I turned 38 today, and birthdays, like climbing stairs, are opportunities for reflection. An on-line calculator informs me that my estimated life expectancy is a rather mediocre 77 years. If I drop some weight, exercise more, and eat better, I can push it to 79, but the biggest problem stems from something totally beyond my control: my mother and two of my grandparents died before the age of 70, which suggests a less-than-stellar genetic predisposition to longevity. Pick your parents carefully, children. More drastic changes: more exercise, dietary supplements, less stress, less alcohol (explain to me how that's going to help with the stress), can give me another couple of years. One calculator says that more sleep can add another year, but I did the math and I see no particular advantage in gaining a year if I have to spend it sleeping.
Hence, my plan to live forever, which had been going so well, is looking less and less tenable. In fact, I'm confronted by the rather depressing realization that there may be only about as many days ahead as behind. Still, better the days to come than most of the days in the past. One question I put to my students, year after year, is this: given the choice between living today and living at any time in the past, which would you choose? Most females are rather grateful to live in the modern era, when they can attain higher education, vote, own property, and not die painfully in childbirth. As for males, most in their late teens and early twenties can easily be persuaded that, all things been equal, it was better not do die in the mud and blood and on the wire along the Somme, for instance. And all are very pleased to live in a era of soap and iPods and cell phones and painless dentistry and multi-ethnic cuisine. In short, if there's a lesson of history, it's that there's no time like the present.
So, I personally am hoping for some medical breakthroughs in the next two or three decades that can prolong my life - I have a lot to do, after all. It could happen. In fact, given the medical and scientific progress over the last few decades it's eminently probable. Advocates of holistic, herbal, homoeopathic, and other forms of alternative and faith-based medicine can never quite reconcile themselves to the fact that the life expectancy of the average Canadian nearly doubled in the 20th century, that smallpox and polio and tuberculosis were either eradicated or cured, that the infant morality rate fell from ten percent in 1920 to half a percent in 2005, and not because of herbal tea and chiropractics and magnetic wrist bracelets. It happened because of the application of science and technology to medical practice.
I have postmodernist friends who tell me that progress doesn't exist, that it's just another social construct, a paradigm waiting to be overthrown like any other. In fact, they'll hop on jet liners guided by the global positioning system, cross the Atlantic in seven hours, check into a hotel they booked over the Internet, phone and e-mail their loved ones to tell them that they arrived safely; and then, the next day, speaking over a microphone to a roomful of scholars who have not been burned at the stake by their own governments, they'll say that progress does not exist. And have the PowerPoint slides to prove it.