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The Length of Human Life

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The Length of Human Life

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, May 1855, Num. 475 Vol. 77




There are two things we chiefly wish for while we remain in this world—health, to make life enjoyable; and length of days, to make it lasting.  To obtain both depends mainly on ourselves.

    We do not simply die, we usually kill ourselves.  Our habits, our passions, our anxieties of body and mind—these shorten our lives and prevent us from reaching the natural limit of human existence.

    The key to health and long life is sobriety of living.  It is the fashion of the present day to restrict the term sobriety to moderation in the use of intoxicating liquors.  Misery and crime and death we trace readily to the neglect of this species of sobriety.  We do not hesitate to say of a drunkard that he has killed himself, but we rarely speak of over-eating as a serious or frequent shortener of life.  Yet the food they eat causes mankind at large more sleepless nights, more unhappy days, and more shortening of life, than all the liquors they consume.  “Oh! Miserable and unhappy Italy,” wrote Cornaro, three centuries ago, “dost they not see the gluttony is killing every year more people than would perish in a season of more severe pestilence, or by the fire and sword of many battles?”

    A sober life implies moderation in all things.  “It consists,” says Cornaro “in moderate eating, and moderate drinking, and in a moderate enjoyment of all the pleasures of life.  In keeping the mind moderately but constantly employed, in cultivating the affections moderately, in avoiding extremes of heat and cold, and in shunning excessive excitement either of body or of mind.”

    And so Lessius, a follower and amplifier of the views, of Cornaro, writes also in his Art of Enjoying Perfect Health.* (L’Arte de godere Sanita Perfetta, de Leonardo Lessio)  “By a sober life,” he says, “I understand a moderate use of meat and drink, such as accords with the temperament and actual dispositions  of the body, and with the functions of the mind.  A sober life is a life of order, of rule, and temperance.”  Then as the moderate use he speaks of implies that consumption of meat and drink, both in just measure of proper kinds, he adds to his definition of a sober life the following seven rules of actually living such a life:

1.    Not to eat so much as will unfit the mind of its usual exertions.

2.    Or so much as will make the body heavy or torpid.

3.    Not to pass hastily from one extreme of living to another, but to change slowly and cautiously.

4.    To eat plain and wholesome food.

5.    To avoid too great variety, and the use of curiously made dishes.

6.    To proportion the quality of food to the temperament, the age, and the strength of the eater, and to the kind of food he uses.

7.    Not to allow the appetite for food and drink to regulate the quantity we take, as this sensual desire is really the cause of the whole difficulty.


By the rules a sober life is to be led, and a perfect condition of life maintained.  And the life thus led, though nominally a life of restraint and provision, yet carries with it many pleasurable comforts.  “A sober life,” says Lessius, “gives vigor to the senses, mitigates the passions, preserves the memory, strengthens the mind, protects from the evils of intempermancy, makes both body and mind more free in their operations, and prologues the period of our existence.”

But Cornaro has more fully sounded the praises of what he calls—“That divine sobriety which is grateful to God, friendly to nature, the daughter of reason, the sister of virtue, the companion of temperate living—modest, gentle, content with little, guided by rule and line in all its operations.”

“From this sobriety,” He says, “as from a root, spring life, health, cheerfulness, bodily industry, mental labor, and all those actions which are worthy of a well-formed and a well-disciplined form.  Laws, divine and human, favor it.  From it, like clouds from the sun, fly repletions, indigestions, gluttonies, superfluities, humorous, distempers, fevers, griefs, and the perils of death.  Its beauty allures every noble heat.  Its safety promises to all an agreeable and lasting preservation.  Its happiness invites everyone, with little disturbance, to the acquisition of its victories.  And, finally, it promises to be a grateful and benignant guardian of life to both poor and rich, to male and female, to young and old; teaching to the rich, moderation—to the poor economy—to man, self-restraint, and to woman modesty: providing the old with a defiance from death; and for the young, placing the hope of a long life on a foundation more firm and more secure.”

And still, as if he could not come to and end of its praises, the eloquent old man—concluding this, his first discourse, at the age of eighty-three—begins anew and warmer words.  “Sobriety purifies the senses, lightens the body, gives vivacity to the intellect, cheerfulness of the min, strength to the memory, quickness to the movements, readiness and decision to the actions.  By it the soul, relieved as it were, from its terrestrial load, enjoys a large part of its natural liberty; the sprits (in the language of the times) move pleasantly through the arteries, the blood runs through the veins, a temperate and agreeable warmth produces agreeable and temperate affects; and, finally, all our powers, with a most beautiful order, preserve a joyous and grateful harmony.  Oh most holy and most innocent sobriety,” he concludes, “the only cooler of nature gracious mother of human life, true medicine of the mid and body—how ought men to praise the, and to thank the for thy courteous gifts!”* (CORNARO DISCORSO PRIMO)

For all these eulogies of Cornaro, there is an undoubted substratum of truth and fact; and we are safe in conceding that, from the sober life of Lessius and Cornaro, to main blessings are likely to flow—health, with its attendant comforts; and long life, with its continued enjoyments.  Let us leave the former for the present, since health is a blessing which all have experienced more or less, and all can judge of and value.  But we may usefully consider the old age to which this life is to lead us.

