Sex and the Origins of Death

Sex and the Origins of Death

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Death, for bacteria, is not inevitable. Protect a bacterium from predators, and provide it with adequate food and space to grow, and it would continue living--and reproducing asexually--forever. But a paramecium (a slightly more advanced single-cell organism), under the same ideal conditions, would stop dividing after about 200 generations--and die. Death, for paramecia and their offspring, is inevitable. Unless they have sex. If at any point during that 200 or so generations, two of the progeny of our paramecium have sex, their clock will be reset to zero. They and their progeny are granted another 200 generations. Those who fail to have sex eventually die. Immortality for bacteria is automatic; for all other living beings--including humans--immortality depends on having sex. But why is this so? Why must death be inevitable? And what is the connection between death and sexual reproduction? In Sex and the Origins of Death , William R. Clark looks at life and death at the level of the cell, as he addresses such profound questions as why we age, why death exists, and why death and sex go hand in hand. This book is intended for general public with interest in science, health care professionals and students, gerontologists, thanatologists.show more

Product details

  • Hardback | 202 pages
  • 152.4 x 220.98 x 22.86mm | 385.55g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 7 line drawings, bibliography
  • 019510644X
  • 9780195106442

Review Text

Speculations on life and death from a professor of cellular biology at UCLA. "We die because our cells die," Clark says. Death is "the evolutionary consequence of the way we reproduce ourselves." The sole function of cells, human or otherwise, is to replicate their DNA; once finished, they are programmed to die. That is, once a job is done, such as growing fingers out of weblike structures in human embryos, certain cells have no further task and die. "Programmed" is a key word here: In a number of clever laboratory experiments, healthy cells reproduce themselves only to a point, and undergo a process of exploding outward, called apoptosis. If the process is blocked, cells have a tendency to become cancerous and, at the least, will stop dividing. Only cancer cells and certain ancient single-celled life forms are, in a manner of speaking, immortal, but they, too, will eventually die by overcrowding or when they run out of food. Clark proceeds to discuss how the nature of cell death relates to the agonizing debate over a patient's "right to die," detailing the strange findings of Karen Ann Quinlan's autopsy and relating it to yet another incidence of near-death: the spores produced by certain animal forms in times when nature makes it hard to reproduce. The minuscule spores of briny shrimp truly seem to be dead but, when chilled to absolute zero and placed in the correct environment, will begin the cycle again. Clark ends by speculating about so-called "nonsense DNA." Is it a useless relic of the evolutionary process, or does it hold the keys to an explanation of why we must die, and even why we are here in the first place? His discussion of biology flows into a discussion of metaphysics. Strikingly well argued and clear. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

About William R. Clark

About the Author: William R. Clark is Professor of Immunology and Chair of the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at UCLA. An internationally recognized authority on cellular immune responses, he is the author of At War Within: The Double Edged Sword of Immunity.show more

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52 ratings
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