Fear of Death Is Immature

Question: Why do human beings have so much trouble embracing death?

Tyler Volk
: We have a lot of trouble embracing death because we know it’s going to happen and this really flies in the face of our urge to live which we’re coming out of billions of years of organisms being successful at living and passing on progeny and suddenly in the last 30,000 years, 100,000 years, we don’t’ really know, some of the earliest detailed elaborate burials were 30,000 years ago. Human beings not only died, but they know they’re going to die. Of course, the world’s religions have not liked this fact and so try to build up various mythologies about afterlife. But I think the basic reason is just it’s abhorrent to us. We’ve built up the self. We’ve had, for the most part, enjoyable experiences. There’s more to experience. We have loved ones, we have roles in life and suddenly to know that that’s all going to ending; to be snuffed out at some point, really puts in a primal dilemma to our minds 

QuestionHow do you explain scientific movements to end death

Tyler Volk: Yeah. I think some of these urges to conquer death, or to live a long time, have to do with this primal fear of death itself. Of course, we want to stay healthy, it’s painful to get ill, it’s painful to get old, to have injuries that don’t heal so well, to have permanent pain. So, some of that is overcoming just the sense of un-wellbeing that happens to us. We want medicine to make progress and keep up healthy. 

But the other factor is wanting to live for a long time and maybe forever. It’s not clear what we would do, or how that would affect our lives. Sometimes science fiction writers explore those kinds of themes. But I see that as incredibly natural and I do think it’s going to – not that we’re going to live forever necessarily, I don’t have an informed opinion about that. But from my reading, typically in nature magazines, science magazines and some of the biological findings and also what I see happening with genetics and genomics research in my own Biology Department at NYU, it’s clear that advances are going to be coming to help us fulfill some of these dreams we have had since the upper Paleolithic of living for a long time. 

QuestionAfter researching death for so long, how do you address your own mortality

Tyler Volk: I don’t believe in any afterlife for myself. I don’t think my mind continues after I die. That doesn’t feel particularly good. So, my recourse is to go by who I am, what we have, see myself as a product of billions of years of evolution and during which time this evolutionary process has discovered and utilized in various ways forms of death in support of life. It doesn’t make it something that I look forward to, I definitely do not, but I can see myself part of a larger picture. And I think there’s a lot of gratitude I’ve developed as a result of understanding how death and life are intertwined and doing some of my investigations that I’ve written about in how death and life are closely coupled with each other in the support of life that we know. 

Humans have developed elaborate rituals, institutions and even theories of immortality to lessen the life-long shock that is knowledge of death. What’s behind this primal urge and how does an expert on the biology of death respond to it?

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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