Anti-ScienceScienceSkepticism

You’re Older Than You’ve Ever Been (And Now You’re Even Older)

A few weeks ago on SGU, we talked about the recent discovery of what is possibly the world’s oldest living tree — a 9,550-year old spruce on a Swedish mountainside. We received a few letters from people who claimed their alder was elder, or whatever. (Actually, some New Zealanders were up in arms at the lack of a shout-out for their Lomatia tasmanica, a shrub that might have been cloning itself for 135,000 years. Dear New Zealand: a shrub is not a tree. Call us when you find a really old woody plant with a single central stem as opposed to multiple stems originating near the soil line. Then we’ll talk.)

Anyway, as contentious as the World’s Oldest Tree is, that’s got nothing on the battle to name the World’s Oldest Ape.

Cruising around Fark the other day, I found a link to “Bodyshock: The Amazing Story behind the 256 Year-Old Man.” Here’s how the article starts:

According to the 1933 obituaries in both Time Magazine and the New York Times, Li Ching-Yun was reported to have buried 23 wives and fostered 180 descendants by the time he died at the age of 256.

Was he really that old? Could he have forgotten his own birthday or exaggerated his claim? Environmental Graffiti investigates.

An investigation, you say? I am intrigued! Tell me more.

The article proceeds to tell the tale of a Chinese herbalist who traveled the world spreading wisdom . . . and semen, judging by the purported progeny. And so maybe chlamydia or something, too. Anyway!

I’m sure that like me, you’re all eager to hear the evidence in favor of a man living so long in a time when most people weren’t likely to hit their mid-60s. Even in today’s age of health and technology break-throughs, the oldest living person is only a sprightly 115. Let’s take a look at the evidence that Environmental Graffiti has turned up in its “investigation.” To help examine each point, I’ve developed the Bullshit Index (BSI), a 0-100 believability rating system with “100” being absolutely without a doubt totally believably true (like “pizza is delicious”) and “0” being complete and utter bunk (like “Sylvia Browne is a moral, upstanding and pretty member of society.”)

By his own admission he was born in 1736 and had lived 197 years. However, in 1930 a professor and dean at Minkuo University by the name of Wu Chung-chien, found records “proving” that Li was born in 1677. Records allegedly showed that the Imperial Chinese Government congratulated him on his 150th and 200th Birthdays.

1. He said he was 197.

BSI: 4

I say I’m an adventurer who travels through time amassing the greatest coin collection known to man. See? It’s easy to say things.

2. “Records” say he was 256.

BSI: 5

“Records?” What records? 45s? What kind of investigation is this? A bit of Googling gives me this on Wikipedia: “The Time Magazine article says that in 1930 Professor Wu Chung-chieh, from Chengdu University, found records from the Chinese Imperial Government congratulating Li Ching Yuen in his 150th birthday in 1827.” Okay, so I suppose those records are around here somewhere . . . huh.

See, simply saying there’s a record somewhere isn’t evidence. Even holding a governmental record in your hand isn’t evidence — governments are run by people, who are occasionally gullible and/or stupid, and who have the ability to turn any random memo into an official government document. If the “records” came complete with a birth certificate from an actual hospital, well, then we could bump up the BSI. In the meantime, BZZZZZZZZZT. Next!

The detail, which seems to prove both arguments and debunk them at the same time, is Li’s youthful appearance, noted in a 1928 article from the New York Times. Visually and physically, he appeared to look like a typical 60 year-old.

3. He looked so young! BSI: ??

Why is this even mentioned? It doesn’t prove or debunk anything, it just is. They may as well have written that he had a penchant for wearing women’s underpants.

Apparently there have been a few books on the man, like one called Qigong Teachings of a Taoist Immortal: The Eight Essential Exercises of Master Li Ching Yuen by Stuart Alve Olson. The word “immortal” struck me as peculiar, until I noticed this in his Wikipedia entry:

Returning home, he died a year later. Some say of natural causes, while others claim that he told friends that “I have done all I have to do in this world. I will now go home,” before he died.

Ah, so he was immortal and just chose to die, I guess. The equivalent of “I meant to do that.” Okay. That gets a BSI of 1•2.

With all that evidence going for him, it’s no wonder people are still talking about Li Ching Yuen. I mean, that’s slightly more evidence than what we have for the lifespans of Moses (120 according to the Bible, and actually within the realm of possibility for how long a human being can live) or Abraham (175 according to the Bible) or Methuselah (969 according to the Bible).

