Anthropologist Ernest Becker, in his 1973 book The Denial of Death, argued that “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.” In other words, civilization itself is driven by our fear of death, as are many aspects of our lives, especially heroics. By doing or being a part of something that seems to outlast our mortality, we are symbolically transcending our death. The symbolic transcendence of death is our primitive solution until we can obtain the real solution, which is immortality or to satisfy pedantic transhumanists, mere life extension.
Does it seem far-fetched that the fear of death could be a primary driving force of civilization? If it does, consider this. In ancient Egypt, over thousands of years, the belief in immortality and the hope to preserve the dead, slowly transformed basic burial pits into mastabas and those mastabas transitioned into step pyramids, which lead to “true” pyramids. In the attempt to immortalize the Pharaohs in stone and to assure the preservation of their body, architectural advancements were made and greatly influenced civilization. In fact, Imhotep might be responsible for the first use of stone columns to support buildings. The underlying philosophy driving these developments were the afterlife and hope for immortality.
The awareness of our mortality directly challenges the idea that life has meaning and purpose. For this reason, death and the mere thought of it are often repressed and ignored. Fear is the most common and natural response to death. Gregory Zilboorg suggests that this fear is an instinctive expression of self-preservation and becomes a perpetual drive to survive and overcome that which threatens our lives. If true, that perpetual drive is just as natural as the fear of death itself.
The evolutionary and biological explanation is that animals had to develop fear responses for the sake of survival. In humans, who are more susceptible to death in their infantile states, that fear of death is increased. Therefore, early Darwinians believed that early men who were most afraid were also most in tune with their surroundings and passed such awareness to their offspring for its survival value. Our heightened fear of death could be what essentially saves us from death and leads to our effort to enter the “afterlife” or obtain immortality through transhumanism.
Ideas about the afterlife and immortality have long been assumed to stem from cultural exposure and religious instruction. However, a developing body of work has begun to question if these beliefs are instead, hardwired into our brains.
On January 16, 2014, a Boston University study led by Natalie Emmons was published in the online edition of Child Development. The study examined children’s ideas about life before conception by interviewing 283 subjects from two separate cultures in Ecuador. The results suggest a bias toward the belief in immortality that arises early in life from our natural human intuition. This bias may indicate that our search for immortality is in our nature, which explains the aforementioned results as well as the widespread cultural and religious significance of the belief in the afterlife and immortality, which could date as far back as the first intentional burials. If these things are any indication, our search for immortality might be a part of our nature and natural evolution.
This post was mirrored from my Medium article.
Sammy R. LaPoint © 2015
- Becker, Ernest., The Denial of Death, p. ix
- Lehmer, Mark., The Complete Pyramids
- Baker, Rosalie; Backer, Charles., Ancient Egyptians: People of the Pyramids
- Zilboorg Gregory., Fear of Death, p. 467
- Becker, Ernest., The Denial of Death, p. 19
- Lieberman, Philip., Uniquely Human
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