What Is Death?: A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life


what is death?

A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life

Answering the question "What is death?" by focusing on the individual is blinkered. It restricts attention to a narrow zone around the individual body of a creature. Instead, how expansive is the answer we receive when we look at the context of death within the biosphere. Death now is tied to all of life, via the atmosphere and ocean. Death supports the awesome biological enterprise of ...

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What is Death?: A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life

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what is death?

A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life

Answering the question "What is death?" by focusing on the individual is blinkered. It restricts attention to a narrow zone around the individual body of a creature. Instead, how expansive is the answer we receive when we look at the context of death within the biosphere. Death now is tied to all of life, via the atmosphere and ocean. Death supports the awesome biological enterprise of making abundant the green and squiggly life. Talk about death has headed us straight into a contemplation of life, not only individual life, but big life, life on a global scale. Death and life are neatly dovetailed by the supreme cabinetmaker of evolution. Again, the crucial feature is not the death of any one creature per se, but rather what is done with death. To reach into the meaning of death, we must reach out into the wider context of which death is a part.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Why is death a part of life? A professor at New York University, Tyler Volk experienced a brush with death and began asking that question. In this accessible and wide-ranging book, Volk considers the philosophical and psychological ramifications of death, along with scientific explanations for how death evolved and what purpose it serves in nature.
From The Critics
Volk (biology, New York U.) seeks a broader link between life and death than the usual sense of death as eventual arrest at the end of a single organism's life. He builds a secular cosmology of death across various realms from society to bacteria, arguing that life depends on death. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471375449
  • Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 3/8/2002
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 255
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

TYLER VOLK, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at New York University. He is the acclaimed author of Metapatterns: Across Space, Time, and Mind and Gaia's Body: Toward a Physiology of Earth.

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Read an Excerpt

What Is Death?

A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life
By Tyler Volk

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-37544-6

Chapter One


* * *

We age, and most of us come to accept the persistent specter of death as an inevitable part of being alive. It's the price we disburse at the end, a price for the gift of life.

We don't normally revel in this state of affairs, of course. I, for one, wouldn't mind cheating the game. But it's futile to think about playing without paying. Though the advances of medical science often do lengthen our term of ephemerality, they cannot promise us eternity. In short, we are faced with a simple fact: "life, thus death."

This simple phrase-life, thus death-summarizes my core theme: the bond between life and death. But I am primarily intrigued with how this bond can be expressed (and perhaps far better expressed) by reversing the phrase. Let's flip the logic around and say "death, thus life."

How can death precede life? Are there cases in which death is paid for not at the end but at the beginning of life?

Near the end of the movie Saving Private Ryan, the dying captain, played by Tom Hanks, looks up into the face of Ryan, played by Matt Damon, and gasps one final order: "Earn this." For many men had just given their lives trying to find Ryan and send him home to safety, unlike his three brothers who had already died. Consider, also, the animal world. The females of several species of spiders eat their mates after copulation. By "willingly" dying the male ensures more time for his sperm to fertilize the female-the meal distracts her from moving on to another male immediately. These are just two examples of how death leads to life, each enticing us away from a narrow focus on a single individual's life to behold a wider world of connections between beings. And, as I intend to show, the stretching occurs in places one at first might not expect. With the enlarged view death appears not antagonistic to life but integral to it.

It's all a matter of scale and this book celebrates scale. Indeed, the key is to seek a much broader link between life and death than the usual sense of death as eventual arrest at the end of a single organism's life. It will take a book to elaborate the idea "death, thus life" across various realms, from society and eventually down to bacteria. My quest is to build a secular cosmology of death. From this we might gain an appreciation for the wondrous links between death and life, and thus nurture the opportunity we have to live as fully as possible in moment-to-moment awareness.

* * *

Who am I, as author? I'm not a therapist. I'm not a mortician. I'm not a hospice worker or even involved in the health professions. I don't sit at home dressed in black, watching the video The Faces of Death. I'm not a policeman, or war general, or writer of murder mysteries. I haven't enjoyed vampire movies since I was thirteen.

I am, simply put, a scientist. Earth biology-life on the planetary scale-is my trade.

For years I have harnessed computer models to help decipher how biologically essential elements travel within land, air, and sea. These building blocks of all creatures-carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and the ten or so other elements-wend in and out of organisms and swirl around the planet, all the while manifesting in a variety of chemical, molecular forms. Some of my studies have unraveled the reasons for flows of carbon dioxide between ocean and atmosphere. And I have peered back in time into the way the evolution of land plants changed the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago. I have also applied my knowledge about life and chemical cycles to help NASA design self-sufficient habitats for future space colonies on the Moon and Mars.

