Even bacteria, we thought immortal except by accident until recently, do die.
We are life forms and to survive, life proceeds through successive stages, through generations, as it cannot for ever maintain itself within each individual, each multicellular organism, and even less within every cell.
It is therefore futile to say that “death is part of life”, as if it was always programmed in order to make space for the living. Such programming is, without any doubt, true for the cells in the organism, of which apoptosis happens when they become dysfunctional and to avoid the toxic effects of decomposition. It can also be true – but we do not really know – to avoid that individuals weigh on a fragile community. Propensity for self-sacrifice is certainly increased in the male warriors, or in the females defending their young. Anyway, it is only one of the multiple strategies of the living who seek to preserve life and all the chances it can offer. Living in surplus population in its environment, a colony of bacteria can proceed to waiting in the form of sporulation, for example, which minimizes sacrifices.
That the length of the telomere is evidently limited, and that as a consequence the reinforced protection of cellular replication only last for a certain amount of time does not imply that death is programmed: only that life can only put forth an exceptional effort to prolong itself only for a limited time past the age of reproduction. By the way it is a general effect: packages of genes which insure the best possible life until reproduction consist, for most, of pathogenic aspects for the aging individual. The question is not to “kill the old” but to be less vigilant on the negative effects which have no real consequence on the survival of species. In other words in the genetic “DIY” polished up through selection, late side effects of improvement are not firstly taken into account and this suffices to increase the inevitability of aging.
However, evolution eventually attaches itself to longevity because it retro-acts on the capacity for a society to organize itself for the best survival. In this way, the role of senior females in primates is important in terms of memorization of past experiences, and even in terms of transmission. Aging males represent a capability to face successive trials over a long period of time, and due to their continued production of sperms, can still pose as attracting partners in order to transmit this capability to their descendants (who are also those of the females), Thus, Nature can prolong the age of females for the protection of the community and maintain the longevity of males for reproduction.
In evolutionary terms, we know now that species which manage to guard themselves against frequent agressions tend to lengthen the life span of their members and to allow their reproduction at older ages. While on the contrary, strategies putting species in permanent danger favour early age reproduction.
In sum and on a very general level, life favours life and puts death at a disadvantage. This being nothing more than the translation of its principle consisting in keeping away its own mechanisms of constitution and “simpler” maintenance of natural organisations, those we saddle with the name “death”, only when living organisations return to it through decomposition.
We can therefore be reassured on one point (even if this will not stop us from dying like every individual of every species): the will to eliminate death, to keep it at bay, to avoid its encounter, is not a sign of « human pride”. It is only the human translation of all the efforts made by living processes. It is bad enough to have to waste away and die, without having to mortify oneself.
It might be more relevant to define what constitutes the human response to death. Without anticipating on a « human level » so dear to Teilhard de Chardin, we can at least admit that human beings, defined as such beyond the destiny of non-talking primates, can only lead the fight against death in a specific manner.
Human specificity facing death is very simple: we are the only beings in this local world to be “conscious” of the inevitability of our death. It is impossible here to negate a precise meaning to the vague notion of conscience. We await the death of the others and our own. We possibly escape the life experience of death (the loss of consciousness experienced just before or the brutal event, to give us the opportunity to see it coming or to even think about it), but not the certainty of getting old and dying. This consciousness is carried forth by language which alone makes Man capable of recalling a remote event of the immediate experience and to categorize it in a chain of recurrent and universal causalities. This does not stop us from being surprised at the death of a close relative, just as a great ape suffers and cries for a while before the corpse of a loved one. But this immediate credulity – which lasts only while insuring that the corpse cannot revive and that its state has become permanent – is attached to and merges with the cultural effect of our shared knowledge about death. The result of this combination gives a « mourning » period of a year or two, maybe more in cases called « pathological »: this long period of time is the intimate inner struggle between the natural effect of the mitigation and forgetfulness of the experience shared with the other, and the contrary effect, largely cultural and social, of the awakened memories, the “souvenir of the dead one” (which other animals do not experience so much (1)), and the reminiscence of the former living under the aegis of signifiers and significations which must return. Being the name of the deceased, the place in filiations, the objects that belonged to him/her, the situations turned into narration or the traces of his/her presence (grave, pictures, manuscripts, etc.). Human linguistic culture prevents us from getting rid of the dead while wishing to do it (which does not exist in any other living beings). In this sense, the final prediction of the death of everyone holds in reverse the long lasting repeated echo of the former life of the dead one. It is with this certainty of the future and this return on the past that we must live the question of death, both linked together to bring forth all the symbolical arborescence and drifts which anthropology and history flood us with.
