Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Does Death make us Human?

Last time I wondered if free will is what makes us human. That was too serious a post, so I will lighten it upa bit with Death. Does death make us quintessentially human?

Well, obviously not, in its most literal meaning. After all, plants die, animals die. In some sense, even stars and galaxies die. But we all know human death is not quite like any of these, right? Right?

Most animals have no cognizance of death as a concept. Sure, they run from danger to avoid death, and mothers may protect their young from predators. But when a member of the pack dies, animals, even biologically related ones, seem not to understand. They continue to prod the dead as if expecting them to suddenly wake up from the slumber, and when it becomes apparent that the condition is irreversible, simply drop the issue and go about their own business. There may be occasional cases of animals, most likely chimps or some dogs, who experience some 'emotional' responses that seem to be pseudo-human. But at best, they express grief and anger at the death of a close companion, something they might even express had the companion just gone away rather than died.
Chimps seemingly mourning a fallen relative, Cameroon
But humans, and their ancestors, have been consecrating death for millennia. We do not understand death, and hence we fear it, and hence we worship it. Rituals of death are probably mankind's oldest surviving symbolic activity. The cornerstone of practically every religion is what happens after death. Reincarnation, heaven-hell, purgatory... all largely imaginative constructs meant to ease our mind on earth so we do not fear the 'afterlife' much. Incredible human feats of engineering and creativity have been temples of the dead... the Egyptian pyramids, Taj Mahal, the catacombs... and countless others.

Most unique is the nature of the fear of death. Animals fear death, but it is mostly a self preservative instinct intrinsic to all life. But humans have another, seemingly far greater, fear. We seem to fear that our work on earth would get cut short by death. As if we had any greater purpose to our existence, than mere existence. One of the greatest forces driving human evolution is the need for humans to somehow make an impact on the future. "To make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance" as Theoden, son of Thengel would say. Why is that? Is this what makes us human? No animals have this need for sure. No animal has ever expressed a desire to leave behind something that will leave its indelible individuality on the canvas of history.
Death Note - anime series about a schoolkid who finds a notebook that kills the person whose name is written in it, recommended watch.
I do believe however that this uniquely human feature is an extension of the same basic instinct, that of self preservation. Just think about it!

Humans have long superceded the system of incentives and constraints imposed by the biological vagaries of our bodies and our ecosystem. 

Once upon a time natural selection was in control, the strongest survived and procreated and the weak executed. But man subverted evolution; the weak found a way to survive by finding favor with the strong. Compassion is a virtue; at best the strong find more success, if that, and the weak are to be nurtured into strength, not culled. 
Once upon a time, nature was in control and man was subject to the elements. The earth was flat and infinite, the skies were filled with vengeful gods and the five elements were fickle beasts. But man subverted nature; nothing on this earth has escaped our leash... plants animals earth water wind fire and the sky. Even the vast silent darkness of space does not petrify us anymore. 

And so it was that once upon a time man feared death just like the animals because he did not want to die. He wanted to live. But soon he learnt that death can be defeated, or at least delayed. 

It seems natural that the value of a man's life and its worth is not measured in its how many genes he could pass on but what he accomplished during his lifetime. Therefore the death should also be defined not in biological but intellectual terms.  And in that sense, the desire to impact future generations, leaving a legacy is simply the desire to live longer, as long as possible. 

Archimedes, Aryabhatta and Albert Einstein are all still 'alive' today in every sense of the word except biological. They probably have more impact on your life than your neighbor; and you probably know more about their life than your neighbor's as well. Sure biologically we may not be alive much longer (even though life expectancy is tripled in a few centuries), but through our actions we could be remembered centuries, even millennia in the future. 

After all, who doesn't want to live forever...

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