This work has allowed me to understand some aspects of the world that epitomize the concept "death, thus life." These aspects are especially profound because they are deeply ancestral to any sacrifice of war hero or spider. A wheel of death rolling continually into life propelled evolution along from the earliest bacteria through billions of years to the first human handprint on a cave wall. The key to the wheel, of course, is recycling.

Biological recycling is the worm that munches leaf litter into microscopic bits that are then further degraded by bacteria into nutrients that later can become tree leaves again. Death makes life. My favorite way to present this wheel is to actually put a number on it, to know exactly how much life death makes.

Imagine a world without recycling, where the small plants, tall trees, and marine algae all possess bodies so tough that nothing can digest them. When they die, because they are indigestible, they will be buried as bodies in sediments, just as in our world small amounts of the dead slip through the food webs of worms and bacteria undigested. For subsequent generations of photosynthesizers, new nutrients must come directly from the Earth below, from rocks or volcanoes. As a result, photosynthesis, though still active, would be much diminished.

Looking at the element carbon we can know how reduced life would be. The current need for carbon from carbon dioxide by all photosynthesizers totals one hundred billion tons per year. Yet only a half billion tons per year is supplied as new carbon into the biosphere from rocks and volcanoes. Without recycling, global productivity would only be a half billion tons per year, a mere two-hundredth of its current value. Invert this number and we can say that in our real world recycling the dead increases all life two hundred times above what it would be without recycling. Death, thus two hundred times more life.

It is, of course, not death alone but the management of death by life that amplifies life. What happens at death to organisms is an integral part of the larger system-the biosphere with its internal wheels of elements. Most dead creatures are not just molded into the next organisms in the food chain. Dead individuals or parts of individuals are subsumed into a gigantic functioning system, as parts of creatures chemically transformed go into the globe-spanning fluids of air and water. For example, a dead leaf fallen to the forest floor will be consumed by dozens of species of soil detritus feeders, from worms to bacteria, who release some of the former carbon in the leaf into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Thus what happens to the dead amplifies not just any one other organism but to some extent all of life. In contemplating death we must attend to a very large picture indeed.

My excitement with these cycles is not just a case of scientific investigation but a fountain from which I take the edge off a thirst for immortality. I become other creatures through my atoms. I live again and again. I do not die.

But-is this all?

To Hamlet, the idea that we become food for worms only deepened his melancholy. Should it have? Assume my post-death carbon becomes carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which then is pulled into the leaves of an oak tree to eventually take position in the tree's wood that lasts a hundred years. Is that a fate uplifting enough to carry me above the hell of knowing about my body's mortality? Is living on briefly in a bacterium's cell wall or perhaps even in its DNA a blessed truth from science that can support me through the tough times when I feel the truism of the bumper sticker that reads "Life's a bitch and then you die"? Can this vision-of recycled carbon, nitrogen, and so forth-as expansive as it is, answer my question: What is death?

Want to know the truth? No, it's not enough. Perhaps it is the primary truth about death. We might just have to bear it with a stiff upper lip. No one said that life was designed to make us grin back at its grim maws. But perhaps there is more, much more.

The more is not necessarily in a realm of heavenly angels, but right here on Earth. Perhaps there are broad aspects of "death, thus life" not revealed by the turning of the biogeochemical cycles.

* * *

It is impossible for me to think back to winter of 1996-1997 without calling up the underlying horror of those months. Seclusion in a trailer a mile high in mountains, in a spectacular and remote corner of New Mexico, had seemed an ideal way to concentrate on writing a book about the global role of life in atmosphere, ocean, and soil. But after a sunny and productive summer and fall, I was sideswiped by a brush with death that came not like a raging dragon but like an insistent drumming in the dark.

The first signals seemed innocuous. The tip of my right thumb went numb. Then electrical zings began shooting along my arm at odd moments. A few weeks later I started waking at night with painful cramps in one hand or the other. Once I was jolted awake with my toes contorted and half of my face feeling like a wooden mask. Next my hands and feet started "falling asleep" in the middle of the day and would not wake.

Medical care was a problem. My regular doctor was two thousand miles away in New York. The nearest town was a two-hour drive, and its sole neurologist visited but once a week, weather permitting. So initially I hoped that my troubles would just go away on their own. Then, through serendipity, I discovered what I thought to be the cause of my infirmities: poisoning from carbon monoxide, emitted from a wall-mounted propane oven that had been activated just that winter after years of disuse. Monitoring with a meter, I discovered that airborne molecules of the odorless, invisible, deadly gas had at times been accumulating halfway to levels that could cause death in four hours.