Now, in regard to this old age there are three things we naturally ask—

First, at what time of life does old age naturally begin, and how long does it naturally last?

Second, is this old age really worth having?  Is it worth living for?  Will it repay us for the self-restraint and self-denial, which are necessary to attain it? And,

Third, should we really reach and value it, how is it to be best nursed and upheld?

First.  The first of these is the most difficult to answer.  Up to the present time we have only been able to hazard guesses, both as to when old age begins, and when life naturally ends.  What David puts into the mouth of Moses we will still generally receive as a fair expression of the truth regarding the length of human life: “The days of our years are three score years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be four score years, yet is there strength labor and sorrow, for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” * (PSALM 90:10)  And fixing the limit of life at seventy or eighty, we reckon old age to begin a great many years earlier.  Physiological anatomy has recently come to our aid, and professes now to give us definite and precise views, in regard both to when old age begins, and when the complete life of man naturally ends.

The life of the body naturally divides itself into two parts.  During the first, the body increases in size and development; in the second, it decreases or becomes less.  The first half includes two stages of infancy and youth—the second half, those of manhood and decay.  These are the four periods or epics of the human life, which are generally received and spoken of.  And we divide each again into an earlier and later period of uncertain duration.  We talk of later infancy, of early youth, of full manhood, of declining old age, without attaching any fixed or definite ideas to these expressions.

“I propose, however,” says M. Flourens, in a book which has recently awakened the attention of all Paris—“I propose the following natural divisions and natural durations for the whole life of man:--

“The first ten years of life are infancy, properly so called; the second ten is the period of boyhood; from the twenty to thirty is the first youth; from thirty to forty is the second period.  The first manhood is from forty to fifty-five; the second from fifty-five to seventy.  This period of manhood is the age of strength, the manly period of human life.  From seventy to eighty-five is the first period of the old age, and at eighty-five the second old age begins.”  These periods all shade insensibly into each other, so that, in actual life, we can hardly tell where the one ends and the other begins.  They vary in length, also in different individuals, and most men nowadays become old and die why they ought still to have been in the period of early manhood.

The limits thus assigned by Fluorens to the several periods of life are not wholly arbitrary, like those generally talk of; on the contrary, a more or less sound physiological reason is assigned for each.  Infancy proper ceases at the years, because then the second toothing is completed—boyhood at twenty, because then the bones cease to increase in length—and youth extends to forty, because about that time the body ceases to increase in size.  Enlargement of bulk after that period consists chiefly in the accumulation of fat.  The real development of the parts of the body has already ceased.  Instead of increasing the strength and activity, this later growth weakens the body and retards its motions.  The when growth has ceased, the body rests, rallies, and becomes invigorated.  Like a fortress, with all its works complete, its garrison in full numbers, and threatened with an early siege, it repairs, arranges, disposes everything within itself.  The new stores it daily receives are employed in fully equipping, enstrengthening, and rebuilding, and in maintaining every part in the greatest perfection and efficiency.  This period of internal invigoration lasts fifteen years, (that of the first manhood,) and it maintains itself for ten or fifteen years more, when old age begins.

And what marks the beginning of old age?  In youth and manhood we perform a usual daily amount of physical and mental labor; but we are able to do more.  Let an emergency arise, and we find within us a reserve of strength which enables us to accomplish far heavier labors; we double or triple our exertions, we accomplish the usual work, after a little rest we are as strong and hale as ever.  Old age has come on when we can no longer do this, when the natural strength is barely sufficient for the daily work, when anything unusual fatigues, and extraordinary efforts sensibly injure the help.  When the reserve of strength is exhausted, the age of decline has fairly begun.  It is by drawing upon this natural store of reserve strength through excess and living, faster than it can naturally be repaired, that manhood is shortened and old age so often prematurely entered.

And, besides, old age is distinguished by this, that it brings with it a general weakening of the whole body.  It is not the lungs, or the heart, or the nerves, or the muscles, that lose their tone, and become incapable of unusual or prolonged exertion.  Local disease may weaken one organ, while all the others remain sound and vigorous as ever.  But old age impairs all alike. Each, so to speak has consumed its treasured stores of surplus strength, and, living as it were from hand to mouth, is barely able to accomplish the daily task which the bodily movements impose upon it.

