COMMENT: Death to Death and All That Loss

For Christmas, a good friend of mine bought me a book that I just finished reading. I found it wildly informative and insightful. The book is Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind by world history professor Yuval Noah Harari. For me, Harari’s book was like Paul Harvey on steroids. Harvey was a radio personality and social commentator who had a show called The Rest of the Story. Harvey would begin his program by telling us a story that was familiar in some way. It was so familiar in fact that you could predict the ending, or so you thought. Harvey would then deliver the “rest of the story” that, without fail, would give us a twist ending you just did not see coming. Harvey was king of the twist ending way before Law and Order.

Harari does the same thing for world history times 10! Sure, Harari tells us the same history lessons we heard in school (like Columbus discovering America); but then he gives us a twist that you will not see coming. I was surprised and delighted at every turn. As I read Sapiens I could hear Harvey deliver his classic tagline: “And now you know the rest of the story.” I was amazed at how well Harari could summarize huge historical currents using one or two words. As an example, the main reason some modern countries prevailed in war and others did not: one word—credit. Amazing! OK, one more. What allowed the Industrial Revolution to happen? two words—mobile energy.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: “What does world history have to do with Bowlbian attachment theory?” Well, as it turns out, Harari has a whole section on Harry Harlow’s experiments with infant Rhesus monkeys and monkey mothers fashioned out of cloth and wire mesh. Harlow provided the empirical evidence that Bowlby needed in order to bolster his theory of attachment. I’ll touch on this Harlow connection in a moment. What I’d like to comment on is an observation that Harari makes that really took me by surprise and has huge attachment implications: “death to death.”

Harari spends several pages looking at what he calls Project Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is a myth of ancient Sumer. Gilgamesh was king of Uruk. According to this myth, Gilgamesh was overcome with grief over the loss of his close friend Enkidu. “[G]ilgamesh was gripped by a terrible horror, and resolved that he himself would never die,” writes Harari. Gilgamesh goes on a journey of epic proportions looking for a way to become immortal. He ultimately fails. Harari points out that this desire to become immortal has never gone away. (Bring to mind sixteenth century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León and his search for the fountain of youth.) As a result, today there are myriad Gilgamesh Projects out there designed to bring about not necessarily immortality (you will never die no matter what) but a-mortality (you will not die as long as you keep your biology from fatal trauma). Genetic and bioengineering are motivated in large part by a Gilgamesh desire for a-mortality. So far this story is fairly straight forward and should not come as much of a surprise. But then Harari asks a question that threw me for a loop: If a Gilgamesh Project is successful in bringing about a-mortality, what then happens to religion as we know it? Hmmmm?

Using his considerable background in world history, Harari points out that up until the modern world, most world religions contained a central focus on death. This makes sense because death is so much a part of the human condition, something that cannot be avoided and must be faced. But … Gilgamesh Projects are about taking us past death. So, they are about taking us past most world religions. As Harari puts it, “Until the eighteenth century, religions considered death and its aftermath central to the meaning of life.” He continues, “Try to imagine Islam, Christianity or the ancient Egyptian religion in a world without death.” Stop and try to do that thought experiment. Not possible is it?

The point Harari makes is this: If Gilgamesh Projects are on the brink of bringing “death to death,” then we should see new religions popping up where death is no longer a central feature. According to Harari, these religions are here. “Whether or not Project Gilgamesh succeeds,” reveals Harari, “from a historical perspective it is fascinating to see that most late-modern religions and ideologies have already taken death and the afterlife out of the equation.” Yeow! death and loss have been taken out of the equation. Here’s Harari’s “rest of the story”: “Beginning in the eighteenth century, religions and ideologies such as liberalism, socialism and feminism lost all interest in the afterlife.” My interpretation: liberalism, socialism, and feminism have lost all interest in attachment with its focus on death and loss. I would go a step further and suggest that the current embrace of digital worlds is also a new form of religion, one that likewise has no place for death and dying.

In a world with no death, not only will there be no need for old school religions like Islam and Christianity, there will be no need for Bowlbian attachment. This may in part explain why feminism is so cozy with Gilgamesh Projects like the Singularity where hope centers on porting biological minds over to mechanical brains. It may also explain why psychiatrists and psychologists have medicalized normal grief reactions (i.e., reactions to death) by putting new diagnostic criteria to this effect in the DSM–5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This was a twist I did not see coming. This may explain why the late-modern religion of liberalism is at loggerheads with older, conservative religions. It’s a fight between a-mortality and death. Now on to Harlow.

Harari brings in Harlow as a way of pointing out that we have known about attachment relationships and needs since the 1950s, which is when Harlow started his work. Bowlby too was working on his theory in the 50s. Here’s how Harari describes “the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology”: “[A] need [such as attachment] shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.” Without knowing it, Harari has accurately captured the essence of what Bowlby called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA. Attachment evolved in the wild to help protect us from predation or being eaten by lions and tigers. Today, we rarely encounter wild lions and tigers in our daily urban life, but yet, when we are threatened, say by a mugger, the attachment behavioral system still kicks in.

Harari suggests that the mechanical nature of our current environment—the same one that is moving us toward being a-mortal or posthuman—expresses little desire for the subjective experiences arising from our evolutionary past. “In order to learn the necessary skills [of sociability], evolution implanted … in the young of all … social animals a strong desire to play (playing is the mammalian way of learning social behavior)” writes Harari. He continues, “And it implanted in them an even stronger desire to bond [i.e., form attachments relationships] with their mothers, whose milk and care were essential for survival.” Harari gives us the following thought experiment:

What happens if farmers … take a young calf, separate her from her mother, put her in a closed cage, give her food, water and inoculations against diseases, and then, when she is old enough, inseminate her with bull sperm? From an objective perspective, this calf no longer needs either maternal bonding or playmates in order to survive and reproduce. But from a subjective perspective, the calf still feels a very strong urge to bond with her mother and to play with other calves. If these urges [e.g., attachment motivations] are not fulfilled, the calf suffers greatly.

Here’s Harari’s “rest of the story”: “Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. [I]t is fueled by indifference. Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat rarely stop to think about the fate of the chickens, cows or pigs whose flesh and emissions they are eating.” Harari essentially suggests that the race toward becoming a-mortal or posthuman is fueled by an abject indifference for the subjective, especially subjective experiences, like attachment, that are a part of our evolutionary past. In short, Gilgamesh Projects are about taking us beyond our evolutionary past, beyond subjective experiences, and into the realm of mechanical indifference. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “You’re talking about animals; we don’t do this to people.” Really? Schools have been turned into prisons (a la Henry Giroux) where many forms of free play have been removed. We privilege the mechanical and divorce ourselves from (evolutionary) subjective experience and need. We’re quickly becoming cattle in stockyards made of digital fencing. I’ll leave it there.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention that Harari has an entire section entitled The Collapse of the Family and the Community. In essence, Harari describes what I call community cooling in my new book A Question of Attachment. Harari goes into much more detail than I do and I would point the reader to this section if he or she would like more information on community cooling from a studied historical perspective. As Harari puts it, “The community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favours, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market.” What changed? “The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the government’s disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen and social workers,” writes Harari. Sure, at first communities fought back. “Parents and community leaders were reluctant to let the younger generation be indoctrinated by nationalist education systems, conscripted into armies or turned into a rootless urban proletariat,” reveals Harari. Sadly, communities largely lost the fight. As Harari states: “Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community.” Today we increasingly live in rootless, indifferent, and mechanical environments that express a desire to become a-moratal and regularly give the one finger salute to death and loss. Welcome to the 21st century. By the way, Harari looks at the future of humans in his follow-up book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (which I am currently reading).