Although it seemed I should have (literally and metaphorically) been able to breathe easy after this discovery, that was not to be. I stopped using the oven, yet I kept having what the neurologist (via phone) termed "relapses." I grew terrified as these "relapses" intensified. Soon I was barely able to write legibly. At night my brain would show me what was really in charge-the neurons-as trapped in the most inane obsessions I imagined myself, for example, peeling an apple for hours, unable to cease or think of anything else. Coordination faltering, I had to steady myself when walking, one small step at a time. Then my chest became the radiating center of body-filling pulsations, an uncontrollable drumming of rapid-fire vibratos that coursed along my arms and legs. Heartbeats pounded in my ears and set off reverberations in nerves elsewhere.

The mountain locale was so remote that once the mail was delayed for four days because of snow. In the middle of the madness, during slow, deliberate walks in the valley that sheltered my trailer, I began to make peace with myself, with my life now tethered to a nervous system going who knew where, perhaps to the final darkness. On one cold evening amble, with snow glossing the junipers and the shadows thickening, I relived my childhood and the entire pageant of my then forty-six years, coming to terms with the worst scenario my mind could conjure. I could be dying. Perhaps the carbon monoxide had triggered some deeper problem in my system, which was running me downhill. Perhaps I happened to contract some other illness, coincidentally, with the carbon monoxide exposure. After all, before my discovery of the carbon monoxide, an emergency room doctor had told me that my problems could stem from any number of rare but potentially fatal syndromes.

On that snowy eve alone in nature, I wept at the recalled beauty of snow-covered branches I had enjoyed as a child growing up in Buffalo. There we rivaled the Eskimos in our appreciation for the types of snow, its worthiness for snowballs, snowforts, snowmen, its effects on walking, sliding, and the inevitable shoveling. Then, as now, I appreciated the waning moments of daylight, when the snow purpled. For the first time in my life, I was being torn open by a moment of reminiscing as if I were summing it all up.

My ambition had always pushed me into more and more projects. Without children, books and technical results had been a way of leaving traces of myself in the world. And I was comforted by the knowledge that students carried on waves of my legacy into their own creative adventures. My first doctoral students were well on their way to professional success. And what about the children to whom I had taught science and math at a middle school for several years, or the art students who expressed to me how thrilled they were to be learning my principles of patterns? I thought back to the mid-seventies, and my fumbling attempts to re-invent society, love, and work in the back-to-nature movement and to a passionate involvement with all sorts of other projects before I embarked on a science career. Then to friends I have known and loved. Such reflections during those pensive moments amidst the enfolding night, with the warm, yellow light from the trailer's windows visible some distance through the pine trees, helped me realize the fullness of my life. I became thankful. "I've reached an age greater than the average life expectancy for most of human history," I thought. "Who am I to think that I deserve seventy-plus years?"

Another month brought several more "relapses," and as the situation was clearly worsening, I desperately sought a solution. One morning I awoke, startled with a possibility. Testing the new idea, I put the carbon monoxide meter into the car, started the engine, turned on the heating fan, and, watching safely from the outside, saw the numbers surge into the danger zone. An exhaust leak! With every four-hour round trip to town I had been dosing myself with a second, independent source of carbon monoxide. A fatalist would think that someone was out to get him, but I am not a fatalist.

During an epiphany, the obvious, the banal, can flower into profundity. Sudden clarity allows you to witness a manifestation of Truth, and it changes your life. You can know that "all life forms are connected," for example, but to fully realize that fact, to experience it between yourself and everything around you, can awaken aspects of the world you never imagined. The same goes for other truisms, such as "life is short" or "we could die any time." My dark period of fear spun me face-to-face with these latter two, and the period is not over yet.

Even now as I am writing, if I halt all motion, I can sometimes feel my nerves pulsing, lightly there in the background, held at bay or masked by an anti-convulsant drug I take to counter presumed brain damage that never healed. The pulsing reminds me of the dangers in the world, of the nearness of death, which is no longer a grating insistence, just a gently rocking reminder.

* * *

When I talk about death in this book I mean the entire range of phenomena with which death is associated. This includes, often above all, the human awareness of death while we are alive.


Excerpted from What Is Death? by Tyler Volk Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Introduction: Death, Thus Life 9
Pt. 1 Brain
Ch. 2 The Three-Pound Miracle 27
Ch. 3 We Live in Two Different Worlds 41
Ch. 4 The Grateful Self 57
Pt. 2 Culture
Ch. 5 Nobody Just Dies 77
Ch. 6 Managing Terror 101
Ch. 7 Death with Interconnected Dignity 127
Pt. 3 Biosphere
Ch. 8 Sex and Catastrophic Senescence 151
Ch. 9 Lifestyle and Life Span 165
Ch. 10 Little Deaths, Big Lives 181
Ch. 11 Life and Death at the Smallest Scale 201
Ch. 12 Conclusion: Eternity's Sunrise 223
Notes 231
Bibliography 242
Acknowledgments 249
Index 251
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Interviews & Essays

An Exclusive Interview with Tyler Volk

Laura Wood, Barnes & Noble.com's Science & Nature editor, had dinner with Tyler Volk to discuss his book. This interview was later conducted via email.

