But does any one type of file system (NTFS, FAT, EXT2,3) degrade the life of a physical HDD?
No. In the end, looked at from the lowest level, they all read and write sectors.
Modern drives last for absurdly long times anyway, so for any non-critical use it's a non-issue. It's a good idea to back up regularly, though, just in general.
With a true HDD, no.
However, flash-based storage (for example a usb stick) does have performance limitations that can be exacerbated by filesystem choice.
The most relevant issue that I can think of is the fact that a given flash drive can only sustain a certain number of writes on each 'sector' during its usable lifetime. An ideal filesystem for use on flash drives would evenly distribute write operations throughout the drive's memory range.
To be honest though, I've always just formatted my usb sticks with either NTFS, ext3, or xfs, depending what I needed it for. As far as I can tell, the made-for-flash-device filesystems out there aren't near production quality yet though.
I've messed around with yaffs and logfs, but I'd rather have a faster fs with a more robust feature set and risk my flash drive failing in 4 years instead of 6. As if I'm not gonna lose it or run it over in my car before that.