A herd of wildebeests flees the watering hole with the approach of the carnivores, only to slow down with the sacrifice of one of their own numbers. Scores of pilot whales inextricably swim unto the shore, intentionally stranding themselves on the beach and defying all efforts to save them from certain death. Such dramas were to shape the content of human ritual and belief, with natural death becoming a powerful symbol and metaphor for human existence: from the logic of the seasons -from the bounty of summer, the death of winter and the rebirth of spring- came the first eschatologies and cosmogonies (see also "The Big Myth" for other cultural stories of how the world began); following a kill, the carnivore is satiated just as are the gods following some ritual sacrifice; and as the "survival of the fittest" principle operates in the natural order so, according to some, work laissez-faire dynamics in the economic order.
As a dead animal often is the first death experience of American children, it was undoubtedly from nature that Homo sapiens received their first thanatological instructions. One initial impulse probably included fear: The normally curious adult chimpanzee has been observed to flee in horror from even a death mask of another chimp. But human hunters had to be pragmatic to survive, observing the omnipresent dramas of life and death all around them. They learned that death comes to the weak, defenseless, or the overly brash; that larger animals live longer than smaller animals; that each death is a contribution to the whole, with creatures feeding on lower levels and being prey to higher ones; and, on the basis of Alan P. Covich's research comparing common freshwater snails exposed and not exposed to their crayfish predators (Science, 1990), those who are hunted grow larger, live longer, and reproduce later in life than those who are not.
Through scientific observation, we are the recipients of increasingly detailed stories of death on the individual, species, biosystem, and cosmic levels, as revealed through studies of the changing biochemistry accompanying death, the extinctions of animals, the demise of ecosystems with growing human populations (see Worldwatch Institute, which tracks "trends that have put the global economy on a collision course with the Earth's ecosystems;" Species Crisis, where it is estimated that "137 species of life forms are driven into extinction every day for a total of 50,000 each year;" and the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which finds one-third of amphibians and one-fifth of mammals are threatened with extinction), and the astronomical recordings of supernova. It is from science that we learn that what we actually see of each other is death: the outer skin, hair and finger nails are but the dead remains of the living tissue beneath. The gold and platinum that we may wear are, according to a report delivered to the 2001 National Astronomy Meeting in Cambridge, England, the product of the final few milliseconds in the lives of colliding neutron stars.
In general, death is an unremarkable event in nature. To die of "natural causes" is not to expire in old age, as is the case in modern human societies, but to typically die young (probably well over 90% of all animals die before maturity; I have heard that no one has ever found the remains of a bear that died of natural cases). Natural death, according to the scientific perspective, is mostly a random event, an event without meaning.
In many ways, society is a structure erected against the onslaughts of nature and perhaps our oversight of this basic fact is indicative of the successes of modern society in obscuring natural death. But one wonders if our successes in controlling (e.g., being mauled by a cougar on the way to school--over the past century, mountain lions have attacked 64 people in the U.S. and Canada, killing about a dozen)--or at least predicting--nature's lethal designs has brought even greater fears of the natural order. The collision of portions of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in 1996 made for easy passage of another piece of legislation designed ostensibly to protect us from what may kill us: space rocks. (To estimate the seismic, blast wave, and thermal effects of an impact as well as the size of the crater produced, see Robert Marcus, H. Jay Melosh, & Gareth Collins' Earth Impact Effects Program.) And the planet's bombardment came just at the right time for the military, which needed justification to maintain its nuclear-tipped missile arsenal.
There are a number in the scientific community who argue that we're now witnessing the sixth mass extinction and that it's the human primate causing the holocaust of both animal and plant life. In late 2003, the Swiss World Conservation Union reported 12,259 animal and plant species were critically endangered, indicating that all was not well with the planet's health. A 1998 survey of 400 experts in the biological sciences found approximately 70 percent expecting up to one in five of all living species on the planet disappearing within thirty years.
