Open Essay

The Last Days of Death

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The looming struggle for eternal youth

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow | Yuval Noah Harari | Harvill Secker | 440 pages | Rs 799

IN THE TWENTY-FIRST century humans are likely to make a serious bid for immortality. Struggling against old age and death will merely carry on the time-honoured fight against famine and disease, and manifest the supreme value of contemporary culture: the worth of human life. We are constantly reminded that human life is the most sacred thing in the universe. Everybody says this: teachers in schools, politicians in parliaments, lawyers in courts and actors on theatre stages. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN after the Second World War—which is perhaps the closest thing we have to a global constitution—categorically states that ‘the right to life’ is humanity’s most fundamental value. Since death clearly violates this right, death is a crime against humanity, and we ought to wage total war against it.

Throughout history, religions and ideologies did not sanctify life itself. They always sanctified something above or beyond earthly existence, and were consequently quite tolerant of death. Indeed, some of them have been downright fond of the Grim Reaper. Because Christianity, Islam and Hinduism insisted that the meaning of our existence depended on our fate in the afterlife, they viewed death as a vital and positive part of the world. Humans died because God decreed it, and their moment of death was a sacred metaphysical experience exploding with meaning. When a human was about to breathe his last, this was the time to call priests, rabbis and shamans, to draw out the balance of life, and embrace one’s true role in the universe. Just try to imagine Christianity, Islam or Hinduism in a world without death—which is also a world without heaven, hell or reincarnation.

Modern science and modern culture have an entirely different take on life and death. They don’t think of death as a metaphysical mystery, and they certainly don’t view death as the source of life’s meaning. Rather, for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve.

How exactly do humans die? Medieval fairy tales depicted Death as a figure in a hooded black cloak, his hand gripping a large scythe. A man lives his life, worrying about this and that, running here and there, when suddenly the Grim Reaper appears before him, taps him on the shoulder with a bony finger and says, ‘Come!’ And the man implores: ‘No, please! Wait just a year, a month, a day!’ But the hooded figure hisses: ‘No! You must come NOW!’ And this is how we die.

In reality, however, humans don’t die because a figure in a black cloak taps them on the shoulder, or because God decreed it, or because mortality is an essential part of some great cosmic plan. Humans always die due to some technical glitch. The heart stops pumping blood. The main artery is clogged by fatty deposits. Cancerous cells spread in the liver. Germs multiply in the lungs. And what is responsible for all these technical problems? Other technical problems. The heart stops pumping blood because not enough oxygen reaches the heart muscle. Cancerous cells spread because a chance genetic mutation rewrote their instructions. Germs settled in my lungs because somebody sneezed on the subway. Nothing metaphysical about it. It is all technical problems.

And every technical problem has a technical solution. We don’t need to wait for the Second Coming in order to overcome death. A couple of geeks in a lab can do it. If traditionally death was the specialty of priests and theologians, now the engineers are taking over. We can kill the cancerous cells with chemotherapy or nanorobots. We can exterminate the germs in the lungs with antibiotics. If the heart stops pumping, we can reinvigorate it with medicines and electric shocks—and if that doesn’t work, we can implant a new heart. True, at present we don’t have solutions to all technical problems. But this is precisely why we invest so much time and money in researching cancer, germs, genetics and nanotechnology.

Even ordinary people, who are not engaged in scientific research, have become used to thinking about death as a technical problem. When a woman goes to her physician and asks, ‘Doctor, what’s wrong with me?’ the doctor is likely to say, ‘Well, you have the flu: or ‘You have tuberculosis: or ‘You have cancer.’ But the doctor will never say, ‘You have death.’ And we are all under the impression that flu, tuberculosis and cancer are technical problems, to which we might someday find a technical solution.

Even when people die in a hurricane, a car accident or a war, we tend to view it as a technical failure that could and should have been prevented. If the government had only adopted a better policy; if the municipality had done its job properly; and if the military commander had taken a wiser decision, death would have been avoided. Death has become an almost automatic reason for lawsuits and investigations. ‘How could they have died? Somebody somewhere must have screwed up.’

The vast majority of scientists, doctors and scholars still distance themselves from outright dreams of immortality, claiming that they are trying to overcome only this or that particular problem. Yet because old age and death are the outcome of nothing but particular problems, there is no point at which doctors and scientists are going to stop and declare: ‘Thus far, and not another step. We have overcome tuberculosis and cancer, but we won’t lift a finger to fight Alzheimer’s. People can go on dying from that.’ The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not say that humans have ‘the right to life until the age of ninety’. It says that every human has a right to life, period. That right isn’t limited by any expiry date.

