The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Christianity teaches that death is the consequence of sin. Original Sin to be exact.

I do not believe this to be the case, and certainly, it is difficult to make the case that physical death is caused by sin. (Note: Many Christians interpret this passage to mean a "spiritual death," but I'm talking physical here.) After all, both good people and bad people eventually kick the bucket, as do lions, otters, jellyfish, daisies, okra, Venus Flytraps, and parasites. Surely, if anything in this world is innocent, it is the humble asparagus.

Yet most of us treat death as some mystical, unknowable phenomenon. Death, as it turn out, is not so mysterious, and death is becoming less mysterious by the day (as is aging).

Evolutionarily speaking, death is a survival tactic. Evolution is concerned not with individuals, but with species. After a pair of animals reproduce they no longer serve an evolutionary purpose. In fact, after the offspring has reached its prime, the continued survival of the parents actually threatens the survival of the offspring by diverting scarce resources away from their children. In the state of nature, death ensures that resources are allocated to those creatures that are most likely to propagate the species. However, once we leave the state of nature death becomes irrelevant and vestigial.

When we enter civilization we reach a point where scarcity and survival are only minor concerns. As a result, death no longer serves its purpose, and at that point we should begin to view death and aging as medical problems.

The fact is that all death is cell death. The more that cells replicate, the more prone they are to make errors, and eventually they stop reproducing altogether. It is likely that we will be able to treat these two conditions in the not-too-distant future.

For 99.99999% of human history, no man flew. Then, in 1903, two guys built an airplane, and now it is routine for man to fly. One of the great things about people is that once we figure out how to do something, it is generally only a matter of time before we do it. At this point, stopping death is largely an engineering problem.

For more on this subject, check out Ron Bailey's Liberation Biology and Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near. The former deals more with the political hurdles to biotech research (stem cell research ban, etc.) and the latter deals more with the pace of technological advancement. Both are excellent.


  • "Surely, if anything in this world is innocent, it is the humble asparagus."

    i'm calling bullshit. nothing innocent would ever make your pee smell like that...

    By Blogger ahren, at 3:37 PM  

  • I just thought I'd say that while your diversion of resources away from offspring argument is not without merit (the driving force of longevity in animals seems to be time required to reach maturity), the interaction of pressures of evolution with individual human biology seem to be much more responsible than intergenerational social competition. There are several benefits of reaching an age where tissue regeneration stops in many tissues. Further the fact that competition for resources between offspring and parents (certainly in the case of solitary animals) would be evolutionarily favorable. It also better explains why tortoises who exhibit no child care and have a limited habitate range live much longer than most than mammals and birds who raise young and who can reach new habitats more easily.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 5:33 PM  

  • You overlooked the fact that some death suffered by immortals are not caused by cell death at all, but rather from getting beheaded by another immortal who then takes the first person's power (basically his or her soul) through a process known as a "quickening." I doubt technology will advance to a state to understand this phenomena.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:33 PM  

  • Paul, just a note on Christian theology. Christianity teaches that the world was created perfectly good, and that the WHOLE WORLD was plunged into death after mankind sinned. Thus, the Scriptures speak of the whole world being redeemed someday-hence the "lion lying down with the lamb". When Jesus comes back, there will be new heaven and new earth where no one will die.

    Its unclear what this means for parasites and aspargus; God apparently didn't think we needed to know this. But all people and all things die because we live in a fallen world.

    By Blogger Brian Hagedorn, at 10:10 AM  

  • That is at least consistent, and makes some sense in that man had dominion over the beasts and what not. Still seems unfair to me though.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 11:09 AM  

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