There’s no limit to how long a beat can last. All it really has is a few minutes’ running time and the length of the pattern itself. In a video from 2006, the scientist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, gives the example of a long cycle, like a marathon, that could last for more than 200 hours. “It would continue until the last breath you take.”
An article on this story from The New York Times last year included an image with this headline: “A lot longer.” The time frame of the photograph is “a year and a half for some people” (it is also unclear precisely what the person is). This article did not, however, use the time frame as an example of long-term human development; it quoted an example from a human-rights organization, which concluded that humans could not survive for “even a year.” This is similar to some other examples of longer-than-usual times.
In a 2004 paper, the philosopher John Searle wrote about how this time span should be used to explain what distinguishes humans from other animals. After all, there’s no reason to think that human cognition is better than other animals’ at doing some complex planning, for example—you could probably write a computer program that could come up with a better plan than us. And we don’t need to be smarter to live long, because we’re the longest-lived animals. But, Searle argued, it might be useful to think of ourselves as living out a natural history of mental development, which would then allow us to make predictions about the natural, not just human, consequences of long-term development. This is a pretty common assumption, as even evolutionary biologists recognize: We’re the first organisms to have ever lived on planet Earth. “Since the first human was ever born, we’ve been around,” anthropologist Charles Darwin once said. We know that most species that existed prior to us have died out. And because we are, we may have developed our mental abilities at the same rate they developed in previous species.
In other words, if you can measure people’s intellectual capacity, there’s an easy story to tell (perhaps even a false one), about how long humans have been able to think. You could start by measuring their ability to solve problems—which, of course, can be measured at any point in time, not just any given moment. But in fact, even if you could measure this, it wouldn’t tell you if
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