This article gives you a glimpse of what you can learn with Shortform. Shortform has the world’s best guides to 1000+ nonfiction books, plus other resources to help you accelerate your learning.
Want to learn faster and get smarter? Sign up for a free trial here .
Is it possible to live forever? What are the potential implications of human immortality for society at large?
People have always been fascinated with immortality. However, we have never been as close to it as we are today. Medical technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, and many scientists believe that humanity is on the brink of a breakthrough that will pave the way toward technologies that will make eternal life possible.
Keep reading to learn whether it’s possible to live forever and some potential implications of human immortality for the human species and societies at large.
Living Forever: Causes for Concern
Is it possible to live forever? Historically, people have accepted death as an eventuality. Religions such as Christianity and Islam alleviate the fear of death by creating grand depictions of the afterlife offered to those who obey religious standards. Because of these depictions of an afterlife, people haven’t historically focused on preventing death.
However, modern science suggests that, in theory, it is possible to live forever, and steps are already being taken to discover the secret to immortality. However, most life science organizations currently focus on expanding life expectancy. For reference, in 1900, the average life expectancy was 40; by 2000, it was 70. Using that trend as a guide, some believe that, as early as 2050, people will live twice as long as today. And it is only the beginning.
|Why Haven’t Humans Evolved to Live Longer?|
Theoretically, it would be a huge reproductive advantage to maintain health for more time—imagine humans who lived to be 300 and reproduced for 100 years. So, the question arises:
According to Benjamin Bikman, the author of Why We Get Sick, there must be a competitive equilibrium at play—living longer must confer some compensatory fitness disadvantage, and the inverse is true. The balance is between faster, more aggressive mating (which may necessarily cause decreased longevity) vs. longer lifespan (which may necessarily trade off with decreased fertility).
Animal experiments show that increasing lifespan causes lower and later reproduction. Somehow there is a tradeoff between longevity and vigor. For example, mice on caloric restriction extend their lifespans, but they don’t reproduce. They stay suspended in a pre-reproductive state waiting for adequate food supply.
However, even if it is possible to live forever, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should. According to Nassim Taleb, the author of Antifragile, living forever would be a serious detriment to the human species.
In brief, Taleb’s theory of antifragility—becoming stronger after being damaged—is that an antifragile system must be made up of fragile parts. An unexpected or stressful event destroys some of those fragile units, and then the rest of the system responds by not just repairing the damage, but by becoming strong enough to withstand that event in the future. A simple example is lifting weights: The exercise damages your muscles, which then become stronger as they heal.
If we consider the human race to be a system, and each person to be a part of that system, Taleb’s theory means that individuals living forever (in other words, losing their fragility) would paradoxically make the human race fragile. Perhaps some unexpected shock to the system—a disease, a war, or a natural disaster—would leave us unable to respond and recover. Or, perhaps we’d simply wipe ourselves out through overpopulation.
AUTHOR: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Causes for Optimism
While it’s hard to say how immortality would affect the human species as a whole, we can anticipate how it would change human societies at large. In his book Lifespan, Australian-American biologist David A. Sinclair imagines a world where people never die, outlining his chief concerns:
- Stagnating scientific and social advancements. Sinclair says that progress doesn’t happen by winning over the opposition, but because the (usually older) opposition eventually dies off—if people start living for hundreds of years, that won’t happen.
- Widening wealth gaps as rich people live longer and invest more in politics to get even richer at everyone else’s expense. To make matters even worse, the wealthy will almost certainly have access to life-extending treatments long before poor and working class people do.
- Overpopulation leading to starvation, mass poverty, and worsening climate change
Sinclair acknowledges these concerns but still believes that we can not only cure the disease of old age, but also create a world that’s able to support an undying human population in safety and comfort. It will require major changes in how we think about almost every aspect of society, but it’s not only possible, but necessary to do so.
Unlike Taleb, Sinclair says that there are numerous reasons for us to be optimistic about living forever:
Scientific and Economic Boosts
Sinclair imagines a world where people have the wisdom and experience of the elderly with the strength and energy of the youth. He believes that, with such people driving society, our rates of productivity and advancement would skyrocket.
