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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Death and meaning

I heard a guy on the radio last night talking about death. (Man, what is it with me? Half of my posts are related to death so far!) Specifically, this particular scholar (I didn't catch the name) had written a book about death, and its function in and effects on human society and emotional life. The scholar and his interviewer were discussing the difference between meaningful and meaningless deaths, about how the death of a pedestrian run down tragically by a drunk driver seems meaningless, death in vain, whereas the deaths of soldiers are generally considered meaningful and important, dying for a worthy cause and fighting the good fight. Even in our current era of "wars" that many people in the countries involved are against, most people prefer to honour the soldiers, dead and living, even as they vilify the policies (and the policymakers) that send the troops out into the field.

My own thoughts, listening to this interview, ran with the whole "meaningless death" issue. The author of the book stated that meaningless deaths are like an emptiness -- something that the human heart cannot stand. He cited the roadside memorials that appear more and more frequently, even on back roads that very few people travel, to mark the place where someone died in a crash. This got me thinking about how else meaning can be added to an otherwise meaningless death. I realized that, sometimes, people try to incite change as a reaction to what seems to have been a pointless death. Mothers Against Drunk Driving works very hard to create an awareness about the dangers of driving under the influence, and was started by a group of mothers who had lost children in drunk-driving accidents. Inquests are regularly called to investigate deaths that people feel should never have happened, frequently with the goal of providing recommendations for changes that might prevent similar deaths from occuring. Countless people have attempted to change their lives for the better, as a memorial response to a loved-one's untimely demise.

I am the kind of person who likes to try to understand why things and people behave the way they do. I like figuring out systems, and how they work. Cause and effect, return on investment, these things are of great interest to me. I'm also strongly convinced in the appropriateness and validity of the evolutionary model. Since I perceive the existence of humanity's social nature as an evolutionary adaptation (just like intelligence and language), I am inclined to look at how people and societies behave through an evolutionary lens.

As such, I found myself wondering about the evolutionary impetus that produced the whole "meaningful death" response. Certainly, the basic drive of species survival in a cooperative society easily begets a taboo against unnecessary killing, and conversely encourages people to only give up their lives for the most gain. Really, it's just an extension of the mother-dying-to-protect-her-young behaviour displayed by countless higher animals. The drive to add meaning (which we can interpret as evolutionary value) to a death, however, is a significantly more complicated response, one that requires the species to possess an advanced sense of cause and effect. Specifically, someone must be affected by a meaningless death, recognize it's lack of evolutionary value, and decide to use the emotional energy generated by the event as a catalyst to effect a positive change in society, and therefore the species as a whole.

This is really an awesome concept, to me. An evolutionary adaptation to turn negatives into genuine positives (which at its root is simply making lemonade out of lemons) provides the species with a far greater advantage than any other species without such an adaptation. Partly, this is simply a factor of the intelligence adaptation, learning from our mistakes -- but I've seen dogs do that too. Really, this behaviour is a much more advanced step in our evolution.

Of course, like all evolutionary adaptations that rely on the base advantages of intelligence and society, the drive to add meaning to a meaningless death can be corrupted, or, more appropriately, poorly executed. The most basic example of such a poor execution is patriotic revenge: one of your people killed one of my people, so now I'm going to kill you (even though neither of us are directly involved in the incident). The Hatfield-McCoy feud is a perfect example of such a corruption of the drive.

(Let me be clear, though, that revenge, in general, has a very important place in the checks and balances of evolution and society. People are far less likely to wreak ill on another if they know there will be some sort of retribution, and revenge is the most personal of retributions.)

So, where am I going with this? Well, I guess this is really just a lengthy observation that using a negative incident to generate positive change is a better thing to do than letting the negativity reverberate and linger.

Also, I think there's a kernel in here somewhere that describes the interrelationship between ethics and evolution. Or something like that.



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