Opinion: Immortality, is it possible?
People who know me well will tell you that I’m among the most sensate of people. I believe that which can be perceived and experienced through our sense modalities. Although I watched all of the spookiest and comic-book-hero movies when I was a boy, I haven’t seen a flick about zombies or vampires or people coming back from the grave in decades. I haven’t even seen a Star Trek or Spiderman movie. So, I questioned myself when I sat down to write about the possibility of immortality.
The topic didn’t even occur to me until I started reading Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.” Harari is Professor of History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the author of two other highly regarded and thought-provoking books, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” both of which I’ve cited in previous columns.
In Latin, “homo” means man, and “deus” means god. It is Harari’s speculation that the process of evolution is ongoing. Homo erectus (standing man) evolved into homo sapiens (thinking man) and the next stage may be homo deus (godlike man). We human beings have always had the power to create life. Now, he states, we may be on the brink of preventing death.
Major causes of death
I don’t know if Harari is a religious man, but if he is he is able to separate his scientific analysis and speculations from his personal beliefs. He begins his analysis by reminding us that, in the not-too-distant past, the vast majority of people who have died fell to famine, plague, and war. But although these three killers still exist, they are no longer unavoidable.
Harari presents a litany of catastrophes that caused the deaths of millions of people, the most relevant to our history is probably the “Spanish Flu.” Soldiers on the front lines of World War I in France began dropping like flies because of the virus. With supply lines for the war stretching all over the world, the virus spread quickly to far-off places like Australia and India. And then to even more remote areas. On the island of Tahiti, 14 percent of the population died. On Samoa, 20 percent. Overall, between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide (perhaps 1/3 of the world’s population at the time) succumbed within a year.
Earlier in our history, smallpox wiped out much of the population of Maya people on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and Guatemala, the Incas of Peru, and the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), as well as a huge portion of the indigenous people of the United States. But due to a global campaign and the acceptance of smallpox vaccination, small pox had been eradicated by 1979, according to the World Health Organization.
Currently, we are battling COVID-19, but we are winning. If we had had more enlightened leadership and stricter controls, we might well be free of the disease by now. The point is that we have the capability to develop the tools that we need to severely limit the damage that has been caused by the historic killers of humankind.
Life expectancy and life span
Harari says that “success breeds ambition.” In other words, because we’ve been successful in controlling diseases, famines, and war (despite sporadic outbreaks in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Ukraine), we are now turning our attention on old age.
Throughout all of hitherto history, we have simply accepted the notion that we are born, we live, and then we die. As Forrest Gump exclaimed, “Mama always said, dying is a part of life.” Harari disagrees. He states, “(H)aving raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.”
For modern people, death is a technical problem. Harari says that mortality is not an essential part of some great cosmic plan. Rather, “humans die due to some technical glitch.” The heart stops pumping, a clog develops in an artery, cancer spreads in the liver. We already have the technology to overcome many of these glitches.
We know that we have the potential for long life, but we have not always experienced it. On average, a baby born in the United States in 1820 had a life expectancy of 36 years. Infant mortality was extremely high, and childhood illness took even more lives. Today, 200 years later, a newborn can expect to live for nearly 80 years, more than doubling life expectancy.
However, some people have always lived for a long time. Galileo died at 77, Isaac Newton at 84, and Michelangelo 88. And all of those people lived before antibiotics, vaccinations, or organ transplants. Modern medicine has worked wonders at increasing life expectancy (the average for all people) but hasn’t added a single year to life span (the length of life of an individual). Harari says that will be the goal of Homo Deus.
This concept has me hanging on both sides of the fence. On one hand, I don’t think I’d want to live forever; on the other, I really don’t want to die. Maybe I should start watching those Zombie movies again.
(Continues next week with “Homo Deus: Apologia”)
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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.