The Varieties of Death
In just about every History of Science course I've taken, within the first ten minutes or so the professor would ask the class to define 'science'. Answers which included the terms 'testable' or 'falsifiable predictions' were generally appreciated by the professor. My usual answer of “a model or theory which can be repeated” never really scored points. Harvard's Prof. William James' classic (James 1902), The Varieties of Religious Experience, was amazingly prophetic (much like today's Sam Harris, a leading atheist, who took a second Ph.D in neuroscience to better understand the 'why' of religious belief; see: Harris & Nawaz 2015), James proposed “...the religious are often neurotic” and “Primarily religion is a biological reaction.” I cannot aspire to match either the exactitude, comprehensiveness, or professionalism of Prof. James' outstanding work, but I can, within the scope and brevity of this column, highlight some important issues regarding the varieties of death. Yeah, and I'll have to offer 'my' understanding of what constitutes (human) life. I'd advise the reader to be comfortable, because I won't be. However, I will be as honest as I can.
Well, I might as well jump in with both feet and have at it... Natality, that is 'birthrate', has increased substantially since paleolithic times as the human population has grown to 7.3 billion give or take a million or so. More pertinent to this column is establishing or classifying the beginning of 'human' life. There are religious, ethical, legal, and other definitions, but I'll stick with science (and even with the modern scientific method, such may get a bit tricky). In ancient or Classical times, the Pythagoreans and Hippocrates believed human life began at fertilization or conception, as did the Indian Hindus. However, most ancient peoples held human life as beginning with a baby's first breath (easy example; see: KJV Genesis 2:7, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”). As far as Western thought and opinion, in the Early Middle Ages, St. Augustine of Hippo, as well as in the High Middle Ages and St. Thomas Aquinas, both believed unborn babies achieved ensoulment (the 'gaining' of a 'soul') around the 40th day after conception. A great many other classifications, beliefs, and laws throughout Europe and beyond, individually defined for themselves 'when' human life begins; to list ALL is beyond the scope of this short column. Even in the good ol' U.S. of A., we are divided, despite the U.S. Supreme Court 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade (410 U.S. 113), which legalized abortion and granted every woman control over her body. 32 years later, many, including Catholic protesters outside of abortion clinics harass pregnant women (though His Holiness Pope Francis has asked Catholics to show understanding and compassion toward people and ideas they do not personally agree with), and rednecks, close-minded individuals, and a vast majority of Republicans support OVERTURNING Roe v. Wade and allowing a government of idiots 'control' of a woman's body. For shame, America – may you soil yourselves often and painfully.
As stated above, I support science, though even the modern scientific method has disagreements as to what constitutes the death of a human being. I support a scientific definition of human death (sadly, based on a personal relationship example) as a cessation of cognitive function, i.e., brain-dead in the common vernacular. As far as American law, it varies from state to state and even from judge and coroner within individual states – which leaves us with science. Science can now keep a human body with a cessation of cognitive function 'alive' for many years. I believe the Roman Catholic Church supports science and evolution, as long as science equates sentience (self-awareness) with a 'soul'. Personal example: my dearest brother I grew up with (I've two older brothers aged 68 and 78), Robert Edward Flavin (adopted by my dad, as his given surname was Burkdoll, my mother's first husband). He was four and a half years older than I was – though I love and am honored to have two older brothers, Robby, then Rob, then, Bob, was and will always be my closest brother, as we traveled, fought, and grew up together. Rob/Bob worked a double-shift at his job, was sleepy, and asked a friend to drive his VW van home. At some odd early morning hour (1-2AM), his “friend"who was driving got blinded by oncoming headlights and veered a bit off the road. The van hit a tree, my brother Bob hit his head on steel, and was brain-dead instantly. Rob/Bob was in his prime, with a wife and two young children, and as fit and healthy as anyone could wish for. At Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, where my brother was transferred to, I was with my mother (and the music in the background was playing Barbara Streisand's “The Way We Were”), when the doctor told me and mom Rob was brain-dead and he'd like permission to take a few organs to help other people... Mom and I looked at one another, suppressing tears, and said, “Yes, if it will help others.” Yeah, the scientific definition of 'death' as the cessation of cognitive function is one I support for academic, legal, and personal reasons. I miss Rob, but I'm very proud parts of him helped others.
As to the title of this column, “The Varieties of Death,” I can offer three reasons or varieties: 1) senescence or dying of old age, 2) disease, and 3) injury, with many various subcategories. Let's begin, shall we?
1) Senescence – natural cellular breakdown commonly referred to as dying from old age. In modern times, the Guinness Book of Records acknowledged Mohammed bin Zarei of Saudi Arabia, who is thought to have lived to the age of 154, though no scientific or documentary evidence exists to support the claim. A recent case which was documented was that of Jeanne Calment of France (1875–1997), who lived to the age of 122 years. Hundreds of longevity claims (read: myths) may be found in every culture around the globe. Science, on the other and more reasonable hand, puts the upper limit of the human life span at between 100 and 120 years of age (Kaplan et al. 2000).
2) Disease – we may
classify diseases into several categories: airborne (various pathogens,
usually bacterium, viruses, and some fungi which are transmitted
through the air and infect through the act of breathing), foodborne
poisoning or infection (from contaminated foodstuffs contain
pathogenic bacteria, toxins, viruses, prions, or parasites, with Escherichia coli of E. coli
and salmonellosis caused by salmonella bacterium being unsettling too
common today), infectious (communicable diseases transmitted by touch
or handling something an infected person has touched, with examples of
the contagious being influenza and the common cold, or the communicable
which includes hepatitis, A.I.D.s, and all sexually transmitted
diseases), lifestyle (diseases brought on by being sedentary, gluttony
with unhealthy foodstuffs, and too much alcohol which can lead to liver
disease), and the non-communicable (not being transmissible such as
cancer and heart disease).
3) Injury (Fatal) – I would separate such with self-inflicted either accidentally or suicide, accidental, homicide, and malnutrition and other 'natural' fatal injuries, however others would divide the categories by activity, by cause, by location, and by modality, with examples presented for each category. I would refer the reader to scientific studies (Capron & Kass 1972; Cameron 1977; Shah et al. 2011) and not a series of systematic guesses. I'm going to ramble, now, as this column can not contain all variations of fatal injuries: what I mentioned above, plus activity (as in sports, climbing or biting , as well as occupational with machine malfunctions, and certain fatal transfusions or bites from acute lung injury remedies, poisoning from fish and reptiles, lightening electrocution [let's pair this with penal electrocution], traumatic fatal injury or shock from collision or movement, and [to be a completest] illnesses or injuries occurring during spaceflights), location which results in fatality (skin wounds, both open [cut or punctured] or closed [blunt trauma and a contusion], i.e., a deadly injury to the dermis or skin, various brain injuries which result in death, fatal nerve injuries, soft tissue and eye fatal injuries, as well as back, bilicry, chest, hand, head [penetrating or closed fatal injury], kidney, knee, liver, pancreatic, and fatal thoracic injury). While not all injuries are fatal, many are. Like modality (with fatal avulsion, blast, burning, catastrophic, crushing, microwave [and other lethal exposures, i.e., Gamma and other exposures to radiation], repetitive strain injuries, and toxic fatal injuries from either pharmaceutical, vaccine, or others), as in, the way things happen... Here, really bad and fatal things.
As I stated above, this column was NEVER meant to be a complete, final , academically or philosophically evaluation of the various varieties of death. I believed a short overview should be presented and I hope you, the reader, can not only appreciate my effort, but think for yourself about the above. As Spock said: “Live long and prosper!”
Capron and Kass. 1972. “A Statutory Definition of the Standards for Determining Human Death: An Appraisal and a Proposal.” By Alexander Morgan Capron and Leon R. Kass. University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 121,1: 87-118.
Harris, Sam and Maajid Nawaz. 2015. Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue. Cambrdidge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kaplan et al. 2000. “A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence, and Longevity.” By H. S. Kaplan, K. Hill, J. B. Lancaster, and A. M. Hurtado. Evolutionary Anthropology. 9: 156-185.
James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. New York: Longmans, Green & Co.
Shah et al. 2011. “Death and Legal Fictions.” By Selma K. Shah, Robert D. Truog, and Franklin G. Miller. Journal of Medical Ethics. 37, 12: 719-722.
I'm SO tempted to put pepperoni and green peppers on my Tombstone,