Death, a biologist's view

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Death, a biologist’s view


The elements, the quantum structures that construct these elements and the dark energies that bathe them are ubiquitous in our vast universe. They are the basis for the existence of matter and are the “building blocks” of physical existence as we know it. Given specific parameters of light, liquid water, heat, time, and substrate composed of the elements, life, the ability of organic molecules to self replicate, can develop. And life is dynamic, to exist it must grow and change, it must feed upon itself, be capable of changing as its environment changes and be complicit with creating change to enhance survival of the many and varied complex forms that interact to follow the many evolutionary paths that lead to survival. Survival of a species of plant or animal cannot happen without a reproductive scheme that shuffles the genome that directs development of the individual life forms that compose the species. This plasticity of the gene pool that composes a species provides the species with the capacity for change and environmental adaptation that allows the species to survive and adapt to environmental and ecological change. And death of individuals is essential for the mechanism for developmental change that allows survival of the species to be effective. Death of the individual is a biological imperative for all sexually reproducing species to compete and persist in an ever changing environment.


 Plants and animals, save one, do not know death. They experience death and for the most part, they instinctively avoid death, accepting it only when it is inevitable, but they do not intellectually know or understand that their own death is inevitable, Many animals, primarily carnivores and omnivores, create death of other animals in their instinctive quest for food and reproduction. The delicate balance between birth, death, reproduction strategy, seasonality, food availability, and genetic lability that determines the survival of all species is a vast web of life termed ecology. We are the only species on our planet that has developed an  interactive, conspecific intelligence and the technology that allows us to rise above, and actually modify natural ecology to enhance the survival of individuals and the gene pool that is our species. This knowledge of the meaning and existence of death and our evolved traits of compassion and dependence upon tribal social structure essential for survival of our species has given us a great understanding and fear of the individual and collective loss that occurs with the deaths of individual humans. Death has become an adversary to be battled on every front.  And every day, through science, medicine, and environmental engineering, we battle valiantly against individual and communal death. Sometimes, very often, our battles for natural resources, domination, and against impending violent death, results in the death of great numbers of our conspecifics in war and pogrom, actions designed to ultimately enhance the survival of our own genetic or political subset of the human genome.


 Death is a biological necessity for survival of the gene pools that compose a species. Sometimes individual death is part and parcel of species survival strategies beyond simple reproduction. The entire reproductive strategy of the species depends on the death of the individual. Two examples that come to mind are the death of the male preying mantis during copulation with the female, she eats him as he is in performance of his reproductive duty, and the male of the deep-sea Ceratoid sea angler fish, who gives up his individual existence by attaching to the female by biting into her epidermis, fusing blood circulation, degenerating and becoming nothing more than a male reproductive organ attached to her body. Many species have evolved physical and behavioral characteristics that demand great individual sacrifice, often death in competition for reproductive opportunity, to assure reproductive success and enhance survival of the species. Reproduction and death are the corner stones of species survival and evolutionary change.


Many animals also take the lives of other animals to sustain their own life, they are know as carnivores, species that physically consume the life energy of other animals, usually herbivores, to sustain their own life.  Omnivores feed on both plant and animal life. There is, however, only one animal that has the capacity to know and understand the meaning and finality of individual death and sometimes if the occasion demands, will knowingly sacrifice their own life for that of their offspring and/or their society. This species, Homo sapiens, will also occasionally for various reasons, with full knowledge of the results of their action, take their own life because of mental and social problems and disorders. This self destruction of life is knowingly undertaken only by the sentient species that can dominate and control the environment and life itself. Also, although it is a very complex physical, mental, and social phenomenon, it could be argued that an increasing unusual practice within human cultures of physically, mentally, and socially changing ones genetic, biological, and social identity from one sex to the opposite sex despite morphological sexual development is in essence, the individuals taking of one life for the substitution of another life. Admittedly this is a stretch, but in actuality, one individual ceases to exist and another individual claims that existence.


