How Humans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Death – Article by Jaeson Booker

How Humans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Death – Article by Jaeson Booker


Jaeson Booker

Okay, for this, we have to go back. Way, way back. Before we made history, before we made civilization, before we humans did a lot of things. We may not have even been fully human at the time this happened. But at some point, we became self-aware. This process probably took some time, I doubt it was an “AH-HA!” moment that suddenly changed everything. But we then had the ability to comprehend ourselves: to view ourselves as an independent entity, separate from others, and could reflect on this. And, amid all of this self-revelation, with so many new existential possibilities, we got mauled by a second revelation: we saw other people dying. They got old, they got sick, they stopped moving, and then other animals and bugs started eating them (or, perhaps, we were the ones doing the eating; see “Cannibalism Normal for Early Humans?” by John Roach, National Geographic News, April 10, 2003). And we acknowledged that they were like us, that we one day would meet the same fate.

Well… that sucks. All of this possibility, all of these questions, a whole world to explore, and it turns out we’ll cease to exist before we get to experience even a small fraction of it. Damn. Well… what can be done of it? This question, as soon as humans figured out more advanced communication, was probably many times on their minds. From here, there seem to be three routes.

The first and most depressing, yet also the most pragmatic at the time: accept it and enjoy the time you have. “S**t happens. There ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.” This prospect was probably hard for many to face, causing them to try not to think about it instead (a habit many people still have today). But at the same time, it was probably the only realistic-seeming prospect for some time. Death happens. What can be done of it? No use feeling bad about something that can’t be controlled. Are you going to throw a fit every time it rains?

The second, and easiest to adopt: telling yourself it’s not true. Acknowledging you and everyone you love won’t exist one day is a tough pill to swallow, a pill many don’t want to take. But if nothing can be done about it, the only way around the pill is either ignoring death or believing differently. Over time, believing differently got easier and easier. It probably wasn’t done intentionally, but any idea we might not die when we shed our mortal coil probably spread faster than smallpox. Flowers came back every spring, after ‘dying’: where did you go? Trees went stark and bare, but came back to full health in the spring. How do we know this doesn’t happen to humans? Perhaps we were in our winter, and one day, human spring would come, and all the dead humans would sprout back up like daisies.

Over time, the resurrection pill probably went from easy-to-swallow to a-bit-more-difficult-to-swallow. Generations passed, with the stories being told, but human spring never came. We understood that seeds were the reason plants came back, and that it wasn’t an actual resurrection after all. And if you chopped-down a tree, it didn’t turn green next year. This is all speculation, of course, but at some point humans invented a concept that fixed this: the soul pill.

Ah, the soul, man’s best friend. Suddenly the body had nothing to do with all of those things people really cared about. All of those things humans tied so closely with their identity: emotions, reason, consciousness itself, all of these things the soul had covered for us. You could get pierced by a sword, fall off a cliff, be burned in a forest fire, but none of these perils could kill a soul. Whatever happened, no matter how bad things got, you were, ultimately, okay – because your soul would live on. To quote the Iron Giant: “Souls don’t die”.  Ah, death, thou shalt die at last.

But after a while, things started to change. We were starting to learn a lot, and a bunch of the earlier myths were turning-out to be false. Lightning wasn’t the wrath of any deity, the sky didn’t lead to any spirit world, humans weren’t created by anything but instead evolved, and a whole lot of the things we associated with “the soul” could be explained by a thing called a brain. Worse still, when this brain was changed, so did our personality. (See the Wikipedia entry on Phineas Gage.) This was depressing for many who saw the signs. And that soul pill, once so easy to swallow, was becoming harder and harder to get all the way down.