Barnes & Noble.com: You are a scientist by training, yet the book ranges across all aspects of death, including religious, social, and philosophical issues. Did writing this book cause you to ponder ideas you hadn't really considered before?

Tyler Volk: Even more than I had foreseen! I expected a time of transformation and knew that looking into the functional role of death would help me examine my own life. But there were times when I felt like I was getting more than I bargained for, when the picture, though truthful, was not always rosy. I remember once I was deep into reading about Native American funeral practices of the 19th century, and I broke down crying in empathy with the sorrows so many ancients have felt -- just as we feel -- at the deaths of loved ones.

B&N.com: I thought that your discussion of "terror management," a psychological device we use to cope with fears of death, was extremely timely. When the world seems unsettled we take comfort (perhaps much more than we realize) in larger social structures we assume will outlast us.

TV: Definitely more than we realize. How do we cope with knowledge of our mortality? The social psychologists in the field called terror management have experimentally discovered that much of our clinging to worldviews is a cognitive mechanism that shields us from the dread of that knowledge. In their studies the term "worldviews" encompasses much of the allegiance to religion, politics, and even sports teams, in other words, any emotional fealty to an in-group that is somewhat arbitrary with respect to an out-group. This work points the way to a more profound understanding of many of today's global ills. And it helps all of us as seekers, because it shows how death helps shape our daily awareness and definition of self.

B&N.com: In the book you tell a very dramatic story about being poisoned by two different carbon monoxide leaks while wintering in your trailer in the New Mexico wilderness. Did this experience motivate you to write this book?

TV: Damn that event. I did not intend to have my life thrown off course by an invisible, ordorless gas, especially at a time when I was living in nature. But the ordeal forced me to contemplate what I believed and valued. Life not only could but will end -- so how should I live with that fact now knotted in my gut? Naturally, answers have to consider a view on what happens after death, but even more: Why is there death, why does the body senesce? To explain this inevitability we turn to evolutionary reasoning. Thus my personal scare prodded me along a path of inquiry. This book is the result.

B&N.com: There's a lot of interesting science in the book. I especially liked your explanation of how cell death in complex organisms promotes the life of the whole. In the book you call it "Little Deaths, Big Lives." Can you explain a little about this concept of death enhancing life?

TV: Cells in our bodies are constantly dying (and being replaced) at the rate of about 100,000 a second. Most of these deaths are not accidents or mistakes. The deaths are "programmed." They play a vital function in health and are accomplished by each dying cell running its own cell-suicide program. The procedure breaks the cell into smaller packages that can be recycled by clean-up cells. To me this reveals that death is not always fought by life. Just the contrary -- here death has been incorporated into an essential role, as death on the small scale supports life on the big scale.

B&N.com: Your research has been on carbon cycles, which happen over vast scales. Does this perspective influence the books you write?

TV: I've always treated the word "universe" literally. It's one verse, a single song. And I've wanted to hear all of it. Such desire led me into carbon cycle science, which requires an integrated understanding from molecules to the biosphere. My book on that particular piece of the song was Gaia's Body: Toward a Physiology of Earth. But the song also includes more, such as psychology, art, architecture. My attempt to integrate those by way of recurring functional patterns led to an earlier book, Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind. I have to say that sometimes this approach makes it difficult to classify my work, for instance in the practical matter of shelving them in bookstores. What Is Death? likewise goes beyond the usual narrow confines of natural science. The book is part of an ongoing quest for integration, which includes as well the humanities and social sciences.

B&N.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

TV: I hope to have provided for readers some instruments, potentially useful for shaping their individual philosophies, for composing their own songs that express the vital role at various levels played by death within the grand symphony of life.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2002

    Thinking about death?

    This book is a profound, yet suprisingly easy to swallow meditation on death. I found it both moving and informative.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2002

    WHAT IS DEATH? a scientist and philosoper looks at the Cycle of life

    Tyler Volk has written a book that I could not put down. Dr. Volk has captured the meaning of life and death in a manner that does expand the depth of the reader's perception of what is the cycle of life. His images and teachings will live on in not only me but my grandchildren and children. I recommend this book for anyone who is seeking the meaning of life and death.

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