Our ideological commitment to human life will never allow us simply to accept human death. As long as people die of something, we will strive to overcome it

An increasing minority of scientists and thinkers consequently speak more openly these days, and state that the flagship enterprise of modern science is to defeat death and grant humans eternal youth. Notable examples are the gerontologist Aubrey de Grey and the polymath and inventor Ray Kurzweil (winner of the 1999 US National Medal of Technology and Innovation). In 2012 Kurzweil was appointed a director of engineering at Google, and a year later Google launched a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is ‘to solve death’. Google has recently appointed another immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over the Google Ventures investment fund. In a January 2015 interview, Maris said, ‘If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500, the answer is yes.’ Maris backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash. Google Ventures is investing 36 per cent of its $2 billion portfolio in life sciences start-ups, including several ambitious life-extending projects. Using an American football analogy, Maris explained that in the fight against death, ‘We aren’t trying to gain a few yards. We are trying to win the game.’ Why? Because, says Maris, ‘it is better to live than to die’.

Such dreams are shared by other Silicon Valley luminaries. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has recently confessed that he aims to live for ever. ‘I think there are probably three main modes of approaching [death]: he explained. ‘You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.’ Many people are likely to dismiss such statements as teenage fantasies. Yet Thiel is somebody to be taken very seriously. He is one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley with a private fortune estimated at $2.2 billion. The writing is on the wall: equality is out—immortality is in.

The breakneck development of fields such as genetic engineering, regenerative medicine and nanotechnology fosters ever more optimistic prophecies. Some experts believe that humans will overcome death by 2200, others say 2100. Kurzweil and de Grey are even more sanguine. They maintain that anyone possessing a healthy body and a healthy bank account in 2050 will have a serious shot at immortality by cheating death a decade at a time. According to Kurzweil and de Grey, every ten years or so we will march into the clinic and receive a makeover treatment that will not only cure illnesses, but will also regenerate decaying tissues, and upgrade hands, eyes and brains. Before the next treatment is due, doctors will have invented a plethora of new medicines, upgrades and gadgets. If Kurzweil and de Grey are right, there may already be some immortals walking next to you on the street—at least if you happen to be walking down Wall Street or Fifth Avenue.

In truth they will actually be a-mortal, rather than immortal. Unlike God, future superhumans could still die in some war or accident, and nothing could bring them back from the netherworld. However, unlike us mortals, their life would have no expiry date. So long as no bomb shreds them to pieces or no truck runs them over, they could go on living indefinitely. Which will probably make them the most anxious people in history. We mortals daily take chances with our lives, because we know they are going to end anyhow. So we go on treks in the Himalayas, swim in the sea, and do many other dangerous things like crossing the street or eating out. But if you believe you can live for ever, you would be crazy to gamble on infinity like that.

If you think religious fanatics are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and ageing Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach

Perhaps, then, we had better start with more modest aims, such as doubling life expectancy? In the twentieth century we have almost doubled life expectancy from forty to seventy, so in the twenty-first century we should at least be able to double it again to 150. Though falling far short of immortality, this would still revolutionise human society. For starters, family structure, marriages and child-parent relationships would be transformed. Today, people still expect to be married ‘till death us do part’, and much of life revolves around having and raising children. Now try to imagine a person with a lifespan of 150 years. Getting married at forty, she still has 110 years to go. Will it be realistic to expect her marriage to last 110 years? Even Catholic fundamentalists might baulk at that. So the current trend of serial marriages is likely to intensify, bearing two children in her forties, she will, by the time she is 120, have only a distant memory of the years she spent raising them—a rather minor episode in her long life. It’s hard to tell what kind of new parent- child relationship might develop under such circumstances.

Or consider professional careers. Today we assume that you learn a profession in your teens and twenties, and then spend the rest of your life in that line of work. You obviously learn new things even in your forties and fifties, but life is gene- rally divided into a learning period followed by a working period. When you live to be 150 that won’t do, especially in a world that is constantly being shaken by new technologies. People will have much longer careers, and will have to reinvent themselves again and again even at the age of ninety.

At the same time, people will not retire at sixty-five and will not make way for the new generation with its novel ideas and aspirations. The physicist Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time. He meant that only when one generation passes away do new theories have a chance to root out old ones. This is true not only of science. Think for a moment about your own workplace. No matter whether you are a scholar, journalist, cook or football player, how would you feel if your boss were 120, his ideas were formulated when Victoria was still queen, and he was likely to stay your boss for a couple of decades more?

