The Calment Boundary
In the introduction to my new series, Immortality: A User's Guide—the story of a French real estate transaction that went awry, and what it suggests about the future of human lifespan.
Now this is one of my favorite stories of all time. It’s a story about life, and death, and catastrophic real estate transactions. But more than that, I think it’s a story that tells us something important about our future as a species. You might have heard variations on it too—it’s a famous story in the annals of demography and medicine. But it’s worth revisiting, even if you have heard the general outline of it.
It’s 1965, in the lovely city of Arles in the south of France. There’s a 47-year-old notary public in town named Andre-Francois Raffray, who believes he has stumbled on a sweetheart deal. The French have a common tradition of buying apartments “en viager” or “for life”: you find an elderly person with a nice home and no close relatives who could inherit the house, and you pay them a monthly stipend until they die—at which point you get to own their house or apartment free and clear. It’s generally a great deal for both parties—the seller gets a check every month for the rest of their life without doing a thing, and the buyer usually ends up with a home that they’ve purchased at a fraction of its market price.
Now in Arles back in 1965, our notary public Raffray thinks he’s discovered the perfect setup for “en viager” transaction. He’s found a 90 year old woman named Jeanne Calment who has no heirs and a beautiful second floor apartment right in the middle of town. They strike a deal where he agrees to pay the elderly woman $2500 francs month — about $700 in today’s currency until her death. And then he’ll take over the apartment free and clear.
As he signs the papers in 1965, he has to be thinking to himself that he’s just struck gold with this transaction. Even if the woman goes on to live to a hundred, Raffray will get the keys to the apartment well before his own retirement age.
What he doesn’t realize is that he has just signed a contract with a woman who will go on to be the oldest human being that has ever lived.
That’s Jeanne Calment interviewed on French television in the early 90s. Born in 1875, Calment had a life that seems to defy our general sense of historical periods. When she was a teenager, she allegedly sold colored pencils to Vincent Van Gogh. And yet somehow she lived long enough to see the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the World Wide Web. She died on August 4, 1997. She was 122 years and 164 days old. As far as we know, no human being has ever enjoyed such a long lifespan.
And enjoy is probably the right word to use. While she outlived her husband, daughter, and grandson, she remained in remarkably good health well into her twelfth decade of life. In one interview she claimed, “I have never been ill, never ever.” She rode a bicycle up until her hundredth birthday, savored one Dunhill cigarette each night after dinner as a centenarian. Neurologists examining her at the age of 118 found that she had the mental acuity of an eighty-year-old.
And what about Andre-Francois Raffray, the notary public? His sweetheart deal did not live up to its original promise. He died in 1995, two years before Jeanne Calment, at the age of 77. Because Calment lived so long, he ended up paying her twice the market value of the apartment that he never got to occupy. And to add insult to injury, the terms of the contract dictated that his heirs would have to continue paying the monthly stipend.
According to an article in the New York Times, on the day Raffray died, Calment “dined on foie gras, duck thighs, cheese and chocolate cake at her nursing home near the apartment.” When asked about her arrangement with Raffray, she remarked, “In life, sometimes one makes bad deals.”
It’s kind of story that you could imagine as a dark comic subplot in some indie film, with the hapless Raffray stewing on his deathbed about the terrible deal he’s made. But I think it’s also a profound story, and maybe a cautionary one. The life of Jeanne Calment tells us something about our future—two things actually.
First, she is a harbinger of demographic changes to come. 120 may well become the new 100. Thanks to some extraordinary developments in the science of aging, we may well be at an inflection point in terms of radical life extension. The long arc of Calment’s life—including the extended period of general good health in her final two decades—that was so anomalous in the 20th century could become commonplace in the 21st. That alone is a momentous development, worth thinking about more deeply. But there’s also something to be learned from notary public Raffray too. His failed investment was a case study in how easily our conventions get upended when humans live much longer than expected. Imagine a world where we flip the switch and suddenly the average person lives as long as Jeanne Calment. It might seem like good news, but the planet would be thrown immediately into a maelstrom of unintended consequences and second-order effects. So if this demographic change is within the realm of possibility, then we need to start thinking now about what those extended consequences will be. Or else we’re all going to be notary public Raffray, making disastrous decisions because projected lifespan didn’t follow our expectations.
This series is my attempt to wrestle with two questions. First, is it scientifically possible that the the outer boundary of human lifespan can be radically expanded, with people living deep into their second century?
And if it is possible, what should we do about it?
This is the first installment in a seven-part series I’m publishing here at Substack called Immortality: A User’s Guide. Future installments will only be sent to paying subscribers, so if you’d like to read more about the latest advances in radical life extension and their potential social consequences you should sign up for a paying subscription. You’ll also get access to my series on creative workflows and tools for thought, and a series of interviews—mostly focused on their creative process—with brilliant minds like David Byrne, Atul Gawande, and Linda Villarosa.
I wrote more about this new project in last week’s edition of Adjacent Possible, but note that we have also created audio edition of Immortality: A User's Guide that will be available on The Next Big Idea app starting Tuesday, May 2nd. (Adjacent Possible subscribers can get 10% off a Next Big Idea Club membership by using the code IMMORTALITY at checkout.) You can also purchase the audiobook and listen via your favorite podcast player by going here.