Death on Earth
July 18, 2016 by KyleMarian
This guest blog post is from Jules Howard, author of Death on Earth. He is a zoologist, writer and broadcaster covering topics from zoology to wildlife conservation. He is joining us at The Secret Garden Party 2016 for the ‘Mind-blowing Debate’ series to discuss ‘how will we survive when our sun dies?’
Here’s a statistic for you about death. Once you reach the age of 35, your chance of dying for every given year of your life doubles every eight years. It’s called the Gompertz-Makeham rule of human mortality. Your chances of dying exponentially increase from the age of 35. Bit of a shitter, yes? Still, it’s interesting. No matter what age you are, the take-home message from this fact is (spoiler alert) none of us are going to make it out of this thing called life alive.
This relationship with death isn’t unique to humans. All animals have a similar (often much more shocking) relationship with death. In fact, this relationship is displayed most visibly to you and I by looking at animal sex lives. Animals with a high annual chance of death tend to be sex-crazed, and many (particularly insects) will simply keel over and die after the act of love. Animals that have a lower chance of death (think: mammals) spend a little more time over it. In life, sex and death are on intimate terms.
But back to you. How does it feel knowing you get to live a long time, potentially, but you’ll still have to die at the end? How does it feel being perhaps the only animal in the history of the universe that understands that it will actually -yes, seriously- die, at some point?
It’s a weird thought. Most of us choose not to think much about statistics like the Gompertz-Makeham rule of human mortality. Many of us choose to do all we can to pretend death isn’t really happening. Some of us invest in ways to delay ageing, including surgery. Some of us think that we might well find immortality in the current century by conquering the science of ageing. Some of us (me included) have “MAKE A WILL” on our to-do list but, somehow, never get around to it. We don’t like death really, as a species, but… when you think about it, it can be quite a nice thought to entertain. I allowed myself to entertain this thought for quite a while, because I wrote a book about it. I wrote a book about death and nature and what the hell the point is of death at all.
I spent a long time looking at what animals know about death, and how the energetics of life (and evolution) depend on a bit of the red stuff. And what I saw was really heartening. Even something as gag-inducing as a dead pig, is a circus tent for a colourful biodiversity of beetles and bluebottles that most of us will never get the chance to see, for instance.
Has the book changed me? Well, yes, a bit. Here’s a weird thing, and I’ve never really put this down in writing before. It sounds very self-absorbed and a bit mawkish but I’m going to put it into writing anyway. It’s this: After writing the book I find myself, when I go about my daily life, carrying upon me a fossil – something like a fossil shark tooth or a fossil ammonite shell, which I keep in my pocket. When I have a slightly rough time, or an anxiety attack or something, I fumble about in my pockets and pull out my fossil and just… hold it. When you study animals, you realise that death has a rich history on Earth. Fossils show us that really clearly. Over millions of years, animals come and go, dynasties emerge and collapse. Everything and everyone alive in this current age will someday be represented in a single millimetre in the geological strata. All animals alive today, including humans, are doomed to be represented by a handful of fossils. That’s our fate.
I hold that fossil from my pocket. I look at it. I gently caress it. I realise that this bit -the alive bit- is the bit we should probably make the best of. And suddenly I am aware of what a privilege it is to be alive and healthy and I feel very lucky. It sounds weird but, do you know what? Only an understanding of death, can give you a feeling like that. But maybe this is just me. Sure, I’m weird but I’m allowed to be: I’ve just turned 36 and so, holy shit, I’m entering the exponential bit…
Find out more from Jules Howard and his new book here, http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/death-on-earth-9781472915078/