Yet old age does make itself felt more, and every individual, upon some one organ than upon all the others.  There is a weak member in every mans body.  All parts are not alike strong and healthy in any of us.  On this weak member old age tells most sensibly; and hence in one man the decline of strength first distinctly manifests itself upon the lungs, in another upon the stomach, and in a third upon the heart.  And as the excessive weakening of any one organ influences—hampers, we may say, and obstructs—all the rest, it may happen that this weakness, original or acquired, of one important organ, may suddenly arrest life altogether, when the age of decline arrives.  As a penalty for the excessive use which has impaired that organ, old age may be barely reached before the whole machinery of life spontaneously stops and is arrested at once.

Such are the periods into which M. Fluorens divides the natural life of man, and such the physiological reasons assigned for the duration he ascribes to each.  His second period of old age begins at eighty-five, and thus the complete natural life of man, according to his view, can scarcely fall short of a century. But that the natural normal life of man ought to carry him on to his hundredth year, is a somewhat startling assertion.  We naturally ask, therefore, for further proof upon this special point.  

What says experience, for example, to this alleged long life as natural to man?  

“The man,” says Buffon, “who does not die of accidental diseases lives everywhere to ninety or a hundred years” this is the answer of experience—experience from the mouth of an eminent naturalist.  

“When we reflect,” He adds, “that the European, the negro, the Chinese, the American, the civilized and the savage, rich and poor, citizen and peasant—otherwise differing so much from each other—are yet all alike in this, that the same measure, the same interval of time, separates their birth from their death—that difference in race, in climate, in food, in comforts, makes no difference in this common interval, we must acknowledge that the length of life depends neither upon habits, manners, nor quality of food; that nothing can change the laws of the mechanism by which the number of our years is regulated.”

All this is true.  The length of life depends on the essential construction of our internal organs.

That comparatively few men reach ninety or a hundred years is also true, says experience, but that is because of the interference of disturbing causes.  Most men die of disease; only a small number die of old age.  In our artificial life, the moral is more frequently sick than the physical man.  In a calmer moral atmosphere (entire) lives would be more frequently spent.  “Almost all,” says Buffon, “spend their lives in fear and contention, and most men (most French, of course, he means) die of chagrin.”  Among savage tribes it is the same.  Few die a natural death.  All die by accidents, by hunger, by wounds, by the poison of serpents, by epidemic diseases, &c.  That few really reach their hundredth year, therefore, experience repeats, is no proof that such is not the natural term of human life.

Haller, professedly a physiologist, likewise investigated this question historically, or by the light of recorded experience.  He collected together all the authenticated instances of long life.  Of these the two extreme cases are the Englishman, Thomas Parr, who died in the reign of Charles I at the age of 152, and another less certain case of 169.  His conclusion—not a very precise one—is, that the utmost limit of human life is not within two hundred years (non citra alterum seculum!)  But though himself a physiologist, this deduction of Haller s only a historical one.  It is based on no physiological data.

What then does physiology say?  Buffon not only investigated the subject historically or by the light of experience, as we have seen, but he was the first also to study it physiologically.  He writes as follows: “The total duration of life may be estimated to a certain degree by that of the duration of an animals growth…. Man increases in height up to his sixteenth or eighteenth year, and yet the full development in size of all the parts of his body is not completed till the thirteenth year.  The dog attains its full length in one year, and only in the second year completes its growth in bulk or size.  Man, who takes thirty years to grow, lives ninety or a hundred years.  The dog, which grows only during two or three years, lives only ten or twelve; and it is the same with most other animals.

This passage contains the germ of an idea which he afterwards develops more clearly.  “The duration of life in a horse,” he says, “as in all other species of animals, is proportionate to length of time in which it grows.  Man, who takes fourteen years to grow, may live six or seven times as long; that is, to ninety or a hundred years.  The horse which completes its growth in four years, may live six or seven times as long; that is to twenty or thirty years.”

And again “As the stag is six years in growing, it lives also seven times five or six; that is to thirty-five or forty years.”

So far, Buffon lays down the true physiological problem.  The length of life is a multiple of the length of growth.  His own deductions as to the true multiple were uncertain, because his data were so.  He did not know accurately at what age the growth of man and other animals really ceased, or what was the true sign of such cessation.  At this point M. Fluorens takes the question up; and with more accurate anatomical and physiological data, he has arrived at what he believes, and at what certainly appears more reliable results.

“I find,” he says “the true sign of the term of animal growth in the reunion of the bones to their epiphyses.  So long as this union does not take place, the animal grows.  As soon as the bones are united to their epiphyses the animal ceases to grow.”