Obviously, I’m being sarcastic. It is highly unlikely that this man achieved a supernaturally long lifespan through qigong and herbal treatments (overall BSI: 2). However, you may be interested to know that there are scientific studies looking into the effect of herbs on longevity. For instance, researchers at University of California-Irvine, recently published a paper showing a possible effect of the Chinese herb Rhodiola on the lifespan of the fruit fly. They suggest that the herb’s ability to reduce stress may have made the positive impact. Before you get all excited, though, the same study found no effect from three other herbs: Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang, San Zhi Pian, and Lu Duo Wei, the last of which contradicts a 1993 study by researchers in China.

So, we have some contradictory evidence that may or may not say that some herbs might increase the lifespan of a fruit fly. Sadly, I’m thinking that if you want to get famous for a record-breaking age, you’re probably better off fudging your birth announcement, changing your name to make it easy to confuse with someone else, and adopting an alternative health practice that will make it likely people will want to believe you lived a really long time. Oh! Or found a religion.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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26 Comments

  1. Heh; very entertaining, thanks.

    You know, I am completely convinced that you, Rebecca, will still be totally awesome when you reach 115.

    …I debated saying “hot”, but reconsidered.

  2. So the secret to long life is:
    Keep a quiet heart
    Sit like a tortoise
    Walk sprightly like a pigeon
    Sleep like a dog

    Hmmm…how does one sit like a tortoise???

    The idea of ANYBODY walking like a pigeon, or taking this advice seriously makes me want to snicker and yell, “SUCKER!!”

  3. “I’m an adventurer who travels through time amassing the greatest coin collection known to man.”

    I should warn you, your future self visited me last week and told me to tell you that the Wu Zhu Coin is a fake. Don’t even bother.

    The question is: did your future self know to tell me because she searched for it herself or because I’m telling you know?

  4. I have nothing really to say about the oldness (or lack thereof) of men, I just wanted to give props for the They Might be Giants reference.

    Incidentally one of my favorite songs of theirs.

  5. From what I understand, Daoists have a weird fascination with immortality. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than a fascination with the afterlife. Also! Daoists gave us acupuncture.

  6. “Incidentally one of my favorite songs of theirs.”

    Good song, but even better than “Particle Man”? The mind boggles.

    Well anyway, Lomatia tasmanica is still pretty cool, I think. As far as aged organisms go, it’s only the hegemony of arbitrary soilists that are keeping this shrub down.

    (If “pizza is delicious” has a BSI of 100, I assume “Indian Food is Incredible” gets 300 to 400, yes?)

  7. OMG, scotte, “As far as aged organisms go, it’s only the hegemony of arbitrary soilists that are keeping this shrub down.” You sir are in tight Comment o’ the Week competition with 15 or so posts in bug_girl’s crotch lice comment thread.

    And yes, Indian food is the best proof we have of an all-loving god, this side of alcohol.

    trumpetess, you’re totally right! Has he ever seen a pigeon walk? All fat and waddly and brimming with bacteria. Ugh!

  8. All I can say is obviously the trees have a much better publisist. You’ll never hear some one ask “If a shrub falls in a field does it make a sound?”

    Now if someone shall be so kind as to bring me a shrubbery or I shall be forced to say “Ni” again.

  9. 256 years old?!?!?! Holy shit! Even if it were possible, who the hell would want to live that long?

    I mean, I’m not even a fifth of the way there, and I don’t know what to do with myself all day. In fact, I’m hoping senility comes my way early, just to alleviate the boredom. Let’s face it, a person can only put up with life’s minutia for so long before he or she wants to go on a murderous rampage.

    Make no mistake, folks, really old people want to kill us. Be thanful they’re just too weak and too tired to actually act upon that all-consuming impulse.

    And things hurt more the older I get. Can you imagine what a hangover feels like to a 256 year old man?

    I’m at a loss.

    Plus, it’s disturbing to discover that I walk like a pigeon; all fat and waddly and brimming with bacteria.

  10. Thanks Rebecca.

    Today is my birthday (for serious).

    I’m 29 today.

    Ever since turning 26, I’ve not liked birthdays.

