Brett Williams's Reviews > Sex and the Origins of Death

Sex and the Origins of Death by William R. Clark
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it was amazing
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Why we die and how to beat it.

From the outset, what UCLA’s Wm. Clark reports is staggering: Death is “not an obligatory attribute of life,” he writes, and did not appear with the advent of it. Cellular aging resulting in death may not have occurred for more than a billion years after life’s first entry on earth. Programmed cell death (PCD) which we suffer (displayed through wrinkles and forgetfulness) seems to have arisen about the time cells were experimenting with sex.

Sex is an energy costly activity, engaged in because it rolls the genetic dice, inviting variations with each new offspring. An advantage because with environmental change what was well suited in the old world is often not suited for the new. Gene variations result, and through natural selection, a few offspring amongst the dying progenitors may survive to save the species. For example, bacteria reproduce though cloning themselves, and can do so at a rate of 16 million per hour from one parent (take your antibiotics). But when the environment becomes harsh, bacterial parents spontaneously engage in sex, swapping genes with others as a gamble on survival.

In a description of catastrophic cell death, Clark displays a talent to meet or exceed even Sagan’s best – clear, rich, compelling. