Your Fear of Mortality is Bullshit
There’s a story that smart, literary people like to tell about The Human Experience. The story goes something like this:
Many eons ago, we humans—alone in the animal kingdom—became aware of our own mortality. It was a revelation that changed the course of history. Thoughts of death flooded our minds, paralyzing us with existential terror. Delusions of the afterlife were born, blossoming into the world’s religions. Alongside them came the yearnings for art, myth, and knowledge—parts of us that live on past our deaths. The fear burns inside us to this day, fueling our frantic obsessions and diversions, from shopping to selfies to plastic surgery to midlife crises. Modern existence is a series of increasingly desperate attempts to distract ourselves from the horror of our inevitable demise.
It’s a cool story. It’s a fun one to tell between hits of a joint. And it seems to have become rather popular. So popular, in fact, that it made an appearance in the Barbie movie:
Unfortunately, the story is bullshit. If you actually think about it—like, really give it a good think—you’ll realize it makes no sense.
Let’s take a look at the first part of the story, about humans being the only death-aware species in the animal kingdom. Is that true?
I don’t know for sure—I can’t talk to animals—but I’d say, “probably not.” Animals know all about death. They grieve their loved ones, escape the jaws of predators, murder their rivals, avoid getting murdered, and risk their lives for their offspring. Animals make life-or-death decisions all the time, and that requires some understanding of what death is—and that it’s worse than merely getting injured. Much worse. Plus, having a concept of death is very useful for navigating the world. It helps you tell the difference between “dead,” “asleep,” “not moving,” “severely injured,” “hiding,” “no longer a child,” and “currently not present.”
Okay, but do animals know that death is coming for them, at some point in the future? Again, I don’t know for sure, but I really wouldn’t put it past them. It’s not that hard to figure out. All they have to do is notice that they are aging, and then notice the correlation between aging and dying. It’s a pretty simple logical inference (“me aging → me dying”), and many animals are probably capable of making it. Figuring out that you are going to die, in a world where other animals are dying all around you, is not exactly quantum physics. I’m not sure why we ever thought it was such a breathtaking intellectual achievement.
Besides, it’s not clear that any animal, including us, is afraid of the concept of mortality. We generally don’t fear concepts: we fear stuff in the world—like predators or enemies or diseases—that could harm us. If we were afraid of mortality in general, then we would be afraid of dying peacefully in our sleep at the age of 100, surrounded by loved ones, having accomplished everything we dreamed of accomplishing in life. And yet, I’m not afraid of that scenario—it sounds nice—and I don’t know anyone who is.
That nice scenario isn’t scary because it shouldn’t be, from an evolutionary perspective. Evolution is not about survival: it’s about reproduction—the replication of genes. If you made it to 100 and did all the things that would have replicated your genes in the ancestral past—e.g., gained lots of status, had lots of sex, supported your genetic relatives, etc.—you crushed it. High five from Darwin. Nothing to worry about.
There’s a big difference between impending mortal danger (“There’s a scimitar flying toward my head!”) and the concept of mortality (“I will eventually die from something at some point”). Mortal danger is specific (“Scimitar!”); mortality is abstract. Mortal danger can sometimes be avoided (“Duck!”); mortality cannot. Animals that feared mortal danger were more likely to avoid such danger, and more likely to pass on their fearful disposition to future generations. Animals that feared the concept of mortality… well, it’s not really clear what advantage they’d have in the Darwinian competition. Maybe they’d write some interesting books?
You might think it’s the inevitability of mortal danger that’s so profound: it’s the conceptual combination of MORTAL DANGER + INEVITABLE that’s so earth-shattering. Maybe the existential terror comes from the deduction that some version of mortal danger is coming for us no matter what.
Yea okay, but lots of bad things are coming for us no matter what: losing a loved one, being in a hospital, experiencing intense pain, feeling lonely, forgetting something important, etc. You can be virtually 100% confident that all of these things will happen to you at some point in the future. But do you go around worrying about these things all the time, in ways that shape everything you do, merely because they are inevitable?
No, that’s not how worrying works, is it? You worry about something when there’s something to worry about. Worrying helps you avoid or mitigate bad things—specific bad things—that might actually happen soon. That’s why worrying evolved. Apes who stupidly worried about abstract inevitabilities would have been outcompeted by apes who smartly worried about concrete dangers—and avoided them. We’re descended from the latter kind of ape.
Now don’t get me wrong. We often worry about aging, which is pretty similar to mortality. Being afraid of aging makes good Darwinian sense. Aging weakens our bodies, dulls our minds, kills off our elders, alienates us from our past, lowers our value in the mating market, and erodes our cultural relevance (insofar as the young are successfully outcompeting the old). Some of these dreadful outcomes are under our control, at least partially. We can get plastic surgery or buy a corvette or reconnect with our old flame or change our careers in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. The worrying pays off in this case: it helps us strategize and factor the effects of aging into our decision making.
So being afraid of aging, and all the bad stuff associated with it, makes sense. I buy that. But being afraid of mortality does not. If you think you’re afraid of mortality, I’d invite you to consider the possibility that what you’re actually afraid of is aging. Insofar as death is dreadful, it’s because it marks the culmination of a gradual descent into irrelevance, which is scary for hierarchical apes like us, because irrelevance means low status.
But then why would anyone confuse a fear of aging with a fear of mortality? Because the fear of aging is unflattering. It makes us look petty—like we’re clinging to the glory days of our youth or fixated on physical appearances or thirsty for other people’s attention or obsessed with status (which makes us seem icky). That’s why we don’t like to talk about it. And it’s also why, I suspect, we cook up a bullshit story about our fear of mortality: to cover it up. Plus, the mortality story makes us look smart and sophisticated, like we read a lot of Great Novels and think about The Human Experience. Also, it’s kind of interesting, if you don’t think too hard about it.
So maybe Barbie, or the mom character who dusted her off, was actually just afraid of aging, and declining attractiveness, and increasing irrelevance, and nostalgia for a bygone era when she was cool, which are entirely understandable feelings for an aging mom, and a problematic doll, to have. And maybe if she admitted that—the doll or the mom—we could have gained some psychological insight, instead of its pseudo-profound substitute.
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