An optimistic take on our chances against death
There are three kinds of things that kill people: (1) violence, (2) accidents, and (3) nature itself. While violence and accidents are in principle avoidable, nature is merciless. Fortunately, humankind has been making great progress against death by nature over the centuries. We have been solving, at scale, the menace of wild animals, the perils of being exposed to the elements, and even hunger.
The only cause of death that still has an air of mystery and unavoidability to it is aging and disease. But even there, remarkable progress has been made against infections — progress because of vaccines, antibiotics, and sanitation.
I can’t help but to look at it and extrapolate that we will eventually escape the remaining traps set by nature.
· · ·
What do people die of?
Many different things kill people: cancer, heart attack, other people (murders), people themselves (suicides), car accidents, etc. The list goes on and on. By collecting every possible cause of death, one can group them into three categories:
Violence — the act of humans intentionally killing humans (e.g. war, crimes, suicides)
Accidents — the unintentional deaths, usually due to the failure of a man-made machine (e.g. car accidents, electric shocks, plane crashes)
Nature — which consists of all other causes of death (e.g. animals, microorganisms, diseases, etc)
We, as a society, have been trying to manage the first one, violence between humans, for a long time. In many ways, several of our social institutions exist as an attempt to mitigate the violence that occurs between humans. Think of the legal system, the police, the prisons. While it is tricky to draw definitive conclusions about our progress, it seems fair to say that the average citizen in most modern societies feels safer than their counterparts centuries ago.
We also have reasonably good cope mechanisms for accidents. To a great extent, we can prevent them by managing our behavior and improving the safety of our systems. Take electric shocks for instance. Conductor insulation and grounding surely avoid a lot of them. Or consider car accidents. They can be far less lethal because of speed limits, seat belts, and no drunk driving.
Violence and accidents seem somewhat avoidable – at least in principle. Death by nature, on the other hand, is merciless.
To examine in more detail what I mean by death by nature, let’s divide it further:
- Death by exposure to the elements
- Death by hunger
- Death by wild animals, and
- Death by disease
You may be asking yourself, where does aging come into play? Isn’t it missing here?
I believe aging should be in the same subtype as diseases. I subscribe to the hypothesis that aging can be seen as a slow and progressive biological process that is not unlike chronic illness.
(If you strongly disagree with this view about aging, create a fifth subtype and call it death by aging. It won’t change the argument I am about to make.)
There has been remarkable progress against death by nature
As humankind has come to understand more of how nature works and how to manipulate it, we have been progressively solving the subtypes of death by nature. In doing that, we have also, quite interestingly, removed the veil of mystery that used to confuse us about nature itself.
Take the elements for example. Try to imagine how hard it was for ancient civilizations to comprehend and cope with droughts, floods, and wildfires. For many centuries, there was nothing they could do but blame the gods — despite it not being an effective solution.
Or look at hunger. We have solved hunger on a large scale with the invention of agriculture millennia ago. Due to innovations in the last 100-150 years, food for billions of people is now a reality. It is a reality that we not only take for granted but one that is such a reliable default that we mistake it for trivial. We may not realize, but feeding billions is an astonishing achievement that was unimaginable just a few hundred years ago.
As for death by animals, urbanization and firearms have made the menace of wild animals, like bears or large felines, much less relevant in our modern lives.
Disease is the only mystery that still baffles us
Looking to all things that kill people, it seems fair to say that the only one that still remains a mystery is disease. There are still major challenges with hunger and the elements, we must improve our human systems to better cope with them — and also with violence and accidents, of course. My point is just that there is no mystery around them anymore.
Fortunately, despite the veil of mystery around it, we have made progress against diseases too. During the 20th century, we made impressive headway in figuring out how to neutralize several of the most relevant invaders — viruses and, especially, bacteria — that plagued humanity for centuries. These invaders caused the Black Death, which devastated 75-200 million people in just 10 years in the 1300s, and diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia, that killed millions of people worldwide per outbreak. Ever since the invention of antibiotics, vaccines and sanitation these invaders are much less of a widepread problem.
July 2020 — For a nice overview on this topic, check out “Our history is a battle against the microbes: we lost terribly before science, public health, and vaccines allowed us to protect ourselves” by Our World in Data.
A human imperative push us forward
Today most people assume that death is inevitable and unavoidable. An assumption that is very reasonable given the fact that, up until now, every single human have died before their 123rd birthday.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but look at our progress and extrapolate that in the future we will develop reliable solutions to the diseases we currently face. As a result, billions of people will have the opportunity to live much longer, healthier lives.
For one thing, we are guaranteed to keep trying. There is some sort of human imperative to reduce suffering that push us to come up with solutions. Very few things cause more suffering than disease and death after all.
Let me acknowledge that the consequences of postponing death will be radical and far-reaching. Examples of potential consequences that come to mind now: it will change how evolution “works”, it will affect resource consumption (and planet exhaustion), it could lead to social stagnation, etc, etc.
Needless to say, we will need to address all these issues if we are to continue to endure as species. I am optimist that we will succeed against all of them.
· · ·
An update — October 2020
As I reread this essay today, I feel I should clarify my current thinking. I do not believe that the human bodies, as we know them today, could eventually go on forever. Forever is just too much time.
My current belief is: It does not seem that aging and age-related diseases, as we currently experience them, are something fundamentally inescapable. As far as I can tell, we should be able to intervene — to slow them down and eventually reverse them — without violating any fundamental law of nature as we know them today.
I do believe that in due time we will be able to turn them them into “manageable” issues, just like we did with microbes throughout the 20th century. We could reach that in some decades (which is clearly the best-case scenario). More realistically, because there are still many unknowns, it is entirely possible that humankind would still need several centuries to really figure them out.
Here is my caveat: When we eventually turn the challenges we currently face into more amenable problems, we will be able to live radically longer lives, but I do not think we will be able to live forever. From what we have seen of nature, it just seems that there will be another barrier — and maybe a more fundamental one this time.
Of course this is just me speculating wildly, but it feels like there is a fundamental rate-limit to multicellular organisms (maybe to unicellular ones too?). It does seem that no complex natural phenomena goes on indefinitely. Thermodynamics eventually catches everything.
(Note to self — I should try to get quantitative, e.g., find reasonable bounds to my wild guesses.)