One evening in the year 2000 the final word of my first book The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging (Norton) was written.
My wife and I were about to head off to sleep that night. Knowing that I had completed something I was working on for the previous two years, she turned to me and asked for a single sentence summary. I paused for a moment, turned to her, and blurted out “the price we pay for sex is death.” In a nanosecond, she turned to me, smirked, and said “okay, then no more sex.”
In this Newsletter I’ll explain why there is a link between sexual reproduction and death and its relevance to life settlements. While the following explanation is highly condensed, the critical elements to this line of reasoning with regard to estimating how long humans will live, should be crystal clear.
In 1962 the famous evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton stated: “Despite the principle of ‘survival of the fittest‘ the ultimate criterion which determines whether [a gene] G will spread is not whether the behavior is to the benefit of the behavior, but whether it is to the benefit of the gene G. This gene’s eye view of life and death revolutionized the way scientists think about how long humans can live.
Based on Hamilton’s idea, Richard Dawkins wrote in his book entitled The Selfish Gene that since heritable information is passed from generation to generation almost exclusively by DNA, natural selection and evolution are best considered from the perspective of genes. His conclusion was that the soma (our bodies) are the vehicles that genes use to perpetuate themselves. Once a species makes a living of perpetuating itself through sexual reproduction, the bodies become disposable some time after sexual reproduction occurs. The question is when?
The answer is simple.
The timing of reproduction for a species is determined almost exclusively by the level of hostility in the environment. For example, mice reproduce early and live short lives because they are food for many other species. Sharks have few predators so they reproduce late and live long lives. Humans are in the middle of the pack, but we’re special in one important way that I’ll explain in a moment.
Environmental hostility leads to unique and fixed genetic programs for growth, development and reproduction for every species — including ours. It’s these genetic programs that determine, indirectly, how long humans are capable of living — that is, the reason why the magic longevity number for humans is 30,000 days.
What is different about humans? Given the gene’s eye view of survival, maximum human longevity should be about 65 years. This is the age when reproductive success has been assured (e.g., grandparenthood) for those born among women that reproduce at the end of the reproductive window (at about age 50). The age of 65 is arrived at by adding age at menopause to age at puberty. But humans live longer than that. Why?
The answer is that humans manufacture survival time artificially through medical technology. We live longer than expected not because we adopt healthy lifestyles (such lifestyles help us live up to our genetic potential, but not beyond it); but because various medical interventions enable us to adapt to the changes that occur in our bodies over time that raise the risk of death as we age. The same phenomenon is observed for household pets and animals that live in zoos — both of whom receive extraordinary medical care.
Keep in mind — the increase in the risk of death for humans begins at puberty and rises at a doubling rate of about every 8 years. This rate of increase has never changed, although the overall risk of death has declined in the past century.
What does all of this mean for life settlement reviews?
While Lapetus certainly takes all of these factors into account during our reviews, we begin our assessment with the knowledge that there are limits to the duration of life; we know what those limits are and the science that underlies that knowledge; and our goal is to provide the most thorough assessment possible given all of the information provided.
While the price all of humanity pays for sexual reproduction is the death of our bodies; and the timing of that process is well understood and highly predictable; recognizing that survival past age 65 is based largely on manufactured survival time in bodies with vastly different genetic histories and lifestyle factors, is the basis for how our life settlement business at Lapetus operates.
When asked now to provide a one-sentence summary of human aging or longevity, I’ve learned my lesson and always take my time providing a more thorough answer. While I came back with a rapid but more thorough explanation for my wife’s response to ‘the price we pay for sex is death’, it’s humorous to think back on how quickly she responded with the one answer I didn’t want to hear.