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Evolution of Death, The

Why We Are Living Longer

Stanley Shostak

Publication Year: 2006

In The Evolution of Death, the follow-up to Becoming Immortal: Combining Cloning and Stem-Cell Therapy, also published by SUNY Press, Stanley Shostak argues that death, like life, can evolve. Observing that literature, philosophy, religion, genetics, physics, and gerontology still struggle to explain why we die, Shostak explores the mystery of death from a biological perspective. Death, Shostak claims, is not the end of a linear journey, static and indifferent to change. Instead, he suggests, the current efforts to live longer have profoundly affected our ecological niche, and we are evolving into a long-lived species. Pointing to the artificial means currently used to prolong life, he argues that as we become increasingly juvenilized in our adult life, death will become significantly and evolutionarily delayed. As bodies evolve, the embryos of succeeding generations may be accumulating the stem cells that preserve and restore, providing the resources necessary to live longer and longer. If trends like this continue, Shostak contends, future human beings may join the ranks of other animals with indefinite life spans.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Philosophy and Biology

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

Science has always been my favorite form of whodunit, especially when the scientist discovers a tantalizing mystery and solves it with clever experiments or observations. Regrettably, some very tantalizing mysteries remain on the back shelf of science, never having made it to the bestseller list. Death is one such mystery. We all know that death, like reproduction and metabolism, is a...

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Introduction: Death the Mystery

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pp. 1-4

Human beings are near-perfect animals. Of course, we might be improved with a few minor adjustments—strengthening the back for lifting and bearing in an upright posture, broadening hips for ease and safety of childbirth1—but, with one major exception, we are exquisitely adapted to our way of life: to survival and reproduction in our terrestrial habitat and agricultural-mechanized-...

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Part I. How Biology Makes Sense of Death

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pp. 5-6

In the past, death posed a conundrum for biologists: death as such did not seem to perform a function in life, yet death seemed a part of life, since only living things died. Indeed, death did not seem to be one of life’s qualities, even though, with few exceptions, it was the end of life. Likewise, death seemed incapable of evolving, since it did not contribute to the fitness of the individual, ...

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Chapter 1. Evolution: Death’s Unifying Principle

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pp. 7-40

All living things have their own ways of dying or not. I describe these ways in the appendix, but The Evolution of Death is primarily concerned with death in Homo sapiens—our death. If we are ever to understand death, it will be because we see it as part of life—as evolving. Science got it wrong several times in the past, but the consequences of death’s resuscitation, its reinstallation ...

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Chapter 2. Charting Death’s Evolution and Life’s Extension

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pp. 41-56

Death’s evolution? What irony! How could death evolve when it has no apparent benefit for the survival or reproduction of individuals? How could the manufacture of corpses, aka death, evolve? What would possibly constitute evidence for death’s evolution? Intuitively, one might suppose that the evolution of death would make life ...

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Chapter 3. Rethinking Lifecycles and Arrows

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pp. 57-88

Even were one to concede that death is part of life, one would want to see how death is integrated into life’s other features before accepting death as evolving. Well, let us not mince words: one must reorient oneself entirely to life in order to integrate death. I cannot pretend that biologists share a single view of death’s integration ...

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Chapter 4. Keeping Life Afloat

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pp. 89-106

The great irony exposed in chapter 3 is that death contributes to life principally by providing the sink for life’s waste—corpses. Chapter 4 examines some of death’s other effects on life, effects that turn out to be salubrious rather than corrosive as might have been expected. The chapter begins by answering the question, why is life so profligate? ...

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Chapter 5. Putting Cells in the Picture

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pp. 107-132

Many pieces of death’s puzzle have now fallen into place: from dissipative structures far from thermodynamic equilibrium at the edges of chaos to odds making and supply-sided economics.1 But the puzzle is still incomplete. Since the ninteenth century, cells have been required to make sense of life. Chapter 5 puts cells into the picture of death....

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Chapter 6. Neoteny and Longevity

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pp. 133-150

The bagpipe model of life extension illustrated in chapter 2 suggests that we are living longer because our juvenile stage of development is percolating into our adult stages. Chapter 6 examines this suggestion, beginning with a discussion of the phenomenon of juvenilization known in the evolutionary literature as neoteny, from the Greek meaning stretching (“extending” or “holding ...

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pp. 151-160

In the preface, you may remember, I suggested that science is like a whodunit, a detective story where a crime is uncovered and a mystery is solved. As things turned out, the evolution of death is not the crime I thought it was. Rather than a corrosive force shortening life, death’s evolution turned out to be a salubrious force lengthening life! ...

Appendix: Different Forms of Life and Death

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pp. 161-172


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pp. 173-196


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pp. 197-204


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pp. 205-234


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pp. 235-246

E-ISBN-13: 9780791480816
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791469453
Print-ISBN-10: 079146945X

Page Count: 260
Illustrations: 23 figures
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: SUNY series in Philosophy and Biology