THE FIVE GREATEST MASS EXTINCTIONS
|435 million years ago||357 million years ago||250 million years ago||198 million years ago||65 million years ago|
|24% of marine families lost; 45-55% of marine genuses lost||22% of marine families lost; 47-57% of marine genuses lost||More than 50% of marine families lost; 76-80% of marine genuses lost||24% of marine families lost; 43-58% of marine genuses lost||15% of marine families lost; 38-46% of marine genuses lost|
|Sharp changes in sea levels affected shallow tropical waters. Many trilobites, cephalopods, crinoids and other marine invertebrates wiped out.||Sea level and climate changes, possibly over 10 million years. Loss rates especially high for corals, brachiopods, placoderm fish and trilobites.||Coincided with great volcanic eruptions; up to 80 percent of marine genuses and 96 percent of all species died. End of trilobites and many land species.||Depleted cephalopods; wiped out many reptiles, gastropods, bivalves and brachiopods; ended conodonts (possible fish ancestors of vertebrates).||Coincided with Siberian eruptions and possibly with impact of asteroids or comets. Demise of dinosaurs, ammonites (shellfish) and many other animals.|
Source: Malcolm W. Browne. 1992. "New clues to agent of life's worse extinction." New York Times (December 15).
Richard Dawkins observes in The Selfish Gene that the gene is "a unit which survives through a large number of successive individual bodies." It is through these units, in the form of copies, that we come close to near-immortality--or at least a long legacy. They are not generous nor altruistic, but rather have survived through selfish behavior.
Aggression and eroticism, in fact, are deeply intertwined. Hunt, pursuit and capture are biologically programmed into male sexuality. Generation after generation, men must be educated, refined and ethically persuaded away from their tendency toward anarchy and brutishness.
--Camille Paglia, Newsday (week of Feb. 4, 1991)
Is death the price we have to pay for our ability to reproduce? Organisms that replicate through division rather than sex, like bacteria and viruses and sponges, don't die if given plenty of nutrients and a benign environment. Multicellular creatures, on the other hand, have sex to reproduce and all die. This law even applies to one of the traditional symbols of resurrection, the butterfly. The Monarch, for instance, can live for up to six or seven months--unless it mates, in which case it lives no more than two or three weeks. Given this connection, it is understandable why death education often generates controversy on par with that produced by sex education.
For women throughout history, the connection between death and sex was all too real owing to maternal deaths associated with childbirth and pregnancy complications. In colonial America, for instance, their lifetime chances of dying in childbirth was roughly one in eight, which is why pregnancy was often faced with dread, according to Digital History's "Childbirth in Early America."
There can be little question that the sex drive has its lethal implications, as revealed in instances of autoerotic asphyxia and within the drives of serial killers. Evolution has left human males with a high sex drive coupled with considerable aggressiveness--especially regarding matters of breeding rights. Of course, reproduction without death would lead to some Malthusian nightmare at best. But, interestingly, according to the following studies, death comes prematurely to those not exercising their reproductive potential:
On the other hand, eliminating one's ability to reproduce or postponing reproducing have also been found to reduce the likelihood of death. A study by Dr. Edward M. Messing and his associates published in 1999 showed that castration increases the survival chances of men with spreading prostate cancer. Indeed, evidence suggests that castration can extend men's time on the planet by an average of 14 years. And according to their 1999 Science article, Linda Partridge and Carla Sgro observed how fruit flies that produced eggs at a young age died earlier than those that reproduced when they were older. When the younger-reproducing flies were sterilized with X-rays they began living as long as their older counterparts.
There are other twists to the relationships between death and sex:
From an evolutionary perspective, the name of life's game is to produce viable offspring, to achieve the immortality of one's genetic information. For many species, survival past the post-reproductive period is unnecessary (and even detrimental to the next generation) hence animals' greatest resistance to environmental assaults during the peak of their reproductive capacity and hence the virtual absence of old animals in the natural order. The key to longevity could thus mean procreating later--a proposition tested by Michael Rose and Joseph Graves Jr.. Over dozens of generations, the researchers allowed only the eggs laid by the oldest female fruit flies to survive and reproduce. Unlike in nature where natural selection often favors early procreation (as one can at anytime become someone else's dinner), these researchers created an evolutionary advantage to late breeding. They found the average life span of their flies increasing by as much as 60 percent.
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