The skull of early Homo sapiens:
Will we soon replace ourselves with super-humans?
Our children and grandchildren could become a-mortal.
Before you text them to share the good news, a couple of disclaimers: First, a-mortality, as opposed to immortality, means our a-mortal descendants could still die from a catastrophic accident. Second, the rosiest prediction of a-mortality is by the year 2050. It could take longer.
A-mortality is just one of the mind-bending predictions in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, an Oxford-trained history professor who specializes in the relation between biology and history. Harari dubs the scientific quest for eternal life “The Gilgamesh Project,” named after the oldest mythical story in history.
According to legend, mighty King Gilgamesh of ancient Mesopotamia resolved that he would somehow find a way to conquer death. Gilgamesh embarked on an epic journey that included visiting the underworld, only to discover that the gods had “set death as man’s inevitable destiny.”
While Gilgamesh gave up his quest, humankind has not. Only 200 years ago, life expectancy was between 25 and 40 years compared to around 67 years and about 80 years in the developed world today. Much of this progress resulted from modern medicines, including vaccines and antibiotics as well as sophisticated surgical procedures.
Now we are on the cusp of much greater breakthroughs using genetics and smart machines. For example, recently genetic engineers doubled the life expectancy of worms. Meanwhile nanotechnology experts are developing bionic immune systems composed of millions of tiny robots that would reside inside our bodies
Harari proclaims that “a few serious scholars” suggest that a-mortality is only decades away. But he admits that entirely defeating the Grim Reaper is tougher. Still he’s upbeat:
“How long will the Gilgamesh Project—the quest for immortality—take to complete? A hundred years? Five hundred years? When we recall how little we knew about the human body in 1900 and how much knowledge we have gained in a single century, there is cause for optimism.”
But before you start wishing you live long enough to become a-mortal, Harari cautions that a-mortals may become so paranoid about fatal accidents that they will live in constant fear of going outside. Even more ominous, he warns that we humans could out-smart ourselves—literally.
We, Homo sapiens, could end up replacing ourselves with super-humans. This new, brainier species could be created in three ways.
First, genetic engineers could breed “people” whose intelligence would dwarf ours. Second, cyborg engineers could implant computers in human brains, vastly increasing our memories and processing powers. Cyborgs combine organic and inorganic parts—something we’re already doing with amputees and other artificial body parts. Third, artificial intelligence engineers could develop completely inorganic beings—computers like HAL in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
However engineered, Super-humans undoubtedly would look down on mere Homo sapiens, much as we look down on Neanderthals. So Harari’s mixed message is that our grandchildren could live long enough to see their grandchildren become the last generation of Sapiens.
No wonder Gilgamesh gave up.
This post was written by Jack Hoey, who was a journalist in the Boston area before becoming a corporate communications executive for Verizon. A sailor, runner and avid reader, he blogs at: https://jackhoey.wordpress.com
In my next blog, “Cooking for One”