In man, this reunion takes place at the age of twenty years, and he lives to ninety or a hundred.  The following table contains the other data given by M. Fluorens:--



Man grows for 20 years, and lives to 90 or 100

The camel,        8                                40

The horse,         5                                25

The ox,             4                                15 to 20

The lion,           4                                 20

The dog,           2                                10 or 12

The cat,        1 1/2                               9 or 10

The hare,         1                                  8

The guinea-pig   7 months               6 or 7



By these data the result of Buffon is corrected.  All the larger animals live about five times longer than they grow instead of six or seven times, as inferred by Buffon.  Thus, by a physiological analogy, the ordinary natural life of a man is fixed at a hundred years.  He grows twenty and five twenties make up the hundred.  If some few men live beyond the hundred years, it may be that their natural growth was also unusually prolonged.  Or some extraordinary prudence in living, or uncommon constitutional strength, may have secured for these rare individuals their extraordinary length of life.

But, having arrived at a degree of comparative certainty in regard to the ordinary or natural length of human life, we turn with renewed interest to these extraordinary lives.  Can law be discovered, by which the utmost possible or extreme limit of human man life is determined-that limit beyond which man cannot possibly live? To this question physiology as yet returns no answer. It falls back, in its turn, upon historical experience, and even from the source gathers only presumptive evidence.

    We have seen that, from a consideration of the extreme cases of long life to be found upon record, Haller had concluded that the extraordinary limit of life approached to two centuries. Buffon reached the same conclusion by a different process. The ordinary life a horse is twenty-five years; but there is a case on record of a horse of the Bishop of Metz which lived for fifty years, or double the ordinary length of a horse’s life. “The same should happen in other species, and therefore in a human species,” says Buffon. Man, he concludes, may live to double the ordinary length of life.

    In aid of this analogical argument of Buffon, M. Fluorens brings further facts. The camel, which has an ordinary life of forty or fifty years, has lived to a hundred. The lion, which lives commonly to twenty, may live to forty, and even to sixty. Dogs have lived twenty, twenty-three, and twenty-four years, and cats eighteen and twenty. From all these cases united, he concludes-in regard to mammiferous animals, to which our accurate knowledge is at present confined-“that it is a fact, a law-in other words, the general experience in regard to that class-that their extraordinary life may be prolonged to double the length of their ordinary life;” that is to say, the extreme possible limit of human life is measured by ten times the period of growth.

    “A first century,” he adds, “of ordinary life, and almost a second-a half century at least-of extraordinary life.” Such is the perspective which science opens up to man. It is true that science offers this great fund of life to us, more in the possible than the actual-plus in posse quam in actu, to speak after the manner of  the ancients; but were it offered to us in the actual, would the complaints of men cease? “Begin by telling me,” said Micromegas, “how many senses the men of your globe have?”-“We have seventy-two,” answers the inhabitant of Saturn; “and we complain every day of the smallness of the number.” . . . “I don’t doubt it,” said Micromegas; “for on our globe we have nearly a thousand, and we are still tormented with vague desires.”

    SECOND. But an old age thus protracted-a life continued to the full period of one century only-are they worth struggling for, are they worth living for, are they worth having when they come? Solomon speaks of them as “evil days,” as years in which a man shall say, “I have no pleasure in them.” And he describes the infirmities of the period as “the day in which keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows shall be darkened, and the doors shall be shut in the streets . . . and all the daughters of music shall be brought low . . . and fears shall be in the way, and the almond-tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail.”

    The frailties of extreme old age are truly pictured in the figurative language of Solomon. Physical strength declines as old age advances; this fact is unquestionable. But for this decline of strength, does old age bring with it no compensation? “The physical loses,” says Cornaro; “that is certain.” “The moral gains,” says Cicero. “More than the physical loses,” says Buffon. “A noble compensation,” says Flourens. “It makes one wish to become old,” says Moutaige. “And then how advantageous to live long,” adds Cornaro; “for if one is a cardinal, he may become pope as he grows older; if he occupy a distinguished place in a republic, he may become its chief; if he be a learned man, or excel in any art, he may excel in it still more.”

    We might quote the praises which Cornaro lavishes on old age. But seeing him bear so joyously his many years, we almost identify him at ninety-five with old age in person, and feels as if he were only sounding the praises of the ancient Cornaro himself.

    Cicero, on the other hand, wrote of old age when he was still too young.  His praises read sweetly and contain much truth; but it is the composition we admire as much as the sentiment it embodies.  We reflect that Cicero, in talking of old age, was still far from the period when he might speak of it from experience.  He was only composing a theme which he had set himself as a task.

