputations as discoverers will try to shut down young contenders who might "take their achievement away from them". This would become seriously compounded in an academic environment where the "old farts" live 150+ years (have tenure, etc) $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Nov 18, 2015 at 21:15

There are a number of approaches to this, the first has been given, that science advances would decrease due, in essence, to plasticity of thought processes and statistics of intelligence.

The other way to look at it would be that extended lifetimes may promote advances in different directions.

Firstly, you're essentially looking at the difference in advancement between two 25-year old researchers and 1 50-year old researcher. The younger researchers may explore different paths, and develop new ways of thinking, while the older researcher is more experienced, and may be able to get more done in their field, albeit without as much chaotic expansion. You'd see less "breakthough" changes in direction in fields, but the existing systems would be more refined and efficient.

The other aspect would be collaboration. If the lifespans of geniuses was increased, there may be a greater chance of highly productive groups forming and doing more than the individuals would be able to. Additionally, you may go along the road that such individuals are made, not born, and living longer gives them the opportunity to increase their productivity by learning from more people.

It's probably also worth considering the ramifications of extended lifespans on politics and direction of science. If staving off immediate demise is not the primary motivation, medicine may advance into areas of increasing the productive lifespan (particularly if the elder generation are around for twice the amount of time).

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    $\begingroup$ It's pretty rare for anyone working in science and maths to make a major breakthrough after age 40. Geniuses included. So unless longevity also includes some form of protection of a youthful brain structure, there would be less works of genius being created. The situation is different in the arts, where visual artists and musical composers often improve with advancing age until / unless they become senile. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Nov 18, 2015 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ Depends largely on how the longevity works. If it essentially doubles the age of all stages of life, then an individual might have until the age of 80 to make their breakthrough. Plus, while they may not make a breakthrough, that doesn't mean that they can't produce refinements, or teach more people "from the horses' mouth", so to speak. $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2015 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ @nigel222 - I think your information is off. The median age for nobel prizes in physics is 34, Chemistry 37 and Medicine 40. Since that's the median, some significant portion of those people have to be after age 40. Also, it depends on your definition of "major breakthrough". Is it the person with the wacky idea that eventually is shown to have validity or is it the people who refine the idea to actually be useable? IMO, ideas are a dime a dozen, just because someone lucks out once in a while, doesn't make them a genius. People who take ideas and figure out how to apply them are the geniuses. $\endgroup$
    – Dunk
    Nov 18, 2015 at 22:26
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    $\begingroup$ You're missing the fact that Nobel (and other) prizes are often awarded many years or even decades after the work they are awarded for. Firstly, the committes are cautious. They don't want to rush to award a prize for work that is later proved wrong. Secondly, the significance of some types of work may take years to be appreciated, especially if a genius is many years ahead of his peers. Finally, only one Nobel can be awarded per annum per subject. There may be a queue. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Nov 19, 2015 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ Example: Crick and Watson (and Rosalind Franklin) discovered the chemical structure of DNA in 1953. The Nobel prize was awarded in 1962 (by which time Franklin had died of cancer, and was therefore ineligible for her share of the prize because it could not be awarded posthumously). That's a fairly prompt Nobel. Sir Nevill Mott was awarded a Nobel prize in 1977 for work he published in the 1930s. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Nov 19, 2015 at 14:17

Yes, almost certainly.

The idea under discussion here comes from Max Planck:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

This is a pretty ridiculous idea that reeks of sour grapes, to be honest. And it's more than a little ironic, since several years later some researchers with the benefit of hindsight discovered that many of the most important discoveries of Planck and Einstein would almost inevitably have been discovered approximately half a century earlier, if it hadn't been for James Maxwell's untimely death of cancer. (And just imagine what Planck and Einstein might have been able to discover then, if Maxwell's death hadn't held progress back for decades!)

This isn't specifically a longevity example, but dead is dead. When great scientists die, they tend to take a lot with them, no matter what it is they specifically died from.


Strongly, yes. Double longevity with half reproductive rate means we have the same proportion of geniuses, the difference is only their longevity, so they last that much longer. So, in essence, the question boils down to a few questions: what progresses technology more, new minds, or more experienced minds, or some combination of the two? Is a genius' productivity measured merely in years, or is quality a factor?

There's two forms of technological advancement: paradigm shifts and incremental development. On the whole, most technological advancement is incremental, paradigm shifts are incredibly rare and, even then aren't necessarily 100% novel and may still be seen as a foregone conclusion in the eventual advancement of the field, even if the results are game changing.

If paradigm shifts are truly novel, then they might require a healthy supply of new minds, but that doesn't really seem to be the case; certainly the extreme version of this is absurd as it suggests that the only way to make progress is for everyone to know nothing. Also, the idea that the existing community are 'stuck in the muds' and resist novel change really isn't the case: the resistance to new ideas is far more down to the fact that new ideas require that much more testing and examination to be fully considered. Ideas that build heavily upon existing work that is solid simply have far less to prove. Again, this suggests that longer lifetimes give people more time to finish their own work rather than having to pass it on to those less familiar with it.

However, the biggest change is based on sunk costs: even ignoring childhood, due to the predominantly iterative nature of progress, there always will be a large body of education involved in both understanding the depth of a field and generalizing with other fields. As technology progresses, this volume grows. Longer longevity will always offset these sunk costs advantageously even if we only measure a geniuses productivity in mere years- twice longevity is more than twice productivity. If we accept that longer lives mean more experienced, higher quality geniuses, this multiplies even further.

  • $\begingroup$ Why is the proportion of geniuses important? Surely two geniuses among 2,000 people is more effective than one genius among 500. $\endgroup$
    – user243
    Nov 19, 2015 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Merely establishing that we don't actually have less geniuses with the problem as stated, unlike other answers that seem to think this is the case. If we took the geniuses we have today, yes, we'd only have half of them, but the other half would be be made up with dead geniuses still being alive and potentially having surpassed them with their greater experience. $\endgroup$
    – Danikov
    Nov 19, 2015 at 22:58

Some progress depends on people who patiently assemble bits and pieces of knowledge into a whole. Living longer gives more time for more puzzle pieces.

Some progress depends on the breakthrough idea of a genius. This might be a paradigm shift. Living longer means that scientists who have build their academic reputation on the old paradigm will block those young upstarts even longer.

Too broad to answer.


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