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?
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
Question: How 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.
Question: After 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.