Civilization as a Side-Effect of the Urge to Immortality

A thesis on culture and the urge to longevity is discussed by Ronald Bailey at Reason Magazine:

Cave's fascinating new book, Immortality, posits that civilization is a major side effect of humanity's attempts to live forever. He argues that our sophisticated minds inexorably recognize that, like all other living things, we will one day die. Simultaneously, Cave asserts, "The one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible. This is what I will call the Mortality Paradox, and its resolution is what gives shape to the immortality narratives, and therefore to civilization."


Cave identifies four immortality narratives that drive civilizations over time which he calls; (1) Staying Alive, (2) Resurrection, (3) Soul, and (4) Legacy. Cave gracefully marches through his four immortality narratives citing examples from history, psychology, and religion up to the modern day. "At its core, a civilization is a collection of life extension technologies: agriculture to ensure food in steady supply, clothing to stave off cold, architecture to provide shelter and safety, better weapons for hunting and defense, and medicine to combat injury and disease," he writes.

Cave is something of a deathist, at first glance looking like he believes that progress means overcoming the primal urge to immortality of the self and the fear of death, but at least he is a deathist who has produced an interesting work on our deep cultural heritage. It should go without saying that history is silent when it comes to the choices we make now in building the future - it can only persuade, not veto. Preferences on life, death, and the quest for rejuvenation biotechnology are personal choices.

But onwards: I think that it is useful to realize that much of our present culture - and that includes the culture of longevity science and its supporters - has very ancient roots indeed. Unbroken lines can be traced from the incentives and psychology of stone age shamans through to the magical thinking and oral fixations of today. Little but technology separates us from our ancestors of five or ten thousand years past, and what to what use do we put that technology? We use it to make our greatest myths real: we are building the world that our ancestors chose to imagine, and which we too imagine, driven by our shared human condition and neural physiology.

Spend a little time with ancient myth, and you'll soon see there is little fundamental difference between the tales of thousands of years past and the folktales of a few hundred years ago. Our present popular entertainments merely continue the theme, a thousand more frills but the same underlying psychology at work. We humans identify with a certain set of stories, and those stories are found repeated throughout our mythologies. In turn, mythology drives technology, as technology is, at heart, a way to satisfy human desires.

As to those parts of mythology that we haven't got to yet - such as unbounded longevity, enabled through biotechnology - well, give it time. We have managed flight, standing atop mountains, journeying to the moon, transmuting the elements, growing food in abundance beyond the wildest dreams of past centuries, changing the course of floods and rivers, and far more. Even the oldest myths will in due course be reconstructed in the real world, even if that means we will build cities in the clouds, cats that can talk, and spirits for companionship. Given sufficiently advanced biotechnology and an understanding of the fundaments of intelligence, the world of a century from now will be populated by people who do not age and disembodied machine intelligences - easily enough matched to the roles of hidden peoples and household spirits in legend.

Interestingly, in the past I have sketched more or less the opposite thesis to Cave above - that our heritage of myths surrounding progress, death, and mortality are a basis for the widespread knee-jerk rejection of longevity science observed in present day populations:

"Every story is the story of the Fall" - except the one that matters, the one we're all writing together with quills of science, will and toil in the real world. That story is a grand arc of irresistible rise, of the defeat of obstacles and surpassing of limitations to our true potential. But you wouldn't know it from the myths that we find most comforting, as illustrated by their widespread nature.


The story of the Fall is an old and simple one; the world is one of shortages, pain, suffering and death, yet we humans can conceive of a world absent these troubles. Nostalgia is a part of the human condition also - we see earlier times in our own lives as better than they were, and it's a short leap from there to draw a line of decay from an imagined golden age to the imperfect present. The Fall is an alignment of the mythic world - a better, imaginary world - with the arrow of time; for a variety of reasons, we have come to put that mythic world in the past rather than the future.


This is an age of progress and biotechnology. Yet we folk who might be the first ageless humans stand atop a bone mountain. Its slopes are the stories of the dead, created, told, and appreciated by people who knew their own mortality. It is an enormous, pervasive heritage, forged by an army of billions, and no part of our culture or our endeavors is left untouched by it. This is one part of the hurdle we must overcome as we strive to convince people that a near future of rejuvenation biotechnology is plausible, possible, and desirable.

This dichotomy might be another facet of the difficulty in explaining modern attitudes towards longevity and aging. Why are people on the one hand so enthused by the "anti-aging" marketplace, and at the same time so quick to reject real and meaningful science aimed at extending the health human life span? I've thought on this for a decade and still have no satisfying answer.


Read THE IMMORTALIST, by Alan Harrington. First published in 1969, it is still the classic.

Posted by: Peter Christiansen at May 29th, 2012 7:41 PM

Glad you saw that article. I haven't read Immortality, but judging from Bailey's review, Cave probably hasn't come up with anything that hasn't been said before but he seems to have presented a fairly comprehensive review of immortality issues and arguments.

I noticed the Buddhist view of souls seems to have been misunderstood. Cave says that since we cannot remember past lives then we should not be concerned with future lives, since only your awareness is what survives. But if I suggested you go through a gruesome, hours long surgery without anesthesia, yet you would not remember it afterwards, would you be willing to do it? This is not an entirely academic question, since there is a bit of suspicion that some anesthetics may work in EXACTLY this fashion...

Buddhism would also point out that you already ARE immortal whether you like it or not, and given the great suffering of the world you should want to exit the cycle of rebirth like you should want to get out of a burning building. Finding the way out and achieving true death or nirvana (I suppose they are the same thing?) is what that religion is all about.

But I don't mean to hand Cave any more ammo. The major thesis, that to accept immortality means you can never, ever die, seems extreme to me. There may be some scenarios where that is actually the case, but for most immortality scenarios, I would ask why must I accept such a Faustian bargain? Can't I just achieve physical immortality for now and perhaps later decide to die, should I become terminally bored?

Regarding matters of duplication, read "The Quantum Thief" by Hannu Rajaniemi. He takes it pretty far...

Posted by: Paul at May 29th, 2012 7:53 PM
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