This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Immortality is a tempting vision. Can humans live forever? If not now, will humans ever be able to live forever? And what new challenges could immortality present us with?
We’ll cover the science moving humans closer to immortality and the potential problems of being able to live forever.
Can Humans Live Forever?
Perhaps one of the biggest consequences of the Scientific Revolution is the way we perceive and deal with the “problem of death.” Through most of history, people have regarded death as inevitable, but even that “knowledge” is becoming questionable as scientists openly tackle this thorniest of problems. Can humans live forever? It may be possible in the not-so-distant future.
One source of thorns in that most religions are meaningless without the concept or reality of death. Religion teaches us to live life in accordance with its laws so that we can find peace in the afterlife. Without death, many religions no longer make sense.
Death: Just a Technical Problem
Whereas death used to be solely a religious problem, it’s now seen as a technical problem. Today, we can revive a fluttering heart with a pacemaker; we can kill cancer with drugs and radiation; we can conquer bacteria with antibiotics. We’ve developed new treatments and artificial organs that can extend life, and the average life expectancy has increased from 25 years, in the centuries before the Scientific Revolution, to 67 years (80 years in the developed world). Some think that humans will become “a-mortal” (immune to deaths caused by “natural causes,” rather than accidents) by 2050.
Further, today’s newest and most widespread religions, such as liberalism, socialism, and feminism, make no mention of the afterlife, reflecting the growing idea that we won’t ever have to die, and that what happens during life is more important than what comes after it. So can humans live forever? It’s looking like it may happen soon.
The Future of Happiness
But there are many downsides to living forever. Some speculate that if the answer to Can humans live forever? becomes “Yes,” we won’t be as happy as a species. As expectations continue to increase, it’s possible our happiness will continue to deteriorate. As important as the question Will humans ever be able to live forever? is the question, Do we want to?
For example, we talk about immortality as the biggest breakthrough for happiness. What could be happier than not dying? But the expectation of immortality, contrasted with reality, will bring new problems. The poor probably won’t be able to afford the technologies that make people immortal. This will make them feel angrier and more oppressed than previously. The gap between their expectations (immortality) and reality (mortality) will widen dramatically.
The rich, who can afford the technology to be immortal, will feel anxious. Although they may not die of natural causes, they could still be hit by a car or their city could be bombed by a terrorist. The gap between their expectations (immortality) and reality (the world will always contain life-threatening dangers) could make them risk-averse and paranoid. Further, when death is no longer natural, losing a child or spouse will be even more heartbreaking than it is now. Can humans live forever? We’re getting close. Will we want to? That’s yet to be determined.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Sapiens summary :
- How Sapiens outlived and outlasted the 8+ other human-like species on Earth
- The 3 critical revolutions in human existence that led to our domination of the planet
- How much of what powers our world today is really just a shared mass delusion
- What the future of humanity might look like