By Mark M. Green
Nearly eight years ago, I wrote a column about the origin of death. An edited version of this column appears below.
Perhaps publishing on this subject now relates to some of us feeling as though we are at the origin of something a bit like death. This relates to politics, not biology or mythology. But how distinct are these human endeavors from one other?
To begin, I ran a search on Google, as I did before, to check the number of results for ‘death’ and for comparison, ‘sex’. The results between these two inquiries are quite different—‘death’: 1,430,000,000 results; ‘sex’: 3,280,000,000 results. I don’t know what to make of the difference between 2009 and late 2016, the latter noted just below. Do you? Here’s the original column, written in 2009, somewhat edited and hopefully improved.
Google ‘death’ and get nearly 700,000,000 hits. There seems a fair interest among us in this subject, more, for example, than in ‘sex’, which elicits about 80,000,000 hits. In French, the connection between sex and death is made with the phrase, “la petite mort.” Leave it to the French to connect the post-orgasmic state to a little death. But the term has been applied to other situations after a profound experience, such as, perhaps, the feelings after this year’s presidential election.
A Canadian friend of mine heard the following (approximately) on CBC, “God gave man the option, in the beginning, of having kids or not. If not, man gains immortality. If yes, man will be mortal.” We all know how man voted on that one, and therefore the choice was made.
There are many versions of the origin of death. Here’s the essence of one from the Abenaki Indians, which seems to blame women. The story claims that the original woman and the original man argued. The woman said that death would be abolished only if a stone thrown in a river would float. Her male partner wanted the decision to be based on the ability of a buffalo chip to float. They had agreed that she would have the last word on everything. She wanted to change her mind when her own child was about to die but was not allowed. She had already voted.
Here’s another one blaming women from the Dinka in South Sudan. In the beginning, a rope linked the earth and the sky, which were much closer than they are today. Anyone who died could climb the rope to be reborn. A woman pounding grain killed a bird. The bird’s mother was so enraged that she severed the rope in revenge, bringing death to the world.
From the Buran people in another part of Sudan, we hear about human laziness as the cause of inevitable death. In the beginning, there was neither death nor disease. But one day, there was an exception—a single man became ill and died. The people felt that the sky knew what to do and sent a worm to inquire. A lizard who hated the people decided to take the opportunity to claim that he was the messenger of the sky. “Wrap the corpse in cloth and bury it,” said the lizard. The worm returned with the true advice of the sky: “Hang the corpse in a tree and throw mush at it until life returns.” The worm explained that the lizard lied to them and that they should promptly unbury the corpse. But the people were too lazy, and so death forever after remains on earth.
Here is one from southern Africa. The moon sent the hare to earth to tell men that just as she (the moon) died and rose again, so mankind should die and rise again. The hare—out of forgetfulness or malice—told mankind that in contrast to the moon, man should die and rise no more. When the moon heard about the false message, she became enraged and took a hatchet to split the hare’s head, but missed and hit his lip—hence the term “harelip.”
Here’s another from Vanuatu (New Hebrides) in the South Pacific, which seems to blame the young. An old woman took her grandchild while she bathed in a spring. He dutifully waited on the shore. Since the time was right for her, she used the opportunity to crawl out of her old skin but discovered on returning that her grandchild was afraid of her—did not recognize her. So, she put her old skin back on and told him, “You were afraid of me. If you had not been afraid of me we should all crawl out from our old skins and be young men and women again; but you were afraid of me, so we shall no more shed our old skins, but we shall therefore die.”
According to science, sex is the cause of death. To be more specific, sexual reproduction is the reason we die. Biologists know that all species that reproduce sexually are destined to die. A highly regarded book, Sex and the Origins of Death, by William R. Clark, Professor Emeritus of Immunology at the University of California, Los Angeles, says it all in the title. A biologist’s view of death can be found on the web under ‘George Wald: The Origin of Death’.
In essence, science supports the view that, for the first billion years of life, there was no inevitable death. Oh, yes, death could occur by some accidental event, but not like it does for us—inevitable death. The reason is that single-cell and some multi-cell living species reproduce by fragmentation or budding of the whole living entity. These forms of life today still face no inevitable death. However, as soon as reproducing machinery became separated from other parts of the body—or, as science puts it, the soma from the germ—there is no reason for the soma to continue carrying out its function of bringing the germ to its “mate.”
When we look in the mirror, we see the soma. But what really matters, biologically, is the germ we carry. In that sense, “we” are immortal in our germ but not in our soma. Welcome to old age.
Mark M. Green writes on ScienceFromAway.com.