In the Men’s Locker Room

Standing at his locker, an older man says hi how’re you doing to the middle-aged man coming in. “Above ground and breathing,” answers the younger man cheerfully. I laughed even though the quip seemed to be coming from the wrong man. The locker room is full of ghosts.

During the middle of the day, most of the men at this health club are either weakened  from a condition of some sort or more or less old. We work out lightly, swim slowly, and maybe socialize. Our bodies, naked or wrapped in towels, move by the lockers and showers and stop in front of the TVs on Fox or ESPAN.

Most of the men recognize friends and chat about ailments and about others who “still live here” or “no longer live there.” In between the tales of sports and business, stories roll out about doctors, meds, procedures, therapies, chemo, dosages, a disabled friend, the grandson finally coming to visit, a wife’s long recovery at rehab and home.

One man told a startling tale—actual news—about an opera fan who scattered his wife’s ashes over the orchestra pit during intermission at the Metropolitan Opera, bringing the performance of “William Tell” to a quick end.

I don’t think any of us find it easy to look at our own or others’ collapsing bodies. And it may just be me but I think that as our aspirations and achievements move behind us, we men live a little in the shadow of the longevity of women (the majority gender at the club) and that extra durability they carry in order to bring the species along.  So in the locker room we are friendly and patient with each other. And above ground and breathing.

Genesis for Non-Theists

Creation narratives are lively stories.  In the Bible, God creates the universe and earth in six days. In other traditions, creatures are dismembered, huge eggs hatch, birds create land. Even science’s own creation narrative starts with a Bang and once earth takes shape, the first organic molecules appear relatively quickly, within a billion years. 
But at that point the scientific story of life slows way down. Life remains at the stage of single cells for the next two billion years. What was happening to our smallest, oldest ancestors all that time? Why did it take so long to move beyond the stage of one-only? Was evolution on hold?

From “Oldest bacteria fossils” to “Multi-cellular eukaryotes” 2 billion years later, life on earth was single-celled.

What took so long was the creation of the building blocks for being alive. It’s a story with parallels to the first chapters of Genesis. The biblical sequence: plant life emerges on the third day, including “fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed,” followed over the next three days by creatures of the water, air, and land, including man and woman. A few verses later we read about the Garden of Eden and, symbolically, the beginnings of sex and death.

Here briefly is science’s version: life evolved from the simplest cells to cells with a nucleus that enclosed the protected “seed” of DNA. This change set in motion the end of one kind of immortality, the beginnings of sex and death, and the emergence of a new immortality.

The process was slow because the changes were huge.

Like the Bible, science has a name for our first ancestor. LUCA, our “last universal common ancestor,” was a single-celled organism, a kind of bacterium, from which all life on earth is descended. Inside LUCA was a floating coil of DNA, sections of which have been passed down to every living thing.

Our common ancestor, a cell with DNA but no nucleus

LUCA reproduced simply by dividing, with one set of genes in each new cell. The new cells were identical, a long line of Adam clones without an Eve.

LUCA’s membrane enclosed only watery liquid and the genes. Gradually LUCA’s descendants “ate” and absorbed other bacteria. Some of these bacteria turned into the nucleus of the cell that absorbed them. They became the container for the cell’s genes. Such cells advanced from  prokaryotes (before a nucleus) to eukaryotes (a true nucleus, and pronounced “you carry oats”). The nucleus was a seed, a seed that provided the DNA with a chemical environment of its own and helped grow more complex DNA and much larger cells.
Sex, Death…

Cells get a nucleus–and more.

Early cells were, in their own way, immortal. The genes in both prokaryotes and early eukaryotes would reproduce and then the cell would split into two identical cells, as bacteria still do. Did such cells die? Eventually, but only from accident or the environment. In this Eden, cells did not get older. They became their own offspring and could theoretically live forever.