But at seventy years of age, Buffon, who regarded himself as still young, wrote—not of set purpose but incidentally, and among his other writings—concerning old age.  We listen as to the true and genuine homage of one who stands on the confines of both periods, and feels himself entitled to speak freely of each—when, in contrasting his own state with that of younger men around him, he says, —“Every day that I rise in good health, have I not the enjoyment of this day as immediately and as fully as you have?  If I confirm my movements, my appetites, my desires, to the impulses of a wise nature alone, am I not as wise and more happy than you?  And the view of the past which awakens the regrets of old fools, offers to me, on the contrary, the enjoyments of memory, agreeable pictures, precious images, which are worth more than your objects of pleasure; for they are pleasant, these images they are pure, they call up only amiable recollections.  The inquietudes, the chargrins, all the troop of sadnesses which accompany your youthful enjoyments, disappear in the picture which represents them to me.  Regrets ought to disappear in like manner; they are only the last flushes of that foolish vanity which never grows old.

“Let us not forget another advantage or at least a powerful compensation, which contributes to the happiness of old age.  This is, that the moral gains more than the physical loses.  In fact, the moral gains everything; and if something is lost by the physical, the compensation is complete.  Someone asked the philosopher Fontenelle, when ninety-five years of age, which twenty years of his life he regretted the most?  ‘I regret little,’ he replied; ‘and yet the happiest years of my life were those between my fifty-fifth and seventy-fifth.’  He made this confession in good faith, and his experience rose out of these sensible and consoling truths, at fifty-five years a man’s fortune is established his reputation made, consideration is obtained, the state of life fixed, pretensions given up or satisfied, projects overthrown or established the passions for the most part calmed or cooled, the career nearly completed, as regards to the labours  which every mans owes to society; there are fewer enemies, or rather fewer envious persons who are capable of injuring us, because the counterpoise of merit is acknowledged by the public voice.”

“The spirit increases in perfection,” says Cornaro, “as the body grows older.”  It becomes fitted for new duties and exercises of mind; for the development of the human faculties is not simultaneous, it is successive.  Those which rule at one period, become subordinate at another.  “In youth,” says Fluorens “the attention is quick, lively, and always on the alert, fixes itself on everything, but is always wanting.  In manhood attention and reflection are united, and this constitutes the strength of manhood.  In old age attention lessens, but reflection increases; it is the period in which the human heart bends back on itself, and knows itself best.”

“The old man,” says M. Reville Parise, “smiles sometimes, he very rarely laughs.  Goodness, that grace of old age, is often found under a grave and severe exterior, for the first comes from the heart, and the second from the physical being which has become weak.  Patience is the privilege of old age.  A great advantage of a man who has lived long is, that he knows how to wait.  In the old man everything is submitted to reflection.”

Thus old age has its pleasures, it appears, and its compensations.  It is by no means the unenjoyable period we are apt to fancy it.  For its calm and reasonable pleasures, wise men praise it above the other periods of life.  It is even worth sacrificing the pleasures of youthful excess, if by so doing we can hope to reach and live through it.  But if it begin only at seventy—the natural termination of manhood, according to M. Flourens—how few ever do reach it! And of these, again, how few have left themselves in a condition to taste its peculiar enjoyments and compensations!


    THIRD. But if old age be an enjoyable period of life-if it be really worth living to, and living for, it is worth caring for when reached. It is to be reached, as we have seen, by living a sober life; it is to be reached in good health by a reasonable obedience to the rules of Lessius. But when this green and worthy old age is attained, how is it to be nursed and specially upheld?

    With a view to this special end M. Reveille Parise has laid down four simple rules.

    The FIRST is to know how to be old. There is very much in this rule. “Few people know how to be old,” was one of the sayings of Rochefoucauld; and the philosophy of this knowledge is expressed by Voltaire in the couplet:

“Qui n’a pas l’osprit de son age—

De son age a tous les malheurs,”

    The SECOND rule is to know oneself well. Both of these precepts are more philosophical than medical, and yet both lie at the basis of a successful medical management, at the period when age and ill health are so likely to conjoin.

    The THIRD rule is to make a suitable adjustments of the daily life. Good physical habits produce health, as good moral habits produce happiness. Old men who do every day the same thing, with the same moderation and the same relish, live forever! “One can scarcely believe,” says Reveille Parise, “how far a little health well treated will carry us.” And “the rule of the sage,” says Cicero, “is to make use of what one has, and to act in everything according to one’s strength.”

    And the FOURTH rule is, to attack every malady at its beginning. In youth there is a reserve of force-a dormant life, as it were, behind the visible acting life. The first life being in danger, this second life comes to its aid-and thus youth rallies after much neglect or ill usage, and still lives on. But old age has no such reserve life. Every ailment of age, therefore, must be taken up quick and cut short, if the single, unsupported, easily enfeebled life is to be surely upheld.

