Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Cell death, human death, and evolution

Paul Grobstein's picture

"The quest for eternal life, or at least prolonged youthfulness, has now migrated from the outer fringes of alternative medicine to the halls of Harvard Medical School" ... Quest for a long life gains scientific respect

I wonder if the involved researchers at the Harvard Medical School and elsewhere are paying any attention to the broader implications of related research

"as we get older, our cells lose their cannibalistic prowess. The decline of autophagy may be an important factor in the rise of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders that become common in old age. Unable to clear away the cellular garbage, our bodies start to fail." ... Self-destructive behavior in cells may hold key to a longer life

Let's think about this.  Humans are a complex assembly of cells and cell death/replacement is an essential mechanism to keep humans from falling apart.  Cultures/societies are a complex assembly of humans, and so .... ?  Perhaps individual death is an essential mechanism to keep cultures/societies from falling apart?  Along these lines, its worth noting that biological evolution, a particular good researcher, has by and large not favored immortality. 

Maybe we need to do some serious rethinking about the likely consequences of research aimed at "prolonged youthfulness"?  And perhaps more generally about our culture's distaste for death.   Maybe death plays an important role at all levels of biological organization, and should be appropriately valued rather than unquestionably resisted.  


Laura Cyckowski's picture

Health care reform

I've been thinking about death vs. prolonged youth/life in terms of health care reform. Should fewer resources be invested into prolonging an elder person's life (regardless of quality) (I don't mean the extreme "rationing of health care")? Supposedly, great deals of money are spent on a person's last few months, just trying to keep them alive for just a little longer. But to what end? Should we accept that "death/replacement" is a "natural" process, meant to occur on small (individual) and large (society) scales? My instinct is to say no, we shouldn't. Because what about the case for example of someone exposed to, through no fault of their own (maybe the society's lack of determining risks of XYZ), hazaradous compounds and subsequently needs more medical attention when they're older? I keep thinking that an individual in a society seems relatively powerless over what happens to them in some cases and that is not "natural" but a result of that society. I'm getting kind of abstract but I can't help wondering to myself why I'm caught up in issues of "fairness" and "fault" and "natural processes" when it comes to end of life care, death, and health care reform.

Laura Cyckowski's picture

An interesting analogy, that

An interesting analogy, that because humans require cell death/replacement to thrive, cultures may also thrive on death/replacement. Still, the smaller assembly parts in humans (cells) are not themselves conscious (story-telling) beings, like the smaller assembly parts of culture which are human individuals. Thus, I don't think it's a fair comparison.

I think arguing over the prolonging of death is highly dependent on whether or not you're talking about extending life at the cost of quality of life versus extending life while maintaining quality of life, by which a person can still contribute to (whatever that means?) and benefit/participate in society/culture (again, whatever that means?). Given the former case, I think I could accept the argument that death/replacement is a necessary part of the circle of life.