Fear of global plagues and greed for money are as old as mankind

Old age is not reversal despite theories on genetic engineering and other seemingly smart ideas to make humans immortal.
Old age is not reversal despite theories on genetic engineering and other seemingly smart ideas to make humans immortal.
Image: MARCO LONGARI / AFP

Most of us have been taught to understand the word "historian" to refer to a specialist who writes about the past.

One of the greatest - if not the greatest - historians alive today is a 44-year-old man by the name of Yuval Harari, currently lecturing at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

Five years ago, Harari changed the meaning of "history" by publishing a book about the future - Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

The title of this prophetic book is pregnant with meaning. It combines two beings - earthly and divine - to produce an omnipotent hybrid called "Domo Deus".

In palaeontology, the prefix "homo" refers to creatures that evolved into the human family. In classical Latin, "Deus" meant "god". Thus, Harari's book envisions a future where man can appropriate the powers of "god", and therefore become a human-god or "Homo Deus".

In the first chapter, Harari writes about the "anti-death" scientific research under way at the well-known American company Google.

In 2009, one of the leading anti-death researchers at Google, Bill Maris, fervently believed it would be possible, through genetic engineering, for a human being to live until he is 500 years old.

That idea rests on a fundamental transformation of the meaning of "death" that has taken place in the mind of man - from the understanding of death as a mysterious occurrence preordained by a deity to death understood as, according to Harari, "a technical problem that we can and should solve".

From that standpoint, the expectation of life up to the age of 500 is no longer shocking. The path to such a deathless (or deferable death) future becomes clearer.

Here is the road envisioned by Harari: "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."

If Harari's Homo Dues were to proceed according to his imagination, in the 22nd century we should at least be able to double life expectancy to 300 years.

Don't worry about aging; regenerative medicine would be able to keep your body parts constantly young. One pill can restore all the sinews of your body to their former selves. Or, you would simply print a new lung from a 3D printer if your old one feels a bit tired.

That is what the human mind does under conditions of prosperity. It sees no limits to human capability when the world around it seems to float in the direction of progress.

Think of Francis Fukuyama's book, The End of History and the Last Man. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Fukuyama imagined a future in which liberal democracy and capitalism would nourish his "last man" - probably an overfed creature with a fixed hedonistic pattern: eat, have sex, and sleep.

Intermittent economic shake-ups (a la the 1997 Asian financial crisis) notwithstanding, the 15 years following the collapse of the Berlin Wall were a time of heightened optimism. Even the howls of protest from the Left that clamoured to turn attention to Joseph Stiglitz's Globalisation and its Discontents could not stop the party.

As late as 2006, leading economists were using optimistic phrases like "the exuberance of growth". The World Bank and the IMF had grown more dogmatic in their neoliberal prescriptions.

And, just as the music at the party reached its highest note, the global economy collapsed like a house of cards in 2007/2008. Suddenly, the econometrics formulas of renowned experts amounted to a heap of technical nonsense. An old human proclivity explained it all - greed.

The lesson is simple: we humans are not as clairvoyant as we fancy ourselves to be. Our collective apogee ought to be the genesis of our modesty.

When we forget that maxim of humility, and begin to think we are a human-god; that's when an invisible little thing called coronavirus comes in to remind us of our powerlessness.

How did so great a mind as Harari not foresee so near a future where so smug a being as Homo Deus would seek refuge behind closed doors, fearing a mere virus outside? Maybe "historians" must stick to the past.

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