    By following these fundamental rules, and the practical precepts as to diet, exercise, temperature, &c., which M. Reveille Parise deduces from them, can we prolong life? No; we cannot by any art prolong life, in the sense of making it pass the limit prescribed by the constitution of man. But we shall be able to live an entire and complete life-extending our days as far as the laws of our individual constitution, combined with the more general laws which regulate the constitution of the species, will admit of.





    The subject, as we have sketched it, seems-indeed, really is-complete in itself. And yet speculative questions rise up in connection with it, some of which awaken doubts as to the main conclusion at which we have arrived. Grant that human life may naturally extend to a hundred years, or even to a century and a half, then we naturally say to ourselves,-Were men really to live so long as this, and other animals in proportion, how thickly peopled the world would become! If births greatly exceed deaths now among civilized nations, living at a state of peace, how would it be were men to live usually to a hundred years, with health and vigor in proportion! This reflection did not escape the Buffon-great in genius and in capacity for speculation, but limited, like the time in which he lived, and often erroneous, in his knowledge of facts. He met the objections it embodies with a new and brilliant hypothesis.

    “The total quantity of life on the globe,” he says, “is always the same. Death which seems to destroy all, destroys nothing of that primitive life which is common to all the species of organized beings. . . . God, in creating the first individuals of each species of animal and vegetable, not only gave form to the dust of the earth, but rendered it living and animated by including in each individual a greater or smaller number of active principal, of living organic molecules, indestructible in all their nature, and common to all organized beings.  These molecules pass from body to body, and serve to maintain and continue the life, or to nourish and enlarge the body of every individual alike; and after the dissolution of the body, after its destruction, even its reduction to ashes, these organic molecules, upon which death has no power, still survive, pass into other beings, and bring to them nourishment and life.  Every production, every renewal, every increase by generation, by nutrition, by development, supposes then a preceding destruction, a conversation of substance, a transport of these organic molecules which never multiply, but which, always existing in equal number, keep nature always equally alive, the earth equally peopled, and always equally resplendent with the first glory of Him who created it.”

    Who, after reading this passage, will deny to Buffon, the praise both of genius and eloquence?  No wonder he has charmed and captivated so many generations of admiring readers, and persuaded them to receive his poetical imaginings as the dogmas of true science.

    The entire doctrine of Buffon, that quantity of life on the globe is fixed, is pure speculation.  His organic molecules are a second still more ethereal imagination, devised to explain the possibility of the first.  Except as a curios hypothetical notion, wherewithal while away an idle hour, we would dismiss the first not only from our books, but from our thoughts.  It can scarcely in any way be connected with the positive knowledge of our time.  The second speculation is only to be numbered with the vain fancies that antiquated though fine, which abound so much in the purely poetical physical philosophy of past centuries.

    And yet there is a charm in this poetical philosophy which makes us regret while we dismiss it.  We cannot help admiring the speculators of olden time as men of finely-gifted minds.   And we envy them those happy hours of creative inspiration, when, by their midnight lamps, or beneath the shade of academic groves, they built up poetical worlds, and by imaginative methods constructed and regulated all their wheels.

    It is no doubt owing to the feelings of this kind that the great views of Buffon, the substance of his eloquence, possesses still the power to charm and influence M. Fluorens.  “I reject,” he says, “the organic molecules of Buffon, as I do the Monads of Leibnitz.  They are only philosophic expedients for removing difficulties which they do not remove.  I study life in neither of these, but in living beings themselves; and from this study I learn two things—first, that the number of species has been continually diminishing ever since animals have existed upon the globe; and, second, that the number of individuals in certain species has been, on the contrary, continually increasing.  The result of these contrary actions is, that, taking everything into account, the total quantity of life—by which I understand the total number of living beings—remains in effect, as Buffon has said, very nearly the same.”

    Tamed down into plain English, the eloquent imaginings of Buffon, as interpreted and understood by M. Fluorens, amount to simply this, the number of individual beings existing at one time on the face of the earth has always been very nearly the same.  Out of a purely speculative assertion like this what good can be extracted?  Does it really throw any light upon palaeontological history, or derive any confirmation from such chapters of this history as have yet been written?  Does it enable us, in any degree, to understand better, the Divine plan and procedure in the past, as it is recorded in the rocky strata—or in the present, as seen in the supposed progressive increase of the human race?

    Nevertheless M. Fluorens, in the book before us, sets formally to work to prove his two propositions.

    “That species are always lessening in number,” he says, “is evident from the fact tat several species are known to have become extinct in comparatively recent times.  The dodo has become extinct since the Portuguese first visited the Isle of France in 1545.  The primitive types of nearly all our domestic animals—the ox, the horse, the camel, the dog—are all extinct.  Immediately before the historic period the mammoth and the maststodon disappeared, leaving the elephant as the sloe existing giant quadruped.  Before these, again, the megatherium, the dinotheium, and how many others!