Which brings us to where you walked in. Many of us are still having issues with that soul pill, but many still don’t want to swallow that “we’re all gonna cease to exist” pill. For those who rejected the soul pill, many instantly grabbed a glass of water and hurriedly swallowed the other pill. They were proud of swallowing that tough pill, and annoyed with those struggling with the soul pill for not being brave-enough to do what they did. They found new ways to discover meaning, despite knowing they would die. Death was natural. Population had to be kept under control. They could live on through other means: their children, their legacy, the people they helped. The last thing these tough-pill-swallowers wanted to do was regurgitate something that had been so hard to get down in the first place. Which is why both types of pill-takers really hate the third pill.

The third pill: actually doing something about it. This solution had started around the time of the other two, but after a brief flare-up of popularity, had quickly died down due to failing to produce any results. Magic, the philosopher’s stone (the dream of the alchemists), blood sacrifices, breathing the air of virgins, and cannibalization of the young: these were all very embarrassing failures of this pill. After these blunders, no one really wanted anything to do with it anymore. And this is how things stayed for a long time. But even though the mentality toward this solution has stayed relatively the same for a long time, it’s potential was slowly changing. We were starting to understand how the body worked, and improve people’s health. We learned we were made up of these tiny things called cells, and that those cells were manufactured using even smaller things called DNA and RNA. And with all of this new-found knowledge, many were starting to wonder if discarding the third pill might have been a bit premature.

Up until very recently, the response has not been very nice to advocates of the Do-Something-About-It pill. And even today, there are many who call such advocates insane, immoral, greedy, and anything else you that’s meant to sound bad or misguided. The advocates of the soul-pill and the tough-pill could finally agree that this other pill had to go. Religions declared such aspirations evil and against God’s will. Scientists worked hard to separate themselves from these advocates as much as possible, not wanting to be lumped in with what sounded to many like some sort of icky cult.

So, the swallowers of the first two pills march forward, parading ideas of death and aging being natural, that seeking anything else is wrong and selfish, and we should just accept our situation. It is these two pills that have enabled people to justify a holocaust that is occurring every day – a holocaust that will one day claim us all, unless the third pill is ever swallowed and digested properly by humanity. Aging has killed more than all wars, famines, and plagues combined, yet most march onward, without making any attempts to halt it. Governments invest in fighting cancer, heart disease, and countless other ailments—ignoring the underlying cause of most of these problems, which is aging itself. Every year, there are drives for charities to fight different cancers, entire months and hues devoted to some (See “Pink porta-potty fundraiser aimed at flushing breast cancer“, CBC News, October 2, 2017), yet none toward combating aging. People stake trillions of dollars toward remedies to make them look younger, but almost none to aiding the effort of actually making them younger. They plan out their wills, their life insurance, and their funerals, but ignore opportunities to preserve themselves (for instance, cryopreservation, as offered by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation or the Cryonics Institute) for a chance to keep living, even if it is more affordable than they think.

But, despite the opposition, this solution has been making progress. We have seen progress in stem cells (“Anti-aging stem cell treatment proves successful in early human trials” by Rich Haridy, New Atlas, October 23, 2017 ), biotechnology (“A Silicon Valley scientist and entrepreneur who invented a drug to explode double chins is now working on a cure for aging” by Nikhil Swaminathan, Quartz, January 6, 2017), and machine learning used to better understand the aging process and how to treat it (“Artificial Intelligence uncovers anti-aging plant extracts” – Press Release by Insilico Medicine, October 31, 2017). The third pill is getting more and more enticing. Many older people, having swallowed one of the first two pills decades ago, have no desire to change their existential outlook now. But many younger ones, those who have not yet chosen a pill, and finding the other two inadequate, are starting to wonder if the third pill is for them. Time will tell which pill will ultimately win out, if any, but for now, for the first time ever in human history, the Do-Something-About-It Pill has an actual chance to shine and show what it is truly capable of.

Jaeson Booker is a software development engineer who has worked as a journalist. He earned a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in Political Science from Salisbury University, a Bachelor of Applied Science (BASc) degree in Molecular Biology from the Texas A&M Univerisity in Corpus Christi, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from Wilmington University.

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