“A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.” – Frank Herbert, Dune.
In the last post we identified five advantages of a limited life span from the standpoint of the individual. Now we take up the advantages mortality serves for humanity, nature, and the universe. There are at least three to consider.
The first is the recycling of the matter of which we are composed. It is a basic tenet of the ecological cycle that living matter returns to more elemental forms to be reused for nature’s purposes. While humanity is only a small portion of all matter, our corporeal selves are inextricable participants in this cycle. Lao Tze states this beautifully:
“All things in nature work silently. They come into being and possess nothing. They fulfil their function and make no claim. All things alike do their work, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their bloom each returns to its origin. Returning to their origin means rest, or fulfilment of destiny. This reversion is an eternal law. To know that law is wisdom.”1
The second is human vitality, which would likely diminish if we were immortal (consider the Elves in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). Humanity’s brief life ensures it fertility. Each human life includes a proportionately large stage of productivity with the greatest typically in youth – consider examples of Bill Gates starting Microsoft at age 20, Isaac Newton inventing calculus at age 23, Albert Einstein discovering relativity at age 26, Mozart composing Don Giovanni at age 31, Dmitri Mendeleev creating the periodic table at age 35.
Ernest Becker observes in Death and Human Meaning that nature seems to gain most by men and women who use themselves up. In contrast our later years typically are less productive and offer limited value to our species and the universe. In the natural state, evolution supported short human lifespans with only a small fraction living to advanced age as sources of guidance, wisdom, and memory for the tribe. It is essential for cultural and technological development that youthful, engaged individuals appear regularly.
Last and most important is the role mortality plays in evolution which depends entirely on procreation and numerous generations. It is unlikely that homo sapiens is nature’s ultimate life form. Human immortality would make further evolution of our line impossible. There is something gratifying in realizing that our existence, procreation, and disappearance make up some of the innumerable steps in our evolutionary line.
In closing, our mortality appears to be best for nature, humanity, and ourselves while biologic immortality would be beset with problems and impede the natural course of the universe. Nonetheless it is undeniable that life feels too short, permanent cessation of consciousness feels tragic, and our will to survive is not diminished by any rational process. Perhaps we should seek a different significance of our distaste of mortality and desire for immortality. We will consider those alternatives in our next post.
1Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954. ISBN 0-671-54800-X, Page 656-656.