"To take a special example. Not less than forty species of pachyderms are known to have lived on the soil of France, and of these the only one that now remains is the wild boar; and of nearly a hundred species of ruminating animals, only the ox, the stag, and the roebuck. Finally, M. Agassiz reckons not less than twenty-five thousand species of fossil fishes all lost, while we know only five or six thousand living fishes-and of extinct shells forty thousand are reckoned in a fossil state."

These facts are admitted, but the conclusion which M. Flourens hastily draws from them is not admissible.

Since life first appeared upon the earth, he says, species have always gone on diminishing. But of this assertion the facts he has advanced are no proof whatever. It is an undisputed fact in palaeontology, that species, and even genera, have from time to time disappeared from the surface of the globe. But it is equally undisputed that new species and genera have from time to time made their appearence-man himself, so far as we know, being among the last. New forms constantly succeeded the old. And who shall say that at any one of those epochs in which life most abounded, the number of species or genera was really less then in another? Who can even, with a show of reason, say-taking all species of living things together-that there are fewer genera or species on the earth at this moment-in air, land, and water-than at any former geologic era he could name? All that can be safely said is, that man, as the dominant species, is gradually subduing and extirpating some hundreds of other species in the present era, and that the individuals of his own species, and of a few useful domestic animals, are at the same time increasing somewhat in number.

But in this latter increase is there anything more than an imaginary compensation for the other forms of life that are lessened or extirpated? Is there in it any evidence of a system of compensation having been in existence in more ancient geological epochs? There is nothing of the sort. The imaginary law of Buffon is rendered in no degree more probable by the conjectural modifications of M. Flourens. All we can admit at present is, that the quantity of life upon the globe at any one time, and the forms in which this life manifests itself, are dependent upon the will of the Deity. To what general laws He has subjected this total quantity and these forms, we cannot even guess.




Do these speculations as to the quantity to life upon the globe interfere in any way with our reasoning’s and conclusions as to the natural and possible length of human life? Not in the least. As an abstract result of physiological inquiry, it has been rendered probable that from ninety to a hundred years is the natural length of an ordinary human life. As a special and individual positive result, affecting each of us to whom this information is given, it has been rendered further probable that, by leading a moderate and sober life, any of us may attain this length of life in comparative health and comfort. As to what would happen on the face of the globe, were all men so to live that none should fail to reach this great age-as to how the people would multiply, and what would become of them,-these are questions which do not concern us as individuals anxious to live long-which, were we all to begin incontinently so to live, could scarcely cause anxiety for generations to come, and which we may confidently leave to be answered by the ALL-DISPOSER.




               Notes on the Text

Larger portions of highlighted text will be color coded and numbered accordingly below:





Cornaro: Luigi Cornaro, a Venitian nobleman who wrote upon eating habits and dieting.  If you want to read some of his work, here is a link to How to Live 100 Years, or Discourses on the Sober Life.


1. This quotation made me think of a bible verse in 1 Corinthians, 6:19-20 "Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's," This verse is saying that your body is God's property, and Christians, who are supposed to glorify God, were supposed to keep this 'temple' holy.  That meant keeping it clear over overindulgences such as over-eating, and it also mean to keep it clear of intoxication.  The passage also is inferring that the body is to be kept clear of sexual relations outside of a marraige, but as this article doesn't mention anything about sex, we'll leave that for another day.



M. Flourens: Marie Jean Pierre Flourens, French Phisiologist, pioneer in anesthesiology.  For his biography click here.


Buffon: Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a french naturalist, whose interest in biology started to peak when he translated works from Issac Newton and Stephen Hales.  For more information on Buffon, visit the Wikipedia page on him.


Chagrin: "distress or embarrassment at having failed or been humiliated : Jeff, much to his chagrin, wasn't invited." (Oxford English Dictionary)


Micromegas: A short story that was written by Voltaire, who was a satirist in the 18th century.  The story is science fiction and focuses on a being from another world.  For more information you can visit Wikipedia.


Cicero: A "Roman Statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and philosopher.  Cicero is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists." (Wikipedia)



2. This is not true by todays standards at all.  if we take into account that people are starting college at older and older ages, and opening their own businesses later in life, it is very possible that at fifty-five years of age, the reputation of a person could be just beginning to take shape.



                Commentary on the Text



As surprising as it may be the people living in the 21st century, life expectancy during the 19th century was better than it is now.  The average length of human life was about 100 years, give or take a few of course.  And by today’s calculations, which are much more precise, we only live to be about 77.8 years on average.  Thinking about all of the breakthroughs that modern medicine has had, it would be plausible to predict that the length of life now would be much longer.  Alas, the breakthroughs in medicine also led to our downfall in health, because if we can so easily be healed, what is the point in being cautious about our health.

