Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mors ontologica

I've been thinking about death lately. No, I'm not suicidal or anything, I've just been pondering the subject of death. Throughout human history, our species has been fascinated by it.

The ancient Egyptians built up a massive cult centered around death, with ridiculously large tombs, complex rituals, mummification and a pantheon of fairytale figures all set to make the prospect of death that little bit more palatable for insecure pharoahs. China's 1st Emperor was another culprit, bringing an army with him to serve in the afterlife, wrapping his body in jade armour and spending the last years of his life searching for immortality.

If adherents.com is correct, in 2005 about 54% of the world population were believers of the Abrahamic God, yet another collection of silly myths and fairytales to assuage the very human fear of death, with promises of Heaven and threats of Hell all engineered to keep ignorant masses in line. I mean, come on, you're on this Earth for perhaps, 70 or 80 something years, 100s tops, maybe less if you've the lousy luck to be born in a warzone, and on the basis of your behaviour during this miniscule period of time, your fate is decided for all eternity? Something about that just doesn't sit right with me.

Hitler took a hell of a body count, but you must concede, he really thought he was doing the right thing. Well, never mind him, he killed himself, so if the Catholics are right (and he was Catholic) he's got a seat in Hell already. How about babies who die before getting baptised? Limbo forever! And that monk who immolated himself in protest of the Vietnam War? Well, lucky for him, he's already got plenty of experience in burning, eh? And suicide bombers? Ooh, they've got a GOOD deal going - press the button and woohoo! Virgins!

So, yes, I really do think there's something about the Abrahamic religions that reeks to high Heaven (ahahaha...) of bullshit. If anybody would care to comment on the matter of life after death, do be so kind as to leave empirical evidence of the fact. And by empirical evidence, I mean the genuine article; NOT the 1907 McDougall study (yet to be replicated) stating the weight of the human soul to be 21 grammes. NOT the cheap, head-up-ass pseudoscience of profit-hungry charlatans like Deepak Chopra and for the love of all that's sane, NOT quotations from that ridiculous theatrical prop, the Bible.

Since my exposure to the wonders of physics and evolutionary biology, I've come to an understanding of death that I'm more comfortable with. Evolution requires of genes 3 little things: Replication, Mutation and Selection. Through sexual reproduction, new mixes of genes are produced with each generation, with every mix carrying the small probability of mutation. Whether the mix and/or the mutation is suitable for survival in this cold, cruel world will be determined by the ability of the organism carrying those genes to survive long enough to pass on his/her genes to the next generation. Once that is done, the parent organism is no longer necessary and thus, it dies.

So why not be immortal, you ask? Why has there been no mutation that allows an organism to live forever and keep shagging and pass its genes wherever the hell it wants? Two things to bear in mind:

1) It already happens on the very, very small scale of microorganisms and viruses. This immortality leads to a very, very slow rate of mutation and hence drastically slows the rate at which such creatures can evolve and adapt.

2) For something as large as us, achieving this level of complexity requires that each of our cells die and are replaced constantly throughout our lives. A sudden "immortality mutation" would be so complex and unlikely it would be like fish sprouting legs in 2 or 3 generations. That having been said, humans are actually living longer lives, through a mixture of genetics and the influence of modern medicine in keeping us from expiring too quickly.

In this respect, humans are very, very interesting indeed! Because we're living longer, in terms of genetics, we take longer to evolve. But take a moment to think about the recent advances in genetic engineering. Are we not moving towards a stage where the age-old mechanism of Replication, Mutation and Selection is no longer relevant? In fact, as I mentioned in a previous post, between the advances in genetics, cybernetics and nanotechnology, are we not reaching a point where our physical forms are no longer relevant, a la Ghost in the Shell? But we're getting ahead of ourselves...

The point is that death in all complex living things is necessary. It is a process of renewal that allows a species to rapidly explore evolutionary paths in the faces of changing environment and genetic arms races between competing species. There is no magic to it. We fear it simply because we have a sense of self-preservation, which tends to be useful if an organism is to survive to propagate its genes.

So in conclusion, you get ONE shot at this life. When you expire, there's no coming back as a dog/turtle/snake/llama/whatever , no harp, no virgins, no hellfire or brimstone, no cute old man in the sky waiting for you, no reunion with grandma, NOTHING. SOD ALL. One shot is all you get, and that's fine by me, because that strikes me as a really good reason to cherish the one life that you have to experience the universe around you and an even better reason to get along with the people around you.

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