In the political sphere the results might be even more sinister. Would you mind having Putin stick around for another ninety years? On second thoughts, if people lived to 150, then in 2016 Stalin would still be ruling in Moscow, going strong at 138, Chairman Mao would be a middle-aged 123-year-old, and Princess Elizabeth would be sitting on her hands waiting to inherit from the 121-year-old George VI. Her son Charles would not get his turn until 2076.

Coming back to the realm of reality, it is far from certain whether Kurzweil’s and de Grey’s prophecies will come true by 2050 or 2100. My own view is that the hopes of eternal youth in the twenty-first century are premature, and whoever takes them too seriously is in for a bitter disappointment. It is not easy to live knowing that you are going to die, but it is even harder to believe in immortality and be proven wrong.

Although average life expectancy has doubled over the last hundred years, it is unwarranted to extrapolate and conclude that we can double it again to 150 in the coming century. In 1900 global life expectancy was no higher than forty because many people died young from malnutrition, infectious diseases and violence. Yet those who escaped famine, plague and war could live well into their seventies and eighties, which is the natural life span of Homo sapiens. Contrary to common notions, seventy-year-olds weren’t considered rare freaks of nature in previous centuries. Galilei died at seventy-seven, Isaac Newton at eighty-four, and Michelangelo lived to the ripe age of eighty-eight, without any help from antibiotics, vaccinations or organ transplants. Indeed, even chimpanzees in the jungle sometimes live into their sixties.

In truth, so far modern medicine hasn’t extended our natural life span by a single year. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years. Even if we now overcome cancer, diabetes and the other major killers, it would mean only that almost everyone will get to live to ninety—but it will not be enough to reach 150, let alone 500. For that, medicine will need to re-engineer the most fundamental structures and processes of the human body, and discover how to regenerate organs and tissues. It is by no means clear that we can do that by 2100.

Nevertheless, every failed attempt to overcome death will get us a step closer to the target, and that will inspire greater hopes and encourage people to make even greater efforts. Though Google’s Calico probably won’t solve death in time to make Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page immortal, it will most probably make significant discoveries about cell biology, genetic medicines and human health. The next generation of Googlers could therefore start their attack on death from new and better positions. The scientists who cry immortality are like the boy who cried wolf: sooner or later, the wolf actually comes.

Hence even if we don’t achieve immortality in our lifetime, the war against death is still likely to be the flagship project of the coming century. When you take into account our belief in the sanctity of human life, add the dynamics of the scientific establishment, and top it all with the needs of the capitalist economy, a relentless war against death seems to be inevitable. Our ideological commitment to human life will never allow us simply to accept human death. As long as people die of something, we will strive to overcome it.

The scientific establishment and the capitalist economy will be more than happy to underwrite this struggle. Most scientists and bankers don’t care what they are working on, provided it gives them an opportunity to make new discoveries and greater profits. Can anyone imagine a more exciting scientific challenge than outsmarting death—or a more promising market than the market of eternal youth? If you are over forty, close your eyes for a minute and try to remember the body you had at twenty-five. Not only how it looked, but above all how it felt. If you could have that body back, how much would you be willing to pay for it? No doubt some people would be happy to forgo the opportunity, but enough customers would pay whatever it takes, constituting a well-nigh infinite market.

If all that is not enough, the fear of death ingrained in most humans will give the war against death an irresistible momentum. As long as people assumed that death is inevitable, they trained themselves from an early age to suppress the desire to live forever, or harnessed it in favour of substitute goals. People want to live for ever, so they compose an ‘immortal’ symphony, they strive for ‘eternal glory’ in some war, or even sacrifice their lives so that their souls will ‘enjoy everlasting bliss in paradise’. A large part of our artistic creativity, our political commitment and our religious piety is fuelled by the fear of death.

Woody Allen, who has made a fabulous career out of the fear of death, was once asked if he hoped to live on for ever through the silver screen. Allen answered that ‘I’d rather live on in my apartment.’ He went on to add that ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.’ Eternal glory, nationalist remembrance ceremonies and dreams of paradise are very poor substitutes for what humans like Allen really want—not to die. Once people think (with or without good reason) that they have a serious chance of escaping death, the desire for life will refuse to go on pulling the rickety wagon of art, ideology and religion, and will sweep forward like an avalanche.

If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing beards are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and ageing Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach. If and when science makes significant progress in the war against death, the real battle will shift from the laboratories to the parliaments, courthouses and streets. Once the scientific efforts are crowned with success, they will trigger bitter political conflicts. All the wars and conflicts of history might turn out to be but a pale prelude for the real struggle ahead of us: the struggle for eternal youth.

(Excerpted from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow; Harvill Secker; 440 pages; Rs 799)