    When this was written in 1855, they knew that the key to living a long and satisfactory life was by living a sober life.  As explained in the first page or two of this article, they mean not only from liquor, but also overindulgences in food and other vices.  The fact that there are so many ways to eat unhealthily today, at a lower cost than healthy alternatives, I believe are a reason why there is a difference in the length of life.  In literature from that period you didn’t hear about families going out to dinner, or driving their carriage to a Burger King.  Not that they had them then, but nonetheless, I think I have made my point.

    The article is largely based upon how to determine the length of human life mathematically, and there were many possibilities, a few of which sounded great at first, but upon their further investigations were proved to be quite false.  They came pretty close when they figured that mammals tend to live to be five times their growing age.  Which means that humans, who grow until about the age of 20, would live to be about a hundred years of age.

    There is also some Christianity inserted into this article, by quoting the bible for the length of human life in the book of Psalm.  They only figured in the current (for that time) stages of life, and not the older biblical saying, because in the Old Testament, people live to be well over 500 years old, and this would have changed their averages dramatically.  They stuck with a few instances of modern long human life with a poorly documented case of a man living to be 169 years old.

    I found it curious how they broke up the different stages of life, with the most shocking being the ages of fifty-five to seventy being the age of strength.  If you have been around many aging folk, you know that there are exceptions to any rule, but generally that period of life tend to make you more weak than anything else.  The only part, that I really disliked, about this, article, was the use, of so many, damn, commas.  I got the feeling that someone with an asthma problem dictated this, or William Shatner. 




K. K. Waldschmidt, 3/15/2008


I found this article, regarding the length of human life, to be quite forward in its thinking.  I was intrigued with the author's fascination of Cornaro's theory of sober living.  In a century where many of the country's population suffered from famine, disease and constant societal upheaval, it was curious to see emphasis put on the opposite of these issues to ensure a long life.   Although all of the steps made me smile, my favorite was number seven,  "Not to allow the appetite for food and drink to regulate the quantity we take, as this sensual desire is really the cause of the whole difficulty. '' I find this step to be used today in many of the twelve step programs, structures for healthy living and psychological/psychoanalytical theories. 


The data examining the length of life in conjunction to the lenth of growth was interesting.  I wonder if many other mammals follow this expectancy rate, or if the ones stated were used specifically because they fit the theory.  This leads me to two different questions: 1)  Do other species have the same growth/life span time line? and 2) What does it entail for one to actually die from embarrassment?  Because I have a few theories on that...



Andrew Winckles, 3/16/08


This article brings to the fore some very interesting assumptions about the differences between Victorian life and life today.  First of all, as previous commentators have pointed out, according to this article, the assumption that people lived shorter lives in 19th century England than they do today is false.  Medical knowledge, while not what it is today was progressing rapidly and people (at least who lived the temperate, moderate type of life described in this text) certainly seemed to enjoy longer lives than some of the generations before them.  The whole theory of temperate living is fascinating as well.  It seems like common sense, but looking back from a culture in which more always seems to be better, this warning to the temperate life takes on more importance.  It is, no doubt grounded in the religious sensibilities of the time and was advocated by such religious reformers like John Wesley, but I think it holds water.  Finally, the whole idea of life getting better as we get older is one that may seem antithetical at first, especially to the young, but it is one that has been born out by modern science.  Though it is true that the older we get, the weaker physically we become, recent scholarship suggests that mental and emotional happiness operates on a kind of curve.  In other words, we are happy when we are young, become more depressed as we move to middle age and become enmeshed in the realities of life and then become happier as we move towards old age and death.  And the most fascinating part of this is that this research has held true across all different cultures and populations, suggesting that it has been remarkably consistent over time.


Commentator Name, date of comment

Text of comment.




                Works Cited

 "Luigi Cornaro", Feb. 6th 2008, Wikipedia.org,  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luigi_Cornaro>


"MARIE JEAN PIERRE FLOURENS (1794-1867)" encyclopedia.jrank.org, <http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/FLA_FRA/FLOURENS_MARIE_JEAN_PIERRE_1794.html>


The Holy Bible, New King James Version, Word Publishing, 1997


"Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon" Feb. 6th 2008, Wikipedia.org <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges-Louis_Leclerc%2C_Comte_de_Buffon>


Oxford English Dictionary


"Micromegas", Jan. 25th, 2008, Wikipedia.org, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micromegas>


 "Cicero", Mar. 1st, 2008, Wikipedia.org, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cicero>





                For Additional Reading

 A big reason for a shortened life in the nineteenth century was diseases.  Here is a great website with a list of diseases that were prominent in the nineteenth century.  Nineteenth Century Diseases.




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 Matt Frey  Eastern Michigan University  Lit 420 Studies in the British Novel






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