Evolution solves myriad problems, so why do living things die? “Death is the biggest problem of all, surely….Why hasn’t it been whipped into shape by natural selection?”
No one knows for sure, admits British zoologist and journalist Howard (Sex on Earth: A Journey Through Nature's Most Intimate Moments, 2014) in this breezy, scattershot exploration of the topic. The author explains current theories in the early pages and then occasionally returns to them in a score of unrelated, often quirky chapters on natural history with an emphasis on extinction, dying, and death. In an early chapter, Howard describes placing a dead magpie in a field to observe how fellow magpies respond. Would they mourn? “Would they view it as an interloper? Would they feed off it?” No, they mostly ignored it until a fox carried it away days later. Less blasé, humans rarely ignore a dead human. Death gives us the creeps. Everyone loathes maggots, and most people—but not the author—have a low opinion of animals that eat the dead: vultures, buzzards, kites, hyenas, etc. Howard writes of a 13-acre body farm filled with pigs in various stages of decomposition: a center in forensic research on determining the time of death. Bugs and smells feature prominently. He learns that many creatures die immediately after reproducing, but delaying sexual maturity by a very low-calorie diet prolongs life, often spectacularly—in some animals but not others. Howard also chronicles his visit to a huge, commercial exhibition on life extension, an event that gives the impression of a charlatan’s convention: some of the participating vendors included “DermaNutri…EDM Therapy, Forever Living Products, [and] iGrow Hair Laser Rejuvenation System.”
Less a thoughtful investigation than a collection of journalistic essays, interviews, and personal experiences related to death, many of which are not for readers with weak stomachs.