The Evolution of Death

Why We Are Living Longer

By Stanley Shostak

Subjects: Philosophy Of Science
Series: SUNY series in Philosophy and Biology
Paperback : 9780791469460, 260 pages, October 2006
Hardcover : 9780791469453, 260 pages, October 2006

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Death the Mystery
Part I. How Biology Makes Sense of Death
                1. Evolution: Death’s Unifying Principle
                                Death Evolves!
                                False Clues: Where Science Got It Wrong
                                In Sum
                2. Charting Death’s Evolution and Life’s Extension
                                Measuring Death’s Evolution: Empirical Evidence
                                Modeling the Evolution of Lifetimes
                                Accommodating Increased Longevity
                                In Sum
                3. Rethinking Lifecycles and Arrows
                                Life as a Cycle: Lifecycles Connect Life to Life
                                Adaptations to Lifecycles
                                The Linear View of Life: Life’s Arrow
                                What Is Wrong with the Weismann/Haeckel Doctrine
                                In Sum
                4. Keeping Life Afloat
                                Why Is Life So Profligate?
                                Gambling on Life: Death against the Odds
                                Improving Profit Margins
                                In Sum
Part II. How Death Evolves and Where It Is Heading
                5. Putting Cells in the Picture
                                Cellular Theories of Life and Death
                                The Cell’s Role in Growth and Development
                                The Cell’s Role in Maintenance and Regeneration of Adult Tissues
                                The Cell’s Role in Death
                                The Cell’s Potential Role in Regeneration Therapy
                                In Sum
                6. Neoteny and Longevity
                                The Time Is Out of Joint
                                Juvenile Life Expectancy Spreads Upward
                                Neoteny and the Germ Line
                                Fecundity Is Decreasing
                                In Sum
                How Death’s Evolution Escaped the Gerontologist’s Notice
                Where Will Death’s Evolution Take Us?
Appendix: Different Forms of Life and Death

Argues that death is not unchanging, but rather has evolved over time.


In The Evolution of Death, the follow-up to Becoming Immortal: Combining Cloning and Stem-Cell Therapy, also published by SUNY Press, Stanley Shostak argues that death, like life, can evolve. Observing that literature, philosophy, religion, genetics, physics, and gerontology still struggle to explain why we die, Shostak explores the mystery of death from a biological perspective.

Death, Shostak claims, is not the end of a linear journey, static and indifferent to change. Instead, he suggests, the current efforts to live longer have profoundly affected our ecological niche, and we are evolving into a long-lived species. Pointing to the artificial means currently used to prolong life, he argues that as we become increasingly juvenilized in our adult life, death will become significantly and evolutionarily delayed. As bodies evolve, the embryos of succeeding generations may be accumulating the stem cells that preserve and restore, providing the resources necessary to live longer and longer. If trends like this continue, Shostak contends, future human beings may join the ranks of other animals with indefinite life spans.

Stanley Shostak is Associate Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh and is the author of several books, including Evolution of Sameness and Difference: Perspectives on the Human Genome Project.


"The author has an innovative, if eccentric, notion about why human longevity has increased so dramatically over the past few centuries." — Quarterly Review of Biology

"Who isn't fascinated by the topic of death, and who wouldn't want to know what scientists can tell us about it? I see Shostak's book as laying the foundation for an intriguing discussion of the relationship between death and morality, social justice and longevity, and aging and the good life." — Robert M. Johnson, author of A Logic Book: Fundamentals of Reasoning, Fifth Edition