Death: when and who

This is about life, things, cells, tissue, and you. It’s also the first of three planned posts about death.

Back it up to one of my favorite moments, starting in 1814, when William Lawrence blew the roof off the Hunter Lecture Series at the Royal College of Surgeons, adding the word “biology” to the English language to discuss living physiology, behavior, and diversity as a matter of gunky chemistry and physics, sans superadded forces. [His friend Mary Shelley thoroughly understood his point, as evident in the original, uncompromised, until recently rarely-read 1818 edition of Frankenstein, as Marilyn Butler has shown.]

Not too many people really picked up on it, and still don’t. My personal solution is to begin a biology text and course by quoting this entirely accurate gem:

Let us beware of saying there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses. Once you know that there are no purposes, you know there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word “accident” has meaning. Let us beware of saying death is opposed to life. The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882)

Now work with me for a moment. Cells had been observed and named in the previous century, but not identified as being present in living things as a matter of course, let alone observationally defining them. It would be a reasonable conclusion, moving on from Lawrence’s points, that life can arise from non-living stuff any time, or whenever the parameters are right, and who’s to say whether that’s a rare or common thing. Therefore it was difficult on the basis of logic alone to conclude the reverse, that the living things we see are a matter of living things’ reproduction and nothing but.

Cue a whole bunch of decades, the ones which produced a new level of microscope technology, cell theory, the cellular basis of reproduction including finally learning what sperm and ova are, and the germ theory of disease. It was a lot of work, for which the names are well-known, like Schleiden, Virchow, Schwann, Weisman, and Pasteur, as well as Thomas Huxley’s “On the Physical Basis of Life.” This is why cell theory as it came to be called is composed of three statements, of which not one depends on either of the others.

  • The cell is the smallest living unit: this means no component of a cell is itself alive. (cells can be of different sizes, so don’t wise-ass me about mitochondria).
  • Life is cellular: this is simply raw observation, that we see no other kind of life around here.
  • Cells are produced (“arise”) from living cells: this is an inference based on observed homology, that despite some profound differences, the fundamentals of all cells are the same.

The necessary conclusion is plain as day and yet never stated in any biology text I’ve encountered: that your life, and that of any multi-celled organism, isn’t life at all. It’s something that a bunch of physically clumped-up living cells do. We should have come up with another word for it sometime in the 1880s and never did.

Life yes, person no.

Yup, I’m talking about the experience and actions identified with “you” as a being, your identity in every imaginable understanding of the word. Especially regarding its end, your death (nothing personal), which isn’t a whole lot of actual death at all – not of the living things. It’s the cessation of that thing they’re doing. You knew this already, what with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and related writings, right?

We don’t even have to wait for that grim moment to see that every day tons of your cells die while you continue onward, such that your cellular composition is best understood as a wave-front, undergoing constant replacement at a rate specific to each tissue. Conversely, and consistently, when you die, most of your cells don’t. I mean, they will, but the point is that they don’t have to.

It all reminds me of the intended gotcha question of the 1980s campus arguments about pro-life/pro-choice, when someone would venture “when does life begin?” with their intended answer firmly in mind. Somehow no one wanted to listen to the biological answer: “About 3.7 billion years ago, why?” – which is to say, there is not one reproductive event in the history of this planet during which life can properly be said to begin. Nor is its other implication welcome, that each of our particular cluster of cells is going to come to a sticky end, and only some of the others runnin’ around at the moment will persist somewhat longer.

Not a very nice sticky end, either. You know about apoptosis, so-called programmed cell death, right? A cell expels some of its contents, dismantles others, and ultimately simply comes apart. It’s a sweet, quiet, reassuring, purposeful-seeming death. It happens all the time, especially in producing various gaps or separated spaces of your own body during embryonic development. It is so tempting to think of organismal, you-death, as a great big cooperative and purposeful and “programmed” macro-version of apoptosis. The trouble is that that’s horse shit. Not one time of a human being or anything else you’re familiar with dying is characterized by mass apoptosis. Mechanically speaking, we die because some piece is too damaged to connect with the others, due either to injury or senescence. It’s all killing. There is no “it was just his time to go.”

Just in case that’s not gothic enough for you … no one waits until every one of the cells which used to comprise you is dead, before announcing you dead. The decision isn’t physiological at all; it’s social – the point at which everyone is pretty much agreed that remaining living cells aren’t going to do the “you” activity any more. Obviously when this is shifts with technological methods to prompt them to do just that; the insight is that this point is based on everyone else’s needs and views, and nothing to do with your “spark of life” (or whatever you want to call it) in any cells.

Old-school horror: In older cemeteries it’s not unknown to find the occasional remains of a person in a posture suggesting that he or she had been so adjudged sooner than we’d like to acknowledge.

The people who built the above were very considerate. But you might consider how much of what they had to observe before someone said, “Hey, maybe we better include escape hatches.”

New-school horror: There is no more thoroughly dead person than the guy who paid umpty-ump thousands of bucks to be cryogenically preserved killed deader than a doornail via rupturing every last cell simultaneously.

It makes bottled tap water look positively honest.

Your life isn’t really being alive, and your death isn’t really being dead. The absence of useful terminology to express this in ordinary speech is one of professional biology’s greatest intellectual failings, and the absence of this point from biology texts is one of its pedagogical failings. It might have seemed 200 years ago that nailing down what “life” is would also tell us who we are. But it doesn’t. And without it, the ideal of an observed “natural imperative” to life, a justification of one’s “inner flame” written in a Book of Nature, vanishes too. Lawrence talked about that as well, and perfectly accurately – that if you believe in such a justification, or in an identity which exists above-and-beyond the chemistry, go right ahead. But don’t expect it to be written for you to read in the physical workings.

Links: Useful essay about Frankenstein and Radical Science, Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man, On the Physical Basis of Life

Next: We are, in fact, Devo



5 thoughts on “Death: when and who

  1. Pingback: Death: how and why | Man nor Beast

  2. Pingback: Death: what remains | Man nor Beast

  3. Pingback: Can biology accurately describe life and death? | OUPBlog

  4. The “useful essay” is a 404 right now. I’d like to know the essay’s title and author, so I could Google it. I found this post particularly interesting.


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