On the Purpose of Death

Our pet hamster, Godzilla, died today.  The kids are old enough that it wasn’t a big deal.  They’ve had beloved pets die before.  They’ve also had several beloved family members who passed away.  It is no longer a major occasion.

It does bring up a question for me, though.  We talk a lot about the purpose of life, but not much about the purpose of its opposite: death.  Why do we die?  Why does everything die?  I’m not posing a religious question, exactly, but more of a scientific one.

After asking myself that question, the question that comes to me next is:  what would happen if we didn’t die?  Or more precisely: what if we did not get old?  What if we could live as long as we had food and could keep ourselves in one piece?

First of all, the world would fill up pretty quickly.  There would no longer be enough food for us and then we would die of starvation instead of old age.  So if we didn’t get old and die, we would die of starvation instead, which isn’t exactly an improvement.

We could solve that problem (or our biology could solve that problem) by having fewer children, only enough to keep the population stable.  In that case, we could live as a species quite comfortably with the resources the earth provides and live a very, very long time…until some new bacteria or virus hit us or some problem came up that we couldn’t adapt to.  Then we would start dying faster than we reproduced, our numbers could drop far enough that we wouldn’t be able to maintain our population and our species would go extinct.  This is particularly likely if we have very few children.

So part of the problem is that the things around us keep changing.  Bacteria and viruses change very quickly and we have to change to be able to fight them.  Modern medicine has changed the rules of that contest, but eventually bacteria and viruses sidestep any weapon we throw at them.

The environment changes, too.  Climates grow drier, wetter, hotter or colder.  In the past, people have adjusted to those changes in one way or another.  It actually seems that human beings’ greatest strength is its ability to adapt to different environmental conditions.

Our own ability to adapt may make us a special case in the world.  We may not need to change biologically to adapt, but that has yet to be proven.  Even so, every other species that has ever existed has had to change biologically to adapt to new threats and new circumstances.  For most species, that means adapting to new diseases, parasites, predators, competitors and conditions.  A species that never changes biologically is likely to die off completely.

So it seems that species must change biologically to continue.  Those that don’t change, cease to exist.  We must die if our species is going to continue.  In other words, we die so that the next generation can replace us, with the hope that they will be able to do better than us.

That is not a very revolutionary concept.  It’s instinctive.  One of our greatest purposes in life, we all know, is to make the world a place where the next generation can thrive.  We don’t need to have children to do this or think about this.  People who don’t have children still want the human race to continue existing and to do better than we do today in some way.  Even if we don’t agree on what should be different in the future, we pretty much all agree that things should be better somehow.

We live, we enjoy life, we want to continue life, but we give up our place in the world so that another generation can rise up.  And we do what we can to make that generation successful, even if all we do is talk to our friends about how the world should be (or could be) a better place.  Doing that is contributing to the success of the human race.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons we value our aged:  because people’s opinions about how the world should be tend to improve with time.  We care for our elderly and want them to continue living as long as they can. Hopefully we also hear the things they have to say.

We also keep going ourselves, because we have something to contribute to the future success of the human race.  At the very least we have an idea about how things could be better and we know our ideas will only improve with time.  For human beings, anything we do to make the world a better place is worth the effort, but that universal human idea of how to make a better world is valuable in and of itself.

If this is right, then I would say we live to make the world a better place for a future generation.  Then, when biology or God dictate, we die so they can have our place.


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