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A zoologist offers an upbeat meditation on death

Death on Earth: Adventures in Evolution and Mortality

Jules Howard
Bloomsbury USA
2016
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Death. It happens to all living things, from the tiniest of cyanobacteria to the most enormous of elephants and everything in between. In a universe spiraling toward chaos (see the second law of thermodynamics), life is a rare bastion of order, but we living things can’t stave of the inevitable forever. From the moment we are born, the chaos starts to build: Telomeres shorten, free radicals accumulate, and we encounter things that want to eat or maim us from inside and out. Sooner or later, the chaos wins, and we die—bleak, I know, but hear me out.

I’m ashamed to admit that, as an evolutionary biologist, I’d never thought too deeply or thoroughly about death as a scientific phenomenon. I just sort of took it for granted, much as I presume most other biologists do. But Jules Howard’s Death on Earth made me see death from many new angles, introducing such topics as the physics and thermodynamics governing the maintenance of life, human and animal perceptions of dying, and the evolutionary pressures that act on senescence and death itself. Howard spends each chapter digging into (sometimes quite literally) different aspects of death, from longevity to suicide, mourning, and decomposition, just to name a few. What results is an altogether eye-opening, engaging, and enjoyably humorous (but never distasteful) guided tour through the world of death.

Howard’s curiosity and keen eye for the unusual within the natural world take this book to places that few other writers would willingly go. In one scene, he leads the reader through a farm full of decaying pigs in northern England in order to provide a fuller appreciation for the successional living communities that benefit from death: from the bluebottle blowflies that lay their eggs in decaying flesh to the beetles and wasps that feed and parasitize on the flies’ of spring. In another, he plants a magpie corpse in the woods and patiently waits to see whether local crows and jays will host a “funeral” (a cacophonous gathering observed after a death in some corvid populations). The mourners never show.

Humor runs throughout the book (often as parenthetical asides), adding depth to what is already a wonderfully written piece of nonfiction. Unusually absurd imagery is peppered throughout the book, including a scene in which Howard must smuggle a dead magpie across England (for the aforementioned funeral experiment) and another in which he engages in a shouting match with his 3-year-old daughter in an ultimately vain attempt to get her to grasp the concept of death.

Howard’s self-aware commentary makes the book feel less like a rigid science text and more like a fast-paced conversation with an eccentric, death-obsessed friend. Readers who enjoy the quirky narrative writing styles of Mary Roach or Bill Bryson will be happy to have picked up this book.

Overall, Death on Earth provides a multifaceted treatment of the many aspects of the science surrounding mortality (and immortality). It’s an incredibly approachable and oddly enjoyable exposition of a topic about which many of us would rather not think (probably because it scares us to death).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.