In the past, many major religions relied upon the mystery of death because it guaranteed the continuing servitude of their followers. The very existence of these organized religions depended upon their power to convince their adherents that only they could prepare them properly for an eternal life after death. Death was dressed up as a mystical experience… death was what made life worth living.
In his book “Homo Deus” Yuval Noah Harari contends that overcoming the inevitability of death is our next and possibly our last frontier.
Today, most people accept the fact that we die because either our parts wear out.. our genes betray us and cancerous cells overwhelm our organs, someone sneezes on the subway and we breath in a deadly virus, or we get hit by a bus. Rational thought leads us to believe that whatever metaphysical entity we might hope to commune with has nothing to do with death.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus claimed that it was pointless to worship and make sacrifices to their collection of gods because life ended at death. In the Old Testament of the Bible there are no promises of rewards or punishments after death. We now accept that the causes of death are merely technical problems that some team of geeks and bench-engineers in a remote lab somewhere are tirelessly trying solve. All of us sitting up here in the bleachers are cheering them on and hoping for the big win…. eternal youth will be achieved when they reach their goal!
Do not scoff… this is a serious 21st century goal; Arthur B. Levinson and Google formed Calico in 2013 with a $750k investment. It’s sole purpose is to combat aging and the diseases that cause it.
They’ve since partnered with other research firms and opened an R&D lab to explore the biology of aging.
They are not alone, Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey, who are active in the life-extension movement, predict that yearly advances in overcoming aging will give us the ability to extend lifespan incrementally on a regular basis.
Although there is much talk about im-mortality in these groups, what they are really aiming at is a-mortality; their efforts are directed toward extending the usefullness of our corporeal bodies.
However, regardless of our so-called medical advances, we haven’t extended our possible life-span one day in the last 70,000 years. The average life expectancy of our ancestors was startlingly low because of a lack of medical knowledge, death in childbirth, and at an early age. People could, and did live into their seventies and eighties. Even chimpanzees can live into their sixties.
There is some debate about how the expectation of a-mortality might effect our struggle for advancement or our drive to climb mountains, swim oceans or reach beyond our small, insignificant spot in the universe. If you could possibly live forever, why get out of bed in the morning and drive your car up I-95 at 80 mph? A-mortality, which might be achievable, cannot be our final goal.
The possibility of Sapiens achieving a-mortality is not without a model that already exists – Turritopsis dohrnii, the “immortal jellyfish”. This translucent tiny critter, who you can find in the Mediterranean and in the sea around Japan, is capable of transdifferentiation. When it is exposed to environmental stress or death it can revert to a sexually immature state and start a new colony. It is capable of changing old dying cells into totally new cells.
However, I would like to point out that these critters are NOT IMMORTAL, they are physiologically A-MORTAL... they can still become prey, die from disease, or be a victim of an accident. So, unless they can transcend their anatomical limitations and transfer themselves to a non-biological carrier they will eventually die. So, during the long a-mortal lifespan of these happy little jellyfish they may dream of immortality, but alas, it is not within their grasp.
Our trek toward escaping our biological limitations has been accelerated by advances in pharmacology and in cyber engineering. Every drug we take to make us happier and every app we download to shortcut the path to our goals is another step toward our cyborg identity.
In Mr. Harari’s book he theorizes that we will eventually abandon our biological shell, upload our essence into an eternal computer and achieve cybernetic immortality. He equates this step into the void with the agricultural and scientific revolutions that he wrote so thrillingly about in “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind”, which I reviewed in a previous post. His book, “Homo Deus”, is a mind-churning adventure that will hold you in his spell to the very end.