A while ago, I stumbled upon a visualization showing the major causes of most, if not all, the deaths in the 20th Century, which total at around five and a half thousand million deaths. That's an almost unfathomable number of lives born and then snuffed out over the course of a hundred years, and it's sobering enough to consider one's own mortality when put on this scale: of the seven billion people alive today, almost all of us will be laid low by the army of accidents, killings, diseases, and disasters that claimed the previous generations, and inevitably one of them will come to claim your life at an unknown moment.


Getting back to the topic at hand, the piece comes from the aptly named Information is Beautiful website, and pools data from various sources to make "a companion piece to the London Exhibition" of last year, entitled "Death: A Self-Portrait". You can see it here in all its glory:


  • 20th Century Death from Information is Beautiful (www.informationisbeautiful.net). You can see their sources for data here.


Granted, there are provisos and cautions to go along with it: some deaths are double counted, the numbers rely on estimates and can't be anything but approximate, and some information is omitted from the presentation for elegance's sake. With that in mind, however, it's well worth seeing the finished piece, and that's because it's an entrance to a dark if deeply relevant topic.


Looking at the display, the first thing you notice is that the overwhelmingly largest cause of death in the previous century was disease, be it infectious, cancerous, or non-communicable. A quick bit of rough maths shows that the diseases combined make up roughly three quarters of the total number of deaths all by themselves, and even considered on their own, they dominate the page practically unrivalled.


By comparison, if you take the number of people estimated to have died due to suicide, homicide, genocide, ideological killings, and war, you end up with roughly 450 million of the deaths, or about 8% of the total deaths. That barely makes up half of the deaths listed under "Humanity", nearly a third of which are due to everyday accidents, and it is far outstripped by the number of deaths caused by cancer (approximately 530 million). There are quite a few other unexpected discoveries as well, and maybe it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that there will be something on the list to surprise everyone.


Now, with those surprises in mind, I want to lead in to another talking point. Assuming for the moment that we can expect similar proportions to ensue in this century - which is something worth contesting in itself, but bear with me for a moment - this raises quite a few questions:

  1. What is a cause worth putting our effort and resources into when it comes to death?
  2. Should we take this as a sign that the tackling of disease is our top priority, or do we focus specifically on those causes of death that can be traced back to human agency?
  3. What are we trying to accomplish: pushing the number of deaths in a certain direction (for instance, towards painless diseases or "acceptable" causes of death), and/or would we one day be daring or foolhardy enough to consider death itself something to minimize?
  4. How shall we take stock of our current fears, ideas, and assumptions in the face of this splash of reality?
  5. What else can this data tell us about death (and life) in this century?


To pre-empt an anticipated point, if I might be so bold, I would point out that there are other factors that influence our choice of cause beyond what kills the most people, and I am not simplistically saying that death is the only decider of a cause's worthiness. The welfare of people while they are still alive is one such issue, informed as it is by information as varied as national indexes for psychological and economic health and prosperity, the rates of non-lethal crimes such as torture and human trafficking, and perhaps broader ethical, philosophical, and legal issues. If you wish to discuss these issues and to what extent they weaken the point I'm making here, I'm all for it! However, death is certainly a large enough topic to lend considerable weight to such discussions, and I might go so far as to argue that, short of such extreme things as torture, it's probably the most important when it comes to deciding what cause is worth following.


This might seem to be an onslaught of points to consider, but if you take nothing else from this, then at least go and see the visualization itself. I found it quite exciting to see the information and find a few surprises here and there. Maybe it will give you pause for thought too, or even make you reconsider this dark side of life in a new way. In this way, it is a good example of how science can make us rethink our positions on such weighty topics.