An optimistic take on our chances against death

There are three kinds of things that kill people: violence, accidents, and 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 with diseases, remarkable progress has been made against infections. Progress because of vaccines, antibiotics, and sanitation.

I can’t help but to look at this progress and extrapolate that we will eventually escape the remaining “traps” set by nature — aging and the so-called age-related diseases.

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:

  1. Violence — the act of humans intentionally killing humans (e.g., war, crimes, suicides)

  2. Accidents — the unintentional deaths, usually due to the failure of a man-made machine (e.g. car accidents, electric shocks, plane crashes)

  3. 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:

  1. Death by exposure to the elements
  2. Death by hunger
  3. Death by wild animals, and
  4. Death by disease

Now, you may be looking at these four items and asking yourself, where does aging come into play? Isn’t it missing here? Personally, 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. Nevertheless, if you strongly disagree with this view about aging, just create a fifth subtype in your head 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 recent times, food for billions of people is now a reality (sidenote: See, for example, the work of Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution circa 1950-1960. There was also the so-called British Agricultural Revolution in the 1700-1800s.) . 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 veil of mystery around them anymore.

Fortunately, despite the air 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 widespread problem (sidenote: For a nice (and recent) overview on the 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 ~100 years after birth 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 age-related diseases that 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 seems to be a human imperative to reduce suffering. And very few things cause more suffering than disease and death. This human imperative will continue to push us forward. In due time, we will come up with solutions for the yet-to-be-solved diseases.

Finally, let me acknowledge that the consequences of postponing death will be radical and far-reaching. Examples of potential consequences that come to mind: 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. And I am optimistic that humankind will also succeed against these new challenges.

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 have them nowadays, could eventually go on forever. Forever is just too much time.

My current belief is as follows.

I think aging and age-related diseases are not something fundamentally inescapable. As far as I can tell, we should be able to slow them down and eventually reverse them without violating any fundamental law of nature.

I do believe that in due time we will be able to turn aging and age-related diseases into “manageable” issues — just like we did with microbes throughout the 20th century. The very-best-case scenario is to reach the stage of “manageability” in a few decades. More realistically, because there are still so many unknowns, humankind will still need centuries before being able to “manage” them well enough.

When we eventually turn the challenges we currently face into more amenable problems, we should be able to live longer lives, but I do not think we will be able to live forever.

Why not forever?

Because from what we have inferred about how nature works, it just seems that there will be some other barrier. Of course this is just me speculating wildly, but it feels like there is a fundamental rate-limit to multicellular organisms. It does seem that no complex natural phenomena goes on indefinitely. Thermodynamics eventually catches up.

December 2018