Musings on the Purpose of Death

by Philip Jonkers

Many speculations go around as to the meaning or purpose of life. But what about the purpose of death? In other words,

Why does life end and why do we die?

Let’s try and address this question from an evolutionary perspective.

Plants and Animals

From an evolutionary perspective, if a species has the potential to live forever, obvious problems emerge with respect to adaptability. When a member of such a species has fully grown and developed, it only has very limited means  to adapt to a changing environment, a condition which is always relevant for a potentially infinitely long living species.  By remaining developmentally static, this species also is handicapped with respect to species that do change and adapt their phenotype to meet the demands of the environmental locale. The infinitely long living species is therefore at want to maintain a competitive edge with other species fighting for the same resources.

In the case of animals, the capacity to adapt is directly dependent on its brain-power as this defines the capacity to discover or learn novel survival strategies. Since animals have rather limited brain-power, adaptability in turn is also rather limited and therefore it is not evolutionarily expedient for any one species to have the potential to live forever. Indeed, death precisely is virtuous for the underlying genes under the provision that the lifespan of the genetic vehicles (phenotypes) is at least large enough to accommodate reproduction including perhaps some time reserved for rearing offspring.

The adaptability of the species takes place during procreation through mixing genetic material (sexual procreation) or mutation (occurring randomly due to radiation, or other possible epigenetic factors). Beyond the time needed for the organism to fully develop and replicate, it would be reasonable to expect that adaptability progressively decreases with an increasing lifespan and inter-generational time-span (i.e. the average amount of time it takes for a generation to reproduce).

And so, while striving for maximum adaptability, it is in the survival-“interest” of the underlying genes to not create phenotypes that live too long — and thus avoid the proverbial wrath of maladaptation. Therefore one can expect selective drifts to exist which favour those vehicles that have limited- rather than unlimited lifespans. It is simply not in the evolutionary cards to expect the advent of animal species which live exceedingly long amounts of time, let alone infinitely long.

In this sense death functions to implement adaptability since the death of one member makes room for a new member having ideally a slightly better phenotype providing ideally a slightly better survival prospects for the underlying genes (by increasing the average survivability of the offspring as well as its average number per set of parents). The longer the lifespan or inter-generational time-span, the slower the pace of evolution would be because the genetic makeups of lifeforms are less able to dynamically change and adapt to the prevailing environmental circumstances. Death therefore prevents arrested development and enables the very dynamism of life.

Human Beings

The situation is somewhat different when considering human beings. Here we have a species whose members possess large brains which provide good- to excellent learning potential, that in turn provides for good- to excellent adaptability; think for instance, relative to the nearest animal brethren how enhanced adaptability is furnished through tool-making skills — capabilities which later evolved into what we now call technology. Or think of the high level of intelligence required to successfully thrive in complex social communities.

Therefore it seems that the above evolutionary reason for restricting lifespans does not apply to human beings and so at first glance one would expect the existence of selective pressures favouring progressively longer lifespans. However — although perhaps not altogether vanishing — these pressures do seem to be rather weak. Overall, as history marches on, we do not reach drastically longer- and longer lifespans. So perhaps there exists an opposing selective pressure which works to cancel out the pressure that does build up towards progressive lifespans.

“Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. Good mental machinery ought to break its own wheels and levers, if anything is thrust among them suddenly which tends to stop them or reverse their motion. A weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself; stupidity often saves a man from going mad.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

“There is no anti-depressant that will cure a depression that’s spiritually based, for the malaise doesn’t originate from brain dysfunction, but from an accurate response to the desecration of life.” ~ David R. Hawkins, Power Vs. Force

What could possibly constitute such a pressure? Here’s a suggestion. I think it has to do with the increasing psychological sensitivity belonging to increasing intelligence. The higher the intelligence, the more sensitive its bearer will be, thus making them increasingly prone to respond strongly to the sustenance of trauma. Statistically this notion translates to the idea that the probability, or expectation, of incurring psychological damage increases with intelligence, provided of course that the habitat is conducive to supplying trauma (which basically translates to a harsh and cruel society). It’s not difficult to indeed acknowledge that the world, having a rich blood-ridden history, definitely has its harsh and cruel streaks to such an extent that is likely to topple its paradisaical character. Therefore it’s only reasonable to acknowledge that psychological trauma is a genuine phenomenon which should be accounted for.

I further find it statistically plausible to assume that the longer one lives, the higher the probability will be to sustain (debilitating) trauma, in singular or plural form. In addition, I further presume that in general, the effects of trauma on adaptability are predominantly profoundly negative; think for instance, of the psychological immobilization that belongs to acute extreme forms of stress (e.g. sexual trauma or other forms of trauma applied to the body) or the suffering from chronic pain due to illness, affliction or other forms of incapacitation. The accompanying forms of depression or other mental disorders and illnesses may not only cripple intelligence but also joie de vivre and ultimately even the will to live.

Therefore, I think it is plausible to assume that increases in adaptability enjoyed by progressive intelligence are offset by the effects of sustaining crippling psychological trauma, the likelihood of which also progresses with intelligence. Hence the presence of intelligence-based evolutionary pressures yielding potential gains in lifespan are to be offset by the presence of antagonistic trauma-based evolutionary pressures.

To recap, if a progressively higher intelligence were to yield progressively longer lifespans by providing progressive adaptability, the reality of the crippling effects of psychological trauma on intelligence (adaptability) works to offset any possible lifespan gains.

Therefore, I propose that the reality of psychological trauma defines a selective pressure counteracting the pressure favouring larger lifespans due to increased adaptability, courtesy of  high brain-power.

From a spiritual point of view it also makes sense to have limited human lifetimes precisely because of the trauma argument. Imagine if you had the potential to live forever but sustained severe trauma at some point in your life. The post-traumatic effects being profound, is likely to turn you into a bitter person resenting the very world you live in. From that moment on, your existence is like hell on earth, a perpetual torment. So therefore it is spiritually prudent to be able to have a cop out mechanism, so as to avoid facing a life to become too unsustainable and unbearable.

If you believe in reincarnation as I do, death is a means to conclude life and to start anew and fresh; like the phoenix rising from the ashes of its predecessor.