I’m reading two books, at the same time. I don’t usually do this, but they are both so good even though they are so very different. There’s Brian Appleyard’s How to Live Forever or Die Trying, which is non-fiction. And then there is Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark, his latest novel. They’re both about growing old and dying, but in quite different and unique ways.
Appleyard considers the question whether we are programmed to die, why we think we are so programmed. It does not really make sense really; religions have tried to make sense out of this by surmising that death has some kind of purpose. Shakespeare wrote ‘…. a man can die but once; we owe God a death’. In other words, by having been born, we owe a death. Is dying then what defines us as human beings?
These are deep and serious questions and especially as I now grow older I find these questions and discussions more urgent and I enjoy pondering them. Appleyard considers the various approaches to answers to the conundrum of death and considers the major life processes, which are replication or reproduction – as far as natural selection is concerned, that is the only point of the organism. The build-up to this reproduction are the most important aspects of life, after that, it does not matter what genes do. This means that from then on there is a progression of errors, happening by chance. And such errors ultimately are our death!
In fact, in nature most animals do not have much chance of surviving and to go on reproducing: organisms are killed by external factors, disease, starvation, predators, etc., long before they age. So nature has not selected for survival in the long term, but for reproduction.
I think that is such an eye-opener, even though it seems so obvious once you’ve read it. It’s called the Disposable Soma Theory (by someone called Tom Kirkwood, an English biologist), and it draws attention to the fact that ageing does not happen in the wild but is almost entirely a product of civilisation. People used to die well before they aged, because of these external threats. But that then means that if there is no in-built mechanism of ageing (or dying) then that also probably means that there is no death gene. The simple fact is that natural selection has not bothered to protect our bodies beyond the peak of reproductive fitness.
Ageing then is no more than being afflicted by a series of chance developments some of which are very likely to happen (for example, your hair going grey) whereas others are less likely and more random (such as developing Parkinsons disease). In other words: we are killed, we don’t die!
This is only the very first part of the book, there is much more to come. I The book is full of insights, snippets that make you wonder about all your fears, preconceptions etc, and because of that it takes time to read. You’ve got to take time to read it in order to understand the full arguments and insights.
I have a great admiration for Brian Appleyard’s writing, including his almost weekly articles in the Culture section of the Sunday Times, which I always read. He has a very wide-ranging interest and is always lucid and able to approach a topic from a different and surprising angle. Well worth getting this book!
O yes, and then there is Man in the Dark by Paul Auster, which really deserves a piece on its own. So you’ll have to wait for that. Meanwhile, just go and get Appleyard’s book. You don’t have to read it in one sitting. In fact, don’t read it in one sitting but take your time!