Sex and the Origins of Death / Edition 1

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Overview

Why death? Is death an inextricable consequence of life? If not, where did death come from? In Sex and the Origins of Death, William R. Clark looks at life and death at the level of individual cells to address questions such as why we age, why cells die, and why sex and death seem to go hand in hand. Why must we die? To shed light on this question, Clark reaches far back in evolutionary history, to the moment when "inevitable death" (death from aging) first appeared. For cells during the first billion years, death, when it occurred, was accidental; there was nothing programmed into them that said they must die. But fierce competition gradually led to multicellular animals - size being an advantage against predators - and with this change came cell specialization and, most important, germ cells in which reproductive DNA was segregated from the DNA used to operate individual cells. When sexual reproduction evolved, it became the dominant form of reproduction on the planet, in part because mixing DNA from two individuals generates altogether new germline DNA. During this process, most mutations that have crept into the germline are corrected. But this does not happen in the other (somatic) cells of the body; the mutations are not corrected, and continue to accumulate. The somatic cells become, from a genetic point of view, both superfluous and dangerous. Nature's solution to this dilemma, Clark concludes, was programmed death - the somatic cells must die. Unfortunately, we are the somatic cells. Death is necessary to exploit to the fullest the advantages of sexual reproduction.
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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Speculations on life and death from a professor of cellular biology at UCLA.

"We die because our cells die," Clark says. Death is "the evolutionary consequence of the way we reproduce ourselves." The sole function of cells, human or otherwise, is to replicate their DNA; once finished, they are programmed to die. That is, once a job is done, such as growing fingers out of weblike structures in human embryos, certain cells have no further task and die. "Programmed" is a key word here: In a number of clever laboratory experiments, healthy cells reproduce themselves only to a point, and undergo a process of exploding outward, called apoptosis. If the process is blocked, cells have a tendency to become cancerous and, at the least, will stop dividing. Only cancer cells and certain ancient single-celled life forms are, in a manner of speaking, immortal, but they, too, will eventually die by overcrowding or when they run out of food. Clark proceeds to discuss how the nature of cell death relates to the agonizing debate over a patient's "right to die," detailing the strange findings of Karen Ann Quinlan's autopsy and relating it to yet another incidence of near-death: the spores produced by certain animal forms in times when nature makes it hard to reproduce. The minuscule spores of briny shrimp truly seem to be dead but, when chilled to absolute zero and placed in the correct environment, will begin the cycle again. Clark ends by speculating about so-called "nonsense DNA." Is it a useless relic of the evolutionary process, or does it hold the keys to an explanation of why we must die, and even why we are here in the first place? His discussion of biology flows into a discussion of metaphysics.

Strikingly well argued and clear.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195121193
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/28/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
William R. Clark is Professor of Immunology and Chair of the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at UCLA. An internationally recognized authority on cellular immune responses, he is the author of At War Within: The Double Edged Sword of Immunity.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2005

    A thought-provoking book

    I thought this was a VERY interesting book. The premise seems to be that death is the price we pay for the genetic variation that sex allows.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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