The rate-of-living theory is wrong

The rate-of-living theory is popular on the Internet. The intuition is that all animals are born with some “budget” that they burn out over time according to their rate of energy expenditure. A proxy for how much energy you spend is your heart rate.

Anyhow. You are a candle. The harder you live, the shorter you will live. You have a fixed budget, spend it wisely. Live slow, live long; live fast, live short.

The famous science-fiction writer David Brin penned an essay entitled Want to Live Forever? to support the theory :

Elephants live much longer than mice, but their hearts also beat far slower, so the total allotment stays remarkably similar.

Brin’s essay basically says that evolution tried to maximize our lifespan, but that we are hitting the limits set by the rate-of-living theory.

This sounds good and intuitive.

But is it true? Notice how Brin refers only to mammals. What about birds? Well, parrots live to be 75 yet their hearts can beat up to 600 times per minute. And some animals (like the jellyfish and the hydra) are considered “immortal”.

So maybe there is something special about mammals that makes us burn like candles with each heart beat.

Maybe. But we know that large dogs live much shorter lives than small dogs. The difference is large. A Yorkshire Terrier lives up to 17 to 20 years old. A Great Dane is expected to live only 6 to 8 years. Yet, there is no correlation between body size and heart rate in dogs. So big dogs get far fewer heart beats than small dogs.

So maybe it is not heart rates that matter but your energy expenditure.

Well. Athletes certainly do “live fast”, building up a large muscle mass and burning lots of energy even while at rest. Do athletes live shorter? We have no evidence of this effect.

What about child rearing? For a woman, giving birth and raising kids is certainly a major drain. Except that women who have children live longer.

Smart and rich people live longer, but people who retire ealier do not.

The question was investigated thoroughly 25 years ago by Austad and Fischer and they demonstrated that the rate-of-living theory is wrong:

Our results fail to support a rate of living theory of aging in either a weak or strong form. The strong form suggests that mass-specific energy expenditure per life span would be approximately equivalent across species. For 164 mammalian species, energy expenditure per lifetime ranges from 39 to 1102 kcal/g/life span. Within bats, there is nearly a fourfold range of lifetime energy expenditure while among marsupials the range is nearly tenfold. Thus even within mammalian orders, this generalization seems not to hold.

A weaker form of the same idea holds that lifespan should be generally inversely related to metabolic rate. This notion predicts that: (a) marsupials should be longer-lived than similar sized eutherians; (b) heterothermic species should be longer-lived than similar-sized homeotherms, and (c) homeothermic bats should have life spans approximately equal to similar-sized nonflying eutherians. Our data fail to support any of these predictions

These results suggest that at least between species, there is an uncertain relationship between basal metabolic rate and aging. Therefore the finding that a proven life-extending treatment such as dietary restriction in laboratory rats and mice does not routinely reduce metabolic rate is perhaps less
surprising than it otherwise might be.


It is clear from the preceding that there is no simple relationship between mammalian longevity and metabolic
rate. Species with low or high metabolic rates may have evolved short or long life spans, depending upon their ecology.

At this point, one might be tempted to try to find interventions that “slow your life” and also extend your lifespan. But these examples would not rescue the theory. Indeed, you might have a theory that all animals living in the ocean are fishes. If I point out that your theory is wrong because there are whales, you can’t argue back by giving me examples of fishes that live in the ocean.

The lesson is that animals are not candles. You can work and play hard, and yet live long. You have no excuse to be boring and slow.

Further reading : Mitteldorf’s Cracking the Aging Code, Fossel’s The Telomerase Revolution and Wood’s The Abolition of Aging.

8 thoughts on “The rate-of-living theory is wrong”

  1. There are clues to aging already discovered. Such as food deprivation (even temporarily – 5 years in our relative youth) can extend average lifespan. It could be nature’s way of giving us more reproductive cycles when things look bleak – or compensating for the likely failure of our offspring to thrive by letting us live longer – perhaps into better times when we can reproduce successfully.

    As a short term adaptation it would lack much value – but if it exists, it must do so for a reason.

    1. Caloric restriction can extend lifespan in some animals. It is doubtful that there is any strong effect in human beings. People eat a lot more today than in the past, but they also live quite a bit longer. Jeanne Calment ate a kilogram of chocolate a week. She lived up to 122. There are religious communities where people practice strict caloric restriction: they do not seem to produce centenarians.

      What I can tell you for sure is that if you starve yourself, you will lose muscle mass. The health gains are much more speculative.

  2. The “rate of living theory” you describe originally stated that for all mammals (it never applied elsewhere), the amount of oxygen delivered to cells by the respiratory and cardiovascular system per gram of body weight was approximately equal (at 18 litres of O2) over the lifespan of the mammal.

    It wasn’t claiming that you could expand the lifespan. That claim was invented by those reporting it, as has become deplorably standard in the reporting of anything from the scientific world these days.

    It also never applied to humans because we developed medicine and so have much longer lifespans than other apes of our approximate mass, which puts us off the trend line in the graph to begin with.

    1. Quoting from Wikipedia:

      The rate of living theory postulates that the faster an organism’s metabolism, the shorter its lifespan. The theory was originally created by Max Rubner in 1908 after his observation that larger animals outlived smaller ones, and that the larger animals had slower metabolisms. After its inception by Rubner, it was further expanded upon through the work of Raymond Pearl. Outlined in his book, The Rate of Living published in 1928, Pearl conducted a series of experiments in drosophilia and cantaloupe seeds that corroborated Rubner’s initial observation that a slowing of metabolism increased lifespan.


        1. Quoting from the Cornell site you link to :

          The rate of living theory originated in 1908 when a physiologist, named Max Rubner, discovered a relationship between metabolic rate, body size, and longevity. It states that living organisms possess a certain amount of a “vital substance” and when all of that substance is used up, we die. This belief is very old and today would be deemed unscientific. In todays scientific world a more plausible model for this theory is oxygen metabolism and energy. The thoery looks at the rate of energy production through respirationg by the conversion of oxygen to water.

          This theory was initially developed to explain why most larger animals live longer than most smaller animals. Animals with the most rapid metabolism tend to have the shortest life spans, while animals with slower metabolic rates tend to have longer life spans. This has to do with the belief that all organisms are born with a certain amount of energy. If we use this energy slowly then our rate of aging is slowed. If the energy is consumed quickly aging is hastened. Long-lived animal species are on average bigger and spend fewer calories per gram of body mass than smaller, short-lived species. Although this is true among many species in the animal kingdom, it does not apply universally, particularily amongst mammals.

          The rate of living theory is a scientific version of “live fast, die young”.

  3. I short literature review indicates that the oxydative stress hypothesis on longevity is almost dead, that metabolisis scaling is tricky and the caloric restriction is not much related to both previous phenomena.

    1. @Yvan

      I am not even sure it is wise to talk about “caloric restriction”. It seems to be all about methionine restriction. It just happens that mice eating little also eat few proteins and thus get little methionine. I think you are right that it has little to do with oxidative stress or metabolic rates per se. These theories are pretty much dead.

      However, they are still very popular “on the Internet”.

      I think that they lead to the wrong kind of logic… as in… “I am not going to wear myself out”. Well. I think that highly active people can probably live longer, if anything.

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