On Life, Death, and Shaking Hands with Your Ancestors

Appropriately, I’m writing this in the middle of Hurricane Irene.

.A couple of days ago, NPR posted this quote on death by Steve Jobs. 

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

Direct ancestor/ descendants holding hands (my sons and I)

Digging a bit deeper, I was able to find that the quote came from a commencement speech Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005, about a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. By now, most people probably know that Mr. Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple last week, and there has been speculation that this may tie into his past health issues. Such a close encounter with mortality would likely make any person pause and reflect on the big picture, and why it is that we ultimately share the same destination. I empathize deeply with Mr. Jobs, Christopher Hitchens, the people of Somalia and, well, everyone, since we must all one day confront the fact that our time here is finite. Death is the ultimate equalizer.

Strictly speaking, Jobs was right that death weeds out the old, who are replaced by the new. In one sense, he is also correct that death is a change agent. But from an evolutionary perspective, I think Jobs’ logic that death is an invention of life is backwards. This isn’t to pick on Jobs; I’ve heard the idea expressed elsewhere many times, including when I ask my students to reflect on why evolution has not created an immortal organism. Jerry Seinfeld probably said it best (or at least the funniest):

But, let us make no mistake about why these babies are here – they are here to replace us. They are cute, they are cuddly, they are sweet, and they want you out of the way… Every birthday you have, there’s a baby off in the corner going ‘yeah, Happy Birthday to you, mofo.’

I could support Jobs’s statement had he argued that Death is a great ‘invention’ because it imbues our life experiences with greater meaning. Imagine what it would be like to exist in some alternate reality where we could actually live forever. Each experience would be diluted and insipid, knowing that there is another one around the corner in a millennium or so. It is because life is finite that we hold onto memories and experiences as dearly as we do, since they might be the only such memories we get.   

But such a thought experiment is absurd. There is no way to conceive what immortality would be like because our senses and emotions are the byproducts of natural selection, which required countless deaths over billions of years. Metaphorically, death acts as a sculptor, stripping away those genetic combinations from a population which do not ‘fit’ well in a given environment, leaving behind those that do.

An immortal organism would have no children (or parents), since reproduction would be unnecessary. By extension, there would be no sex (either the verb or the noun). There would likely be no pain, which is a sensory experience telling us to avoid harms that might cost us injury or death. Aging and senescence would be nonexistent, since these are stages of an evolved life history strategy, telling us when to be born, weaned, reproduce, and care for children and grand-children (Bogin 1999). (This is why fictionalized life history strategies where aging occurs ‘backwards’ as in Benjamin Button or Mork and Mindy are easy enough to imagine, but really are nonsense, obviously). But in an immortal world there would also be no love – familial, romantic, or platonic – which are evolutionary mechanisms for cementing genetic, reproductive, and other intimate social relationships. For that matter, what would success or failure even entail, if all paths led to the same outcome of perpetual existence? How would time be measured if time were irrelevant? (Clearly, I’m getting off track, and my amateurish attempt at philosophy is probably showing. I’ll stop now).

Rather than seeing death as a creation of life, we can flip this perspective on its head. An alternative view is that life is an invention of inert non-existence. This month, it was reported that some of the oldest fossilized cells yet known were discovered in Australia and dated at 3.4 billion years ago. From that point (or even earlier) until now, organisms have left behind an unbroken chain of descendants, at least for those lineages that avoided extinction. But while the biosphere itself is quite resilient, individual lives are extremely fragile (Gould 1997). Each living thing exists in a state of flux, constantly exchanging matter and energy with the environment around it, temporarily holding off entropy. But maintaining that energy and matter in some sort of semi-permanent ‘us’ is a delicate balance, since there are so many ways for things to go wrong, via injury, disease, genetic mutations, runaway cell growth via cancer, etc. As Richard Dawkins (1986: 9) wrote in The Blind Watchmaker, “however many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive.”

For any individual organism, immortality is unattainable, with the possible exception of Henrietta Lacks (see Rebecca Skloot’s wonderful 2010 book). But in another sense, immortality is a real phenomenon, not for individuals, but through reproduction and the unbroken chain of ancestors that stands behind us. As long as we reproduce, a very tangible part of us – our genes – continues to exist. The geneticist Aoife McLysaght poetically referred to this idea as almost like shaking hands with our ancestors:

In the simplest sense, being alive is the ability to self-replicate, which DNA does… The interesting thing here is that you have a physical touching between the old and the new DNA, so not some conceptual or metaphorical thing, but physical touching.… If you think about any cell in your body,… the DNA in that cell came from the DNA in a previous cell… Keep tracing back, tracing back, tracing back, and you eventually end up at the fertilized egg from which you grew. And the DNA in that fertilized egg was directly touching your mum’s and your dad’s DNA…. right back to the DNA in your grandparents. And we can go back to your great-grandparents and your great-great-grandparents. There’s a physical chain of contact – a physical chain, not a metaphorical chain – from the DNA in any cell in your body right back to any of your ancestors, right back in time. I really conceptualize it like a handshake. You’ve got this physical connection.”

Some have even argued that this is the bottom line of biological existence. Again, turning to Dawkins:

A biological virus… consists of almost nothing more than its genome, and its genome is nothing more than a coded program that says, ‘Copy Me!’…The rhinoceros genome, like a flu virus genome, is a ‘copy me’ program, but the rhinoceros program says, ‘copy me by the almost unbelievably roundabout route of building a rhinoceros first.’ ”

Parent-child relay race (Harvard Press)


Though this idea may make some people uncomfortable, human genomes are also ‘copy me’ programs. I think this is why it is more appropriate to view our children not as our replacements, but as our investments. In a way, they are insurance policies that ensure our immortality when we falter and entropy inevitably does its thing. In some of my classes, I’ve used the analogy of reproduction being akin to passing on a baton in a relay race, only instead of passing a baton to a fellow runner, we are passing on our genes to our offspring in a race that has no foreseeable end.

I don’t want to take this analogy too far. When I look at my own children, I feel the upswell of pride, joy, and love that other parents do, not some rational, calculated, robotic algorithm for investing in genetic continuity. I’m also aware that those emotions are at least somewhat the outcome of natural selection, but I don’t care about where they originate. I’m grateful for them. They make life fuller and more meaningful.

I think this is why an evolutionary perspective is absolutely essential for a fuller understanding of life. It cannot explain everything – we absolutely need the arts, humanities, and physical and social sciences to give us a more complete picture. But without a cursory understanding of evolution – which is really just acknowledging that biology has an ancient, meandering, and contingent history – I don’t think anyone can really grasp what life is. From an evolutionary perspective, life itself is transcendence. Rather than lamenting our finite lifespans, it would serve us well to see our limited time here for the astonishing wonder that it is. The glass is half-full.


Related Posts

One Big Family (March 15, 2010)

Life is Beautiful (May 15, 2010)


Bogin B. 1999. Patterns of Human Growth. (Link)

Dawkins R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker (Link)

Gould SJ. 1997. Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. (Link)

Skloot R. 2010. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (Link)

One thought on “On Life, Death, and Shaking Hands with Your Ancestors

  1. I’m aware that Jobs had other, more important, things to say in his Stanford speech besides than the short passage I cited above. These include living life to its fullest, following one’s heart, and accepting that we cannot always predict our futures with much certainty. The full 15 minute speech can be found here, and I think it’s quite moving.

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