 One may not think that death is imperative to survival of the individual, and obviously it is not. Ever since the development of abstract thinking, humans have known death to be the end of biological life, but many (most) have and still do, consider death as a physical ending that is not necessarily the final ending that God(s) intend for human beings; and through an anticipated supernatural intervention, an existence beyond the physical, good or bad, that might occur, might not occur, or that could, would, occur, or that might even be given and then rescinded. Humans have developed many and varied scenarios on such possibilities. But biological death of individuals of basically every multicellular species is imperative in the same sense that reproduction is imperative, not for survival of the individual, but for survival of the species. The common religious explanation for death, that God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and sentenced them to die (eventually) for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, is at best a poor analogy for human evolution, and at worst, just an ancient fictional explanation of the supernatural capriciousness of a fictional god.


Stone-Eater Friedli Added Apr 17, 2017 - 3:02pm
Good one thanks !
Dino Manalis Added Apr 17, 2017 - 3:21pm
Anything that lives dies at some point.  Life is temporary and special!  Take good care of it!
Patrick Writes Added Apr 17, 2017 - 8:50pm
(Rephrasing earlier comment) If I may, it seems like this is the key sentence: 
"Reproduction and death are the corner stones of species survival and evolutionary change."
The theory of evolution says animals and plants are evolving to higher incarnations with each generation. Survival of the fittest means the weak die and strong survive. (And it's implied each generation is stronger than the last. So I'd assume your argument, that death is critical to things continuing to 'improve' makes sense.)
But I'd argue the flaw in this "argument" so to speak is, no new genetic information is ever added. What I view simply as 'quality control' of the species (the strong pass their genes down, the weak don't) is elevated to a 'creation process'.
Bill H. Added Apr 17, 2017 - 10:04pm
Excellent, Martin!
I have always believed that humans are just a part of the eternal life force here on Earth, and that after we die and again become biological material, we can. and always do return again to life on Earth here again in one form or another time after time. There is much more to this machine called life on Earth than most people can imagine.
Peter Corey Added Apr 17, 2017 - 11:42pm
>The common religious explanation for death, that God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden,
I think you mean, "the common Judeo-Christian religious explanation. The Fall of Adam and Eve from Paradise is not a common story in all religions.
>and sentenced them to die (eventually) for eating from the Tree of Knowledge,
Not quite. In the maxim, "Death is the wages of sin," the sin spoken of specifically is DISOBEDIENCE. Disobeying the Creator's command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge was what resulted in the explusion and the fall.
>is at best a poor analogy for human evolution,
That statement assumes as true what actually needs to be proven. If by "human evolution" you mean the neo-Darwinian scenario ("descent with modification from earlier, more disparate species, caused by random mutation selected for survival by natural selection") then it appears there's scant evidence at all, and what little does exist, is highly questionable.
The expulsion from a pre-historic Paradisal state with its resultant "fall into the material world" and the problems that supposedly wrought (e.g., biological death) might only be a story, but it's scarcely an analogy for some other story such as the Darwinian one. In fact, lapsarianism (true or untrue) is an alternative explanation to the purely naturalistic one.
Mircea Negres Added Apr 18, 2017 - 3:00am
Art, in this instance music, often poses questions which are hard to answer. "Does a caterpillar die when it turns into a butterfly?" "Are we human, or are we dancer?" "Who wants to live forever? Who dares to love forever?" We have reasoning ability and the best thing to do is use it in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, for if we were condemned to die for wanting to know, then we might as well live trying to know what there is to know. On the other hand, if there is no special reason for our existence, there's no special prohibition against choosing to live a life less ignorant either. Nice post, Martin.
Peter Corey Added Apr 18, 2017 - 3:49am
>"Death is the wages of sin,"
Good grief. 
The original saying is actually, "The wages of sin is death."
from Romans 6:23.
Martin Moe Added Apr 18, 2017 - 8:05am