Being unable to escape the issue of death (and this sometimes very precociously), until becoming “doomed” beings, beings who are destined to be discarded, what Heidegger called “beings toward death”, it is therefore clear that we, human beings lead a particular king of fight against it. Our manner to fulfil our mandate as living beings by staying alive and promoting life is not only that of the other animals. Being conscious of our mortality pushes us to use consciousness to defeat death. Science today is the favourite tool in this fight: it is through science that we mean to efficiently lead this war against death.
Which is not unproblematic, after all we do not know if science (and is techno-medical incidences) is not going to aggravate our condition by shifting certain data without foreseeing the ultimate consequences. For once again, death is the only possible fallout, and ultimately ineluctable efforts are made by the living to protect themselves through a specification of real laws applications (as envisaged by André Pichot). This fallout in the common laws of the inorganic world await us each step of the way like gravity. It can result in the lack or excess of care. It can result from the illness as it can from the fight against it – for example in the case of resistance to antibiotics by pathogens– It can result from the application of the science of war – and to the production of weapons of mass destruction-, but also to peace- notably in the too comfortable ways of life that it generates, with its stream of obesity, diabetes, stupidity acquired through government aid, stressing social tensions, destruction of non-renewable natural resources, etc. Without mentioning the obvious cruelty linked to aggressive treatment and the resolve to keep alive the very old weakened people.
With a little of the novelist’s imagination, we can imagine that the elixir of youth and longevity could in effect generate a tug of war between men who would want to benefit from it, but also between the generations which would be called to live longer, and the following generations which could only exist when a space is cleared out for them by accident. We only need to imagine the dependency of individuals and groups facing technologies enabling survival to realize the kind of nightmares that dream could bring. We could however imagine solutions to these problems but in any case we cannot deny that the fight for an organized life through science is likely to produce crisis as severe as the ones they are pretending to avoid.
Nevertheless, we must not denigrate the human form of war against death, even if it is most probable that we will not beneficiate from it ourselves. I do not find shocking that our descendants may live for several centuries whatever arduous problems may arise. Some trees live for thousands of years even tens of thousands of years. Carps can live up to two hundred years and so do giant turtles. Why could not the great talking apes experience long-term adventures? Is it not also a condition to be able to leave for the stars and have time to reach them?
The struggle for life is in itself relentlessness (2). However it must never forget that life must be worth living and that with other animals as with human primates, the “joie de vivre” is the whole purpose of life, reproduction only being its underlying means.
Putting death into perspective is a concern for all of us and is useful to help us better identify what we can do with it individually. In our own way, maybe, and without it becoming an obligation – for nothing moral can come out of a more objective analysis of the struggle for life in general – contribute not to degrade our life prematurely, to conduct it, as much as possible, with a sort of love not so much for the self but for life itself, a benevolence for the effort made by our body to carry on. For this benevolence is not spontaneous to us: how many times, to calm our angst, do we impose unnecessary trials to our body? How many times do we neglect ourselves under the pretense of duty, habit or ideal?
This preoccupation, this self-concern (or concern for the body which corresponds to the self) is not egoistic. By the way, it can be compatible with the sacrifice for others, notably for our own children. Most of all, it is the preference granted by conscience to concrete life in relation to great abstract ideas. Taking care of ourselves – including in this “ourselves” not only the self but also our loved ones – is the best we can do to take part in the struggle of life for life, and this as human beings conscious of the inevitability of death. And this “taking care” implies to live now but also to anticipate the conditions of life in the future which is not an easy task. It calls for hygiene of emotional tensions, discernment of abandonment to joys and pleasures, an art of manoeuvre between forgetfulness and attention, spontaneity and constraint. In short, an Epicureanism (while waiting to choose a sort of Buddhism exercised in the contemplation of the unseen)
(1) We do not mean to negate animal memory - very enduring and precise in Chimpanzees, for example -, but to admit that, not supported by cultivated and shared statements repeated during rituals or fixed in material elements, it does not produce stable or homogeneous constructions, « monuments of return ». If we take the case of a powerful trigger of memory – the sense of smell - , we must admit that it disappears very quickly. As for images (places and shapes), they appear to be less used by other animals than by human beings to fix memories apart from the imago of another human being. However this imago is a much individualised “key”; it only serves very little to mix several individuals in the memory, and to resuscitate, for example, “the idea of a mother”. This being said, perhaps things are more complicated, as evidenced by the substantive unconscious emerging during psychoanalytic treatments, which is not by far only composed of cultural elements.
(2) For example, I am struck by the profusion of photographs and drawings revealed on pornographic sites on the internet: no other centre of interest produces such effusion of eminently repetitive facts, and finally very poor as a support for the imagination. I believe that this phenomenon can only be explained by the tension between an absolutely unavoidable vital urgency – even for « civilised » people who think themselves human - , and the logic of the fixation of phantasm which implicate human beings within a sexuality that is beyond them (luckily, other wise we would have ceased to reproduce).