Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Evolution of Death

Ooops the title is erroneous, but have I got your interest?. Death is actually when evolution stops. What continues to evolve is Homo sapiens response to death and this can only be done by the living. Death is thus is a topic of serious research that cuts through Theology, Philosophy, Anthropology, Archaelogy, Sociology,Psychology and Evolutionary Biology. In short, the study of Death or Thanatology cuts through all fields of knowledge.

But why is death and dying so significant that we have evolved numerous responses to it. Most animals will shun a rotting corpse as a primary behavioural ecological response. Of course a dead body is a resource too good to waste so some organisms evolved specifically to dispose of dead bodies. And the most iconic of these is are the Vultures.

Members of the Genus Homo first showed signs of respect for the dead in Homo neanderthalensis, who in Shanidar, now in Iraq more than 150,000 years ago buried their dead with flowers. Homo sapiens, the species you and I belong developed this theme much further. In fact the development of behavioural responses to death is probably the major reason why organised religion developed. All the rituals associated with death carries a huge material and resource cost. So do these rituals confer some benefit? Why not throw the bodies down a cave shaft as Homo heidelbergensis did 300,000 years ago in Sima de los Huesas in what is now Spain?

One hypothesis has some scientific support. Natural selection always selects for survival mechanisms and traits, be this in sex, food gathering, birth and child rearing. The only time when natural selection seems to fail is when we are confronted by death.

Professor Robert Winston, a medical doctor who has studied human evolution hypothesizes that natural selection has selected our brains to detect life and so we classify our world first between the animate and the inanimate. And so when we are confronted with something that was once alive, our brains sense an "error message" and we tend to avoid it. Much more so when it was a human once alive.

This again has survival benefits. Dead bodies are extremely toxic except to vultures and their kind and so humans are well off to avoid them. So the blogger interestingly recounts a witty anecdote about The Dracula's funeral Belo Lugosi (Lugosi is the best actor to play the role and he willed that he be buried in his costume) in which Vincent Price (another Film Dracula) remarks to Peter Lorre that they should "drive a stake" into Lugosi's heart just to "make sure". That is so emblematic of our species' abhorrence of death and the dead coming back to life whilst remaining dead.

But humans have evolved behavioural responses to deal with this. We have created various ways to deal with dead bodies. But still we ensure that the dead look as much as if they were alive, to the extent that some cultures mummify their dead. Is this intimately related with our belief that life continues after the body is dead? Some people have casually dismissed death rituals as only a way to deal with grief. But this is to trivialise death. Grief is just one aspect that we have to deal with when a human dies.

But a more significant question perhaps is "How evolutionary ancient is grief?" Obviously, grief requires that the animal is aware that it is alive and that others of its kind are likewise alive. This is what we call consciousness. There is some evidence that grief is expressed by mammals with ancient lineages like elephants, who seem to grieve over the remains of their dead and chimps and bonobos who seen to experience grief at a death of a member of the troop. In the case of chimps, one primatologist noted that a baby chimp who lost mum seemed to grieve but was adopted by other females and he got over his loss.

Of course it is risky to anthropocentrise but the question of consciousness and grief in other species should be asked.

And so we come to the holidays Filipinos call "undas". The Catholic Church seems to proclaim its message extremely well during this season. All Saints is celebrated before All Souls. So the Church looks forward to the better life rather than this one where we All Souls are trudging through.

And as for the dead coming back to life, the God of Christians did so, but when He did, he looked alive! But still we Doubting Thomases error message ridden brains couldn't get it.

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