04:13:04 am on
Tuesday 20 Aug 2019

Macaws and Elephants
David Simmonds


The key to a long life is adaptability.

In a recent announcement, which excited only other scientists, researchers said they discovered Bald Cypress trees, in a North Carolina swamp, that are over 2,500 years old. This is roughly a thousand years older than any previously known trees in the region. With core samples taken from the trees, climate historians can examine annual growth rings and learn of weather patterns going back to the year, 605 BCE, in which Nebuchadnezzar was crowned king of Babylon.


Trees live a long time.

The oldest tree in the United States is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine from California; it’s over 5,000 years old. Even the average oak tree lives 200 years. That’s more than double the average human lifespan, but I never hear anyone squawking about the cosmic unfairness of trees outliving humans.

We hit a little closer to home when looking at animal longevity. The Macaw lives between 60 and 80 years. The African elephant lives 70 years. Galapagos tortoises regularly top the 100-year mark. The Bowhead whale averages 200 years.

If humans sit on top of the evolutionary pyramid, you might ask, why is our life expectancy so short? Are we going to settle for a tie with the Macaw and the African elephant? Can we not aspire to reach Galapagos tortoise levels or even try to catch up with the Bowhead whale? What is a reasonable longevity target for humans?

The steady increase in human knowledge, in general, and medical treatments, in particular, has pushed the average lifespan upwards. According to a 2013 report from the chief actuary of Canada, the average life expectancy, at birth, in Canada was barely 50 years in 1901. Now, it’s nudging over 80 years.

Is there any rule that says we can’t shoot for a hundred, or, for that matter, two hundred? The chief actuary, playing spoiler, warns that the current rate of increase is unsustainable and life expectancy, at birth, will only hit 90 years for males in 2075. Any further out and you’re closer to the realm of science fiction than actuarial science.

That prognosis runs contrary to the views of Yuval Noah Harari, author of the 2015 book Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow. His believes we should be preparing for a future in which any part of the body, a heart, a knee, an eye, a brain, is replaceable; this opens the possibility of indefinite extensions of life, which would put us past all the animals and into Bald Cypress tree territory. People, at least those who could afford the replacement parts, will therefore become like gods, asserts Harari.


Who can afford to live as long as did Methuselah?

Even allowing that there might be a little hyperbole in what Harari predicts, I shudder. Does this imply Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk will be able to buy his way to an indefinite life? These fellows are enough to cope with in their thirties and forties, respectively; I hate to think of them turning 150 and merely hitting the first bend in the road.

A way to allocate life extension technology, equitably, is required. For those that say this would give us a chance to keep the next Einstein around, I say, who wants to be the person deciding who gets indefinite life extension? At the very least, the distribution of life extensions will be inequitable and problematic.

Just consider the effect on family life. You may find yourself having two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents and thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents alive at the same time and relatively healthy. How are you going to keep all their addresses and personal anniversaries straight? How will you manage date conflicts? How are you going to decide which relative goes to whose house for Christmas? These issues could tear apart even the most resilient of families.

Let’s drill a little deeper. Suppose you are Donald Trump Jr and you have reached age eighty. You would think that, by this milestone, you are a venerable old man and wise manager of the family fortune. Alas, no, your 121-year old father is still around undermining you and sucking all the oxygen out of the universe. Your son Donald Trump III is a 50-year-old that is impatient for real responsibility rather than being an office errand boy. Would you expect Donald Trump Sr to offer such profound insights that his being kept around could be a net positive? No, he’s just clogging up the system.


We are not atop of the pyramid.

Maybe it’s time we accepted that we belong, in lifespan terms, with the Macaw and the African elephants, perhaps with long-term aspirations to match the Galapagos tortoise. They’re not bad company. Maybe we shouldn’t be assuming we sit on top of the pyramid.w

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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