Genetics, heredity, and evolution are very complex entwined subjects and the science involved requires a lot of study and exposition. Briefly though, survival of the fittest does not necessarily, in fact not very often, mean survival of the strongest. What it means is that survival of the individuals, and the species, that are most well adapted to survive in the environment that exists at that time. It could be that those individuals, without regard to physical or social superiority, that have a high degree of immunity to a particular pathogen, or individuals that have a behavioral propensity to move into new areas, are best “fitted” to survive in a particular environment. And that means that they are most likely to survive, and are not necessarily the biggest and/or physically strongest individuals, thus they are the most well adapted to survive in that environment and pass on their genetic structure to the next generation.
I don’t  have much time right now to explore this topic with the care and depth that it deserves, hopefully in a few days I will, but below is an excerpt from a book I wrote a few years ago that you might find of interest.
“We exist in the face of incalculable odds. Each person is first the product of a unique arrangement of DNA and secondly is molded by a specific environmental history. Any variation in the initial genetic code would produce a different person. If we exist at all, we are already winners in a lottery beyond the capacity of imagination. There are three basic elements in the lottery of life: the egg, the sperm, and the ancestral line. The ovaries of a human female contain about 500,000 eggs at birth, many more than she will ever release over the reproductively active period of her life. Each individual, male or female, can produce any of 223 (over 8 million) different kinds of sex cells, so even in all the eggs a woman may ever produce she cannot include all the possible combinations of her genetic complement.
Usually one of these eggs matures and is released every 28 days from puberty to menopause, a total of about 450 eggs, and only about 200 of these eggs are released between the ages of 18 and 34 when pregnancy is most likely to occur. So if you are to exist, your egg must be released at the specific time that fertilization and pregnancy occurs, and that egg must carry the particular combination of chromosomes, one out of 8 million that will provide only half of your unique genetic code—and this is the least of the lotteries that determines the specific genetic code of each individual.
The male produces many, many more reproductive cells than the female. One emission from a human male may contain 500 million sperm, and each of these has equal capability to fertilize the egg. If 500 million sperm are produced and if each possible chromosome combination is equally represented, then each sperm is duplicated about 62 times and all 8 million of the possible combinations have a chance to fertilize the egg. The egg will accept only one sperm, however, and entry to the egg is sealed after only one of the many millions of sperms completes the journey through the female reproductive tract and enters the micropyle of the egg. The genetic code of the potential new individual is then determined and the chance of the formation of that particular combination of maternal and paternal chromosomes is one in 70 quadrillion. The variable is actually greater than this because chromosomes often break apart and rejoin in different configurations; but just the odds for the joining of two specific chromosome complements is sufficient to demonstrate the magnitude of the lottery for existence that each of us has already won.
This conceptual lottery, the shuffling of chromosomes, occurs every time an egg is fertilized, but the chances of existence become truly overwhelming when one realizes that the existence of each individual is dependent upon a long ancestral line of similar conceptual lotteries. For example, one of the two genetic codes that had the potential to create your specific genetic code may never have existed if two young people had not met and married several hundred years ago. Your very existence may have depended on a shy smile by the village tavern sometime in the 14th century—a fateful chance encounter, multiplied many times over with the one in 70 quadrillion lottery at each conception on both sides of your ancestry, which led eventually to the unique  genetic code that is the foundation of your existence.
Of course, the whole of human genetics is much more complex, but it is evident that a particular genetic code of an individual does not survive, even in part, for more than the life of one individual (or two or three in the case of identicals). Individual chromosomes survive very much longer, although not without some gene mutations, for the span of existence of the species and on into other descended species as well.
Billy Roper Added Apr 18, 2017 - 1:17pm
