Evolution is a well-established notion. From its etymology in Darwin’s studies of Galapagos finches down to the extrapolation of “missing links” through fossil comparison, we can clearly observe evolution both across time and between spaces. The term isn’t as stringently atheistic as the reputation it has garnered, however, though it’s much more encompassing than adaptability. A lion can adapt to the plains of East Texas but lacks the ability to traverse the deserts in the West. Salmon regularly adapt to saline water, then back to freshwater, yet cannot dissolve gaseous oxygen into their bloodstream. Evolution implies permanent change in a species over time, like a lion developing higher water and caloric retention to endure harsh, barren wilderness. In humanity’s conquest of the Earth, we’ve undergone evolution of our own. The height of the average male has risen three inches in the past century alone. Physiologically, high schoolers can do what was once thought impossible and run sub-four-minute miles. Life expectancy continues to rise as higher standards of living and medicine banish disease, virus, and defect. All in search of better, longer life.
With all the evolutionary forces at play, it’s almost bizarre that it all culminates in death, or rather nearly all species have not evolved to overcome death. We believe humans to have a maximum lifespan limit of 150 years, though the oldest of our species clocked in at 122 years and 164 days. When asked what animal lives the longest life, most of us think of tortoises, which is true for land animals. Yet in the oceans lie a trove of beasts older than most existing nations. Bowhead whales recovered in the Artic had stone harpoon tips older than 200 years embedded in their blubber. A Greenland shark’s eye tissue dated to be at least 272 years old, and it’s believed this creature could live for another 300. Deepwater black coral off the coast of Hawaii measured as 4,265 years old. But two organisms stand out from the rest: Turritopsis dohrnii and Hydra. What makes these two unique is their approach to the wear and tear of living. If damaged, starving, or in other distress, the medusa of Turritopsis dohrnii can revert into its polyp state. For comparison, that’s like a butterfly returning to the chrysalis after having a wing ripped off. Eventually, it can regenerate into its medusa and swim on. Hydra is composed entirely of stem cells; therefore, it is not subject to aging or disease. It can even reassemble itself if torn to pieces. These organisms are potentially immortal–that is, in the absence of predators.
In the end, all succumb to death. Accidents, violence, disease, aging, all pushing the living into the arms of the reaper. The former two are not evolutionarily accountable, of course, yet the latter have the potential for subjugation. Maladies that once afflicted our species with such carnage now lie extinct, save for a few outbreaks and frozen specimens. Polio, the scourge of the 20th century, and tuberculosis throughout the 19th, both eradicated. The flu and common colds are no longer death sentences. Cancer and heart disease, while still fatal, near their eradication more and more with each passing day. Leprosy, diabetes, arthritis, and other physical ailments, as well as schizophrenia, depression, and psychosis–thanks to medicine, man can become unshackled from them all. The only war in which medicine deigns to take the offensive is against time. Geriatrics is historically the most understaffed specialty, with most opting to treat patients rather than engage in research to prolong life. Those that do study aging reiterate what we already know from other areas of research: stem cell transfusions are like rebirth, and organ transplants are an effective means of treatment. With the ability to grow human organs in vitro, theoretically we could keep a human alive following necrosis due to aging; all it would take is planning, close observation, and a heavy wallet. Nevertheless, deterioration of the bones, muscles, and nervous system present challenges that current therapies can’t overcome. Recent experiments with blood transfusions from younger patients, however, have shown muscular regeneration in the following months. Next on the docket is testing if red bone marrow transplants into elderly or degenerative patients is a sustainable means of rejuvenating the musculoskeletal structure. Which leaves the nervous system as the last theoretical hurtle. If only it were as simple as growing neurons. Even though all thought, emotion, movement, perception, and memory are chemistry, our greatest takeaway from neuroscience persists; man is more than a squishy blob bathing in serotonin. In practice, life is artificially sustainable without the nervous system, but being alive and living are not the same. Perhaps one day we’ll understand the entire physiology behind consciousness, but until then, man remains mortal.
It’s reminiscent of the secular comfort we hear at a funeral. “Death is just a natural part of life.” Arguably, death makes life possible. Controlled burns and clearings of forests allow for newer growth trees to reach toward the sky with the externality of improved soil quality, greater abundance of resources, and an improved habitat for the critters that call it their home. It’s estimated that 117 billion humans have been born throughout history. If each one of them inhabited a quarter of an acre, they would fill the entire land mass of all seven continents. There isn’t enough space and resources to sustain them all. Deer populations starve to death for similar reasons in areas where they lack predators. Our species has a similar population limit based on habitable environments and sustainability of consumption. But no matter what you call it, be it death, passing away, moving on, going to heaven, it matters that your life ends if only for the sake of ensuing generations.
Dying is a frightening concept. Since you can only do it once, there are so many unknowns facing you. What’s it like? Is it cessation of consciousness or an ascent to glory? Do we become one with the universe or separate entities? Will we even know? Will it hurt? At some point, we must all make peace without an answer to this one of life’s significant questions. Perhaps it’s excruciating and dragged out, perhaps quick and painless. But we find comfort either in our works or in our faith. As witnesses to death, we who are left behind must do the same. A child I once babysat said hi to me at her mother’s funeral. It happened suddenly, a few days before, the details still murky regarding what came to pass. I had a lot of questions; did she too? Head held high, smile on her face, she greeted me with a wave mere feet away from the casket. I wonder what they told her after it happened, and if it was the same as what everyone else knew: very little. She had cried, that much was certain, but no trace of tears now, just an odd little smile. Her younger brother was in tears not far behind her, a nine-year-old boy clutching a grey rabbit with curly fur, the same one I brought to his bedside before. Wait, her smile wasn’t misplaced. Her mother wouldn’t have wanted any tears at her funeral. Most likely she would’ve elected something less traditional had she expected this day a little more. Out of everyone present, her daughter had made peace with this death the best. That’s not to say she understood death perfectly, or even knew the details. But it was a good start, a healthy adaptation that allowed her to face it. If only we could all be so bold, death would hold no sting, frustrating the grave’s victory.
Funny turn of phrase, “loss of life.” Evolving to reach the top of the food chain, humanity has only known victory over Earth and all its inhabitants, but perpetually loses to our ultimate adversary. Since we haven’t conquered it, and it seems unlikely we will, we instead imbue death with its own meaning. Perhaps that’s our evolution. The ability to face death with faith and fear, to die and be missed, build, and leave something behind, even if only a corpse. Yet even the pauper’s grave is a trough for the lowly. We cease living, and in some sense, persist. Eons pass, bones turn to dust, yet our voices echo, even if it’s a barely imperceptible whisper in the voice of our descendants. The essence of death is evolving into eternal life. So, in dying we achieve the highest of our evolutionary calls: give up the ghost, yield up the sum of our works to humanity, and return our bodies to the Earth from which we harvested. After all is said and done, if we were ever only alive, we could never have lived.