Death on Earth: Adventures in Evolution and Mortality
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As you read these words, Planet Earth teems with trillions of life-forms, each going about their own business: eating, reproducing, thriving . . . Yet, the life of almost every single organism draws nearer to certain death. On the other hand, "suicide" inside the mitochondria that live within us results in the death of millions of cells each second for our own good! Why is death such a universal companion to life on Earth? Why haven't animals evolved to break free of its shackles?
In this wide-ranging exploration of death, Jules Howard attempts to shed evolutionary light on one of our biggest and most unshakable taboos. He visits a salon that's trying to abolish our queasiness over talking about death. He also looks to the nematode, one of the most basic of life-forms, for clues about why near-starvation actually can prolong life. Encountering some of the world's oldest animals, and meeting the scientists attempting to unravel their mysteries, Howard also comes face-to-face with evolution's outliers--the animals that may one day avoid death altogether.
Written in an engaging style, Death on Earth's journey ends with the inevitable question: Can we ever become immortal? And if we could, would we really want to?
like they do. Medawar’s 1951 inaugural lecture at University College London, An Unsolved Problem in Biology, went on to underpin all three of the modern theories for senescence by flipping the problem of death on its head. Rather than focus too heavily on any given species, he asked why it was that natural selection didn’t ‘cure’ all animals from ageing and dying. Natural selection is adept at solving problems, right? Yet death is the biggest problem of all, surely. So why is death so prevalent
of nurturing. Males really do only have a limited window in which to act. Their contract with death offers little by way of wriggle room. This small clutch of marsupials are the only mammals that actively have sex until they die. The only ones. And that makes them inherently interesting in all sorts of other ways. For instance, why is this behaviour so rare in mammals? And why is it so rare in any vertebrates, for that matter? Scientists continue to debate the many evolutionary drivers chugging
within all of this activity. There was so much green in there, plenty of saplings and grass. It seemed to be the only place around here that had gone from an industrial slate-grey to a warm green, rather than the other way around. In Britain we call former industrial places like this quarry ‘brownfields’ as if that’s all they are: brown fields. I hate this label. I deeply hate it. It’s so shockingly small-minded to describe them so blandly, like hearing someone describing coral as ‘pointy
claw’ became, for me, a Darwinian war cry. It was a badge of honour; a way to fit in with the scientific reality in which I had found myself in my twenties. A way to fit in with fellow academics, too. But now, over the years and after writing this book, I have softened a little. For me now, nature isn’t a brutal place. It isn’t only a place red in tooth and claw. It’s not only a place of death. To me nature has become a place of wild and unthinking possibility; a maker of diversity, variation
all parasites. Parasites of life. Parasites within food webs. Parasites of the sun or of deep-sea ocean vents. We all take stuff, make stuff, and give it back in a more accessible chaotic doggy-bag for the universe in a wide range of forms: hot air, through our faeces, or through our own stinking corpses when we fail to balance the gerontological books properly. We are all agents of chaos, equal in our aims. All of us. And that’s worth celebrating. Occasionally I am invited to give talks to