"This plasticity of the gene pool that composes a species provides the species with the capacity for change and environmental adaptation that allows the species to survive and adapt to environmental and ecological change. And death of individuals is essential for the mechanism for developmental change that allows survival of the species to be effective. Death of the individual is a biological imperative for all sexually reproducing species to compete and persist in an ever changing environment."
Interesting, but negative eugenics through sterilization could allow us to encourage the continued evolutionary progress of the species, and even accelerate it, without waiting for death to select naturally.
John Minehan Added Apr 18, 2017 - 1:19pm
"But I'd argue the flaw in this "argument" so to speak is, no new genetic information is ever added."
Except for mutation that happens randomly.
John Minehan Added Apr 18, 2017 - 1:26pm
"is at best a poor analogy for human evolution,"
But I wonder if what is being analogized human cultural development, rather than human evolution per se.  In other words, the change from man as a hunter-gatherer living in loose bands versus more structured agrarian communities that had more food-security in trade for less freedom and a less richly varied (if more predictable) diet?
This change, unlike the emergence of human intelligence, may have still been within folk memory when Genesis was first composed.  
Steve Bergeron Added Apr 18, 2017 - 2:34pm
Humans are different than all other living creatures on earth, in that we continue to exist after our death.  We are transcendental beings.  There is now scientific evidence to back this up.  Large studies on near death experiences point very strongly to our continued existence after death.  
Aside from that, though, about 60,000-70,000 years ago, something suddenly happened, that allowed man to have a framework for speech, syntax, grammar, etc.  According to scientists, it wasn't something that happened gradually, but rather suddenly.  Man begin to think, create, communicate, etc.  And, among other things, man begin to think about a higher being, i.e., religion.  All cultures have a similar story about the beginning of the earth.  Judeo-Christians have Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden.  But there are many other similar stories from other cultures, where man was doing fine, someone did something wrong, and something bad happened to mankind as a result.  There is something to be said for this commonality.
Peter Corey Added Apr 18, 2017 - 6:03pm
>Except for mutation that happens randomly.
The chances of a truly random mutation (e.g., a point mutation in one of the DNA bases caused by a copying error) actually adding information — as opposed to inserting mere genetic "noise"—are close to zero.
Most random mutations are either injurious to the genome or "neutral", i.e., they might add redundancy of a trait that's already there (expressed or not) but redundancy, by definition, is not new information.
Think of the source code for an operating system like Windows. If you were to insert a "random mutation" into the code — i.e., if you inserted a random string of code into the operating system — do you believe the operating system would acquire some new ability? Or do you think it's far more likely that the random string you inserted would corrupt some part of the operating system, or perhaps even all of it? Which result is intuitively more plausible?
The genome is like an operating system, with "stop codes", "go codes", etc. What applies to a computer's operating system applies equally to a cell's operating system.
See the works of biochemist James Shapiro from the University of Chicago, especially his book, "Evolution: A View from the 21st Century":
Patrick Writes Added Apr 18, 2017 - 8:24pm
@John - With some brief Googling, it appears most authorities conclude that mutations do not add genetic information. So my statement is likely correct. 
Survival of the fittest adds no new genetic information. Thus, it's much closer to a quality control mechanism than a 'creation process' (and I feel like I'm being kind here). 
Peter Corey Added Apr 18, 2017 - 8:32pm
>Survival of the fittest adds no new genetic information.
Indeed. And the phrase itself — "Survival of the Fittest" — is circular: If we ask, "What species will survive?" The confident answer is, "The fittest ones, of course!" If we ask, "By what means can we tell if a species really is fit?" The confident is, "By the fact that it survived!"
So "survival" rests on a prior logical premise of "fitness"; but "fitness" is then seen to rest on a prior logical premise of "survival."
The circular character of this statement demonstrates that it's actually empty of content.
>Thus, it's much closer to a quality control mechanism than a 'creation process' (and I feel like I'm being kind here).
True. I believe many mainstream evolutionists are now moving in a tacitly anti-Darwinian direction by conceding that "natural selection" creates nothing; its function is to weed out mutants from a population in order to maintain the group's stability.