    Now, I think more than anyone else on this board (unless 23 post, in which, as we all know, makes it a 50% chance that someone else will have this apply to), today I REALLY am older than I’ve ever been.

    Luckily, I have guiness and honey-brown lager to drown in.

  11. Ah Rebecca, your knowledge of small antipodean islands could do with a brush up!

    Lomatia tasmanica is found in Tasmania. Tasmania is in Australia, not New Zealand.

    But I’m willing to overlook that this time due to the TMBG reference. Nice.

  12. This is a great template for articles on Skepchick, it mixes humour with well-written journalism, and an INSATIABLE LUST FOR TRUTH! OH YEAH BABY…

    *ahem*

    But most of all, it isn’t haranguing a portion of the population, which I appreciate.

  13. Damn Kiwis trying to steal Tasmania again. I mean really – all they have to do is ask….

    As for living vast amounts of years just use ‘biblical history’ for the secrets like Rev. ‘Dr’ Carl Baugh did!

    After careful reading of Genesis, he went with the old ‘enriched oxygen’ idea for the life spans of biblical figures and so built a pressurised oxygen chamber. And then he ‘discovered’ that ozone (O3) is enriched oxygen (O2)! So switch out the oxygen with ozone in his living chamber and he lives a reaaaaly long time.

    Regrettably no reports on wether he actually tried the test… .. :P

    http://www.atheists.org/evolution/wild.html

  14. I saw a documentary on Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China, who sent his court alchemist off to try and find Mount Penglai where the Eight Immortals lived so he could bum the elixir of life from them and live forever. In order to keep the emperor alive until they could find the fabled location, the alchemist prescribed lots of sex for the emperor and mercury pills.

    I will let others judge whether it was too a big a harem or mercury poison that drived him mad, but he died.

    PS And traditional Chinese medicine practioners cite its great antiquity as an argument for its effective – yeah, I want what he’s having.

  15. Yeah, them crazy Chinese herbalists used to ingest cinnabar (Zhu Sha, I think), which is chock full-o mercury, in their pursuit of immortality. I’m pretty sure their thought process was that it’s red and shiny. . . . . . .
    that’s all.

    Anyway Rebecca, Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang is actually an herbal formula with 6 or 7 herbal ingredients, and San Zhi Pian is some sort of prepared pill that likely has several herbs as well. I’m too lazy to look it up right now. To the best of my knowledge Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang was never used to increase longevity, so I’m not sure what the purpose is of including the formula in such a study. Maybe for fruit flies with prolapsed colons or chronic fatigue. . . . .
    Yah. Just a little Chinese herbal trivia for ya. God I’ve wasted some time. . . .

  16. Sam Ogden // May 6, 2008 at 5:13 pm:
    “256 years old?!?!?! Holy shit! Even if it were possible, who the hell would want to live that long?”
    A healthy 255-year old person most likely would. I don’t think Chinese herbs are the way to go though. Aubrey de Grey wants to extend healthy life spans basically indefinitely through the Methuselah Foundation:
    http://www.mfoundation.org/sens
    I’ve yet to see any valid scientific criticism of why his goals cannot be achieved within our lifetimes, given enough funding. That’s not to say that no one has tried:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Grey_Technology_Review_controversy
    If you grant that radical extension of lifespans is basically possible (which would save 100000 people from dying of old age every single day) but think that it would be a bad thing, you also might want to reconsider:
    http://www.mfoundation.org/index.php?pagename=concerns

  17. “256 years old?!?!?! Holy shit! Even if it were possible, who the hell would want to live that long?”
    A healthy 255-year old person most likely would. . . .

    . . . If you grant that radical extension of lifespans is basically possible (which would save 100000 people from dying of old age every single day) but think that it would be a bad thing, you also might want to reconsider:

    Please tell me you know my comment wasn’t serious.

  18. My comment wasn’t meant to be criticism of Sam’s (obviously tongue-in-cheek) post, but more for pointing out some work in the topic of getting people to live long that doesn’t involve magic thinking. Sorry for any confusion.

  19. My comment wasn’t meant to be criticism of Sam’s (obviously tongue-in-cheek) post, but more for pointing out some work in the topic of getting people to live long that doesn’t involve magic thinking. Sorry for any confusion.

    That’s what I thought, but I wanted to be sure. Lately, I’ve had some trouble because some folks seem not to know when I’m joking.

    Guess I need to get new jokes.

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