Overpopulation Concerns May Be Overblown
Estimates of the maximum human population that Earth can support range anywhere from 8 billion (which we’ve already reached) to 16 billion. Sinclair says that a few estimates even place the maximum at around 100 billion people.
More to the point, most of those estimates don’t account for technological and societal advancements. In other words, they estimate the current maximum population that Earth could sustain, but by the time we reach that number, the true maximum could be far higher.
In fact, Sinclair says we should question the idea that there even is a maximum human population—it seems obvious that there must be a limit, but there’s no solid evidence to prove it. Perhaps technology will keep pace with our ever-growing population, offering ways to house and feed more people than we’d ever thought possible. For example, we could imagine floating cities, food replicators like those on Star Trek, and the possibility of colonizing other worlds.
AUTHOR: David Sinclair
Potential Routes Towards Immortality
In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari takes a more far-off perspective on the human quest for immortality. According to Harari, humanity’s quest for immortality is ultimately a quest for divinity. In this context, divinity isn’t a metaphysical existence with unlimited power such as the God of the Bible. Instead, it’s closer to the Greek gods or Hindu devas—flawed but powerful beings who have emotions and limitations.
In the quest for immortality, humans will likely “upgrade” along the following paths:
Biological manipulation will likely be the first step toward “god-like” status. If scientists can discover the biology behind happiness and immortality, they’ll likely be able to manipulate almost anything within the human body through genetic alterations. This means that, for the right price, anyone could become a god-like being with immense strength, intelligence, and extended lifespan. Today, people are already experiencing the early stages of this development through hormonal manipulation and DNA coding.
Cybernetic augmentation will likely follow biological manipulation. Cybernetic augmentation is the combining of organic and inorganic materials in the human body. This would allow people to remove parts of the body that are threatened by decay and replace them with more durable material. It would also allow people to interact with technology around the world with just their thoughts. While this may sound like something out of Star Trek, people have already begun to combine inorganic materials with their bodies. In the medical field, cybernetic limbs and hearts are used to sustain life. In the technological field, “mind-reading” helmets allow people to control devices with their thoughts.
Inorganic assimilation may follow cybernetic augmentation. Taking cybernetic augmentation one step further, inorganic assimilation is the process of moving one’s consciousness into an inorganic body. Neural networks would be replaced with hardware, and people could live in both the physical and virtual worlds at the same time. For example, if a human mind could be transferred to an inorganic body, the newly formed being could hypothetically explore the internet, see out of connected cameras, and move their new form using the electrical impulses generated from the brain. This would allow humanity to abandon its organic form and become practically immortal.
TITLE: Homo Deus
AUTHOR: Yuval Noah Harari
Is it possible to live forever? Scientists are on the fence about whether eternal life is possible, but some remain hopeful. However, if it is indeed possible to live forever, then another question arises: should we?
If you enjoyed our article about whether it is possible to live forever, check out the following suggestions for further reading:
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari uses concepts from biology, history, and economics to tell the story of us, Homo sapiens. We start 2.5 million years ago, when Sapiens make their historical entrance, and end in the future, when the creation of an artificially created superhuman race may mark the end of the Sapiens species. Along the way, we learn how our ability to create imagined realities led to our dominance over other species. We watch as the Agricultural Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, imperialism, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution change our species in lasting, and not always positive, ways. Ultimately, we’re left with one question: As we design our future, who do we want to become?
Imagine a world where our lifespans aren’t limited by illness or aging, where people could live for as long as they wanted to. This sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, but according to Tony Robbins, Peter Diamandis, and Robert Hariri, such a scenario may be more fact than fiction. In Life Force, the authors explain how ongoing development of new technologies and information in the medical field may extend our lifespans beyond what we ever thought possible. Robbins is a bestselling author and speaker, Diamandis is a bestselling author and scientist, and Hariri is a neurosurgeon and scientist.
Want to fast-track your learning? With Shortform, you’ll gain insights you won't find anywhere else .
Here's what you’ll get when you sign up for Shortform :
- Complicated ideas explained in simple and concise ways
- Smart analysis that connects what you’re reading to other key concepts
- Writing with zero fluff because we know how important your time is