Eukaryotes, however, found a new way to reproduce. One would rub up against another eukaryote and portions of their DNA sets would be inserted into the other—the original sex act. With this exchange of DNA, genetic variation sped up, at last. So did natural selection.
In the next step, sex became specialized. As some early organisms became multi-celled, such as algae, they reproduced not by division of the whole parent organism but, as with us, by means of specialized germ cells (not the disease kind of germ but the creative kind, as in the “germ of an idea”).
No longer was the parent reincarnated in a clone, as in bacteria. It was left behind, and it aged and died. As in Genesis, the co-mingling of different living things brought sex and death. Cellular life moved beyond Eden.
…and Immortality
So we have lost the immortality that the prokaryotes enjoyed. But we have found it in another, more complex form. Our immortality runs through the genetic line of our children and other blood  relatives. It turns out that it is not the body, the soma, that is the crucial package. It is the germ cells that carry the DNA forward. 
But is this an adequate and satisfying idea for us humans who dream of living forever? Is the continuity of DNA a meaningful form of immortality? Here is one answer from Harvard biology professor George Wald, in his 1970 lecture on “The Origins of Death.”
We already have immortality, but in the wrong place. We have it in the germ plasm; we want it in the soma, in the body. We have fallen in love with the body. That’s that thing that looks back at us from the mirror. That’s the repository of that lovely identity that you keep chasing all your life. And as for that potentially immortal germ plasm, where that is one hundred years, one thousand years, ten thousand years hence, hardly interests us.
I used to think that way, too, but I don’t any longer. You see, every creature alive on the earth today represents an unbroken line of life that stretches back to the first primitive organisms to appear on this planet; that is about three billion years. That really is immortality. For if the line of life had ever been broken, how could we be here? All that time, our germ plasm has been living the life of those single celled creatures, the protozoa, reproducing by simple division, and occasionally going through the process of syngamy — the fusion of two cells to form one — in the act of sexual reproduction. All that time, that germ plasm has been making bodies and casting them off in the act of dying. If the germ plasm wants to swim in the ocean, it makes itself a fish; if the germ plasm wants to fly in the air, it makes itself a bird. If it wants to go to Harvard, it makes itself a man. The strangest thing of all is that the germ plasm that we carry around within us has done all those things. …
I, too, used to think that we had our immortality in the wrong place, but I don’t think so any longer. I think it’s in the right place. I think that is the only kind of immortality worth having — and we have it.

Suicide and Evolution

Where does suicide fit in the course of human evolution? Has natural selection been, so to speak, against suicide, or accepting of it, or indifferent to it?

We might hope that evolution is gradually finding suicide to be disadvantageous and is pushing it aside. That seems reasonable because suicide appears contrary to evolution’s prime directive to pass on one’s genes or to assist one’s kin in doing so. As Cornell anthropologist Meredith Small has put it in “Why Doesn’t Evolution Discourage Suicide?” “When young people kill themselves, their genes are eliminated from the gene pool; when adults kill themselves they can no longer care for dependent children; when elderly people kill themselves, they, too, abdicate the role of caring parent for the next generations.” At every age, suicide interrupts genetic continuity.

But—apart from the fact genetic change rarely happens quickly—unfortunately suicide shows no signs of slacking off. (Recently in Russia, an average of five adolescents killed themselves every day). One obstacle is that suicide is not traceable to a single trait that can be selected against. Moreover, some of its key components are very desirable traits, such as sensitivity to the opinions of others and the ability to imagine the future.

If natural selection has not been selecting against suicidal individuals, perhaps it has been selecting in favor of them for some reason, or did so for the tens of thousands of years prior to our historical era. Perhaps, at a reproductive level, the suicidal person’s relatives were in some ways better off after he or she was dead.



One version of this thesis was that of Denys deCatanzaro in the 1980s. As summed up by  Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering, the idea is that “Human brains are designed by natural selection in such a way as to encourage us to end our own lives when facing certain conditions, because this was best for our suicidal ancestors’ overall genetic interests.” Which conditions? A person might believe, rightly or wrongly, that he or she is a burden to the family, will not have children of his or her own, or can not make any positive contributions to the family or society. Such people, the theory goes, would all be most prone to suicide and their family in the long run would be better off as a result. Perhaps such self-selection was true enough for long enough in the past that it still operates today.

A difficulty with this theory is that suicide is linked not just to family and reproductive issues but to a wide range of mental, physical, and social problems. The list of conditions correlated with suicide is long: addictions, imprisonment, chronic pain, unemployment, brain injury, most mental disorders, abuse as a child, suicidal parents, peer pressure, post-traumatic stress disorder, low serotonin. While many of these conditions might limit one’s capacity to contribute to others, they don’t point noticeably towards a family being better off as the result of a suicide.

Natural selection’s third option concerning suicide, and possibly the most likely, is indifference. Perhaps, on the whole, the killing of the self out of misery neither harms nor improves the fit between humans and their environment. And the number of suicides has probably not been large enough to make a difference in our long-term development as humans, for one thing.  Moreover, isolated, sickly and self-destructive thoughts and acts are the products of the same brains that make an individual happy and healthy. Suicidal moods have been likened to very destructive weather: the same atmospheric forces that create an exquisite day can, in the right combination, result in a disastrous one. After all, we all have the capacity for the acute sense of social failure along with the intense preoccupation with the self that sets the stage for suicide.