Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
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 generally 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
. Contrary to common notions, seventy-year-olds weren’t considered rare freaks of nature in previous centuries. Galileo 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
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
. 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 for ever, 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.
The Right to Happiness
The second big project on the human agenda will probably be to find the key to happiness. Throughout history numerous thinkers, prophets and ordinary people defined happiness rather than life itself as the supreme good. In ancient Greece the philosopher
Epicurus explained that worshipping gods is a waste of time, that there is no existence after death, and that happiness is the sole purpose of life. Most people in ancient times rejected Epicureanism, but today it has become the default view. Scepticism about the afterlife drives humankind to seek not only immortality, but also earthly happiness. For who would like to live for ever in eternal misery?
For Epicurus the pursuit of happiness was a personal quest. Modern thinkers, in contrast, tend to see it as a collective project. Without government planning, economic resources and scientific research, individuals will not get far in their quest for happiness. If your country is torn apart by war, if the economy is in crisis and if health care is non-existent, you are likely to be miserable. At the end of the eighteenth century the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham declared that the supreme good is ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, and concluded that the sole worthy aim of the state, the market and the scientific community is to increase global happiness. Politicians should make peace, business people should foster prosperity and scholars should study nature, not for the greater glory of king, country or God – but so that you and I could enjoy a happier life.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although many paid lip service to Bentham’s vision, governments, corporations and laboratories focused on more immediate and well-defined aims. Countries measured their success by the size of their territory, the increase in their population and the growth of their GDP – not by the happiness of their citizens. Industrialised nations such as Germany, France and Japan established gigantic systems of education, health and welfare, yet these systems were aimed to strengthen the nation rather than ensure individual well-being.
Schools were founded to produce skilful and obedient citizens who would serve the nation loyally. At eighteen, youths needed to be not only patriotic but also literate, so that they could read the brigadier’s order of the day and draw up tomorrow’s battle plans. They had to know mathematics in order to calculate the shell’s
trajectory or crack the enemy’s secret code. They needed a reasonable command of electrics, mechanics and medicine, in order to operate wireless sets, drive tanks and take care of wounded comrades. When they left the army they were expected to serve the nation as clerks, teachers and engineers, building a modern economy and paying lots of taxes.
The same went for the health system. At the end of the nineteenth century countries such as France, Germany and Japan began providing free health care for the masses. They financed vaccinations for infants, balanced diets for children and physical education for teenagers. They drained festering swamps, exterminated mosquitoes and built centralised sewage systems. The aim wasn’t to make people happy, but to make the nation stronger. The country needed sturdy soldiers and workers, healthy women who would give birth to more soldiers and workers, and bureaucrats who came to the office punctually at 8 a.m. instead of lying sick at home.
Even the welfare system was originally planned in the interest of the nation rather than of needy individuals. When Otto von Bismarck pioneered state pensions and social security in late nineteenth-century Germany, his chief aim was to ensure the loyalty of the citizens rather than to increase their well-being. You fought for your country when you were eighteen, and paid your taxes when you were forty, because you counted on the state to take care of you when you were seventy.
In 1776 the Founding Fathers of the United States established the right to the pursuit of happiness as one of three unalienable human rights, alongside the right to life and the right to liberty. It’s important to note, however, that the American Declaration of Independence guaranteed the right to
the pursuit of
happiness, not the right to happiness itself. Crucially, Thomas Jefferson did not make the state responsible for its citizens’ happiness. Rather, he sought only to limit the power of the state. The idea was to reserve for individuals a private sphere of choice, free from state supervision. If I think I’ll be happier marrying John rather than Mary, living in San
Francisco rather than Salt Lake City, and working as a bartender rather than a dairy farmer, then it’s my right to pursue happiness my way, and the state shouldn’t intervene even if I make the wrong choice.
Yet over the last few decades the tables have turned, and Bentham’s vision has been taken far more seriously. People increasingly believe that the immense systems established more than a century ago to strengthen the nation should actually serve the happiness and well-being of individual citizens. We are not here to serve the state – it is here to serve us. The right to the pursuit of happiness, originally envisaged as a restraint on state power, has imperceptibly morphed into the right to happiness – as if human beings have a natural right to be happy, and anything which makes us dissatisfied is a violation of our basic human rights, so the state should do something about it.
In the twentieth century per capita GDP was perhaps the supreme yardstick for evaluating national success. From this perspective, Singapore, each of whose citizens produces on average $56,000 worth of goods and services a year, is a more successful country than Costa Rica, whose citizens produce only $14,000 a year. But nowadays thinkers, politicians and even economists are calling to supplement or even replace GDP with GDH – gross domestic happiness. After all, what do people want? They don’t want to produce. They want to be happy. Production is important because it provides the material basis for happiness. But it is only the means, not the end. In one survey after another Costa Ricans report far higher levels of life satisfaction than Singaporeans. Would you rather be a highly productive but dissatisfied Singaporean, or a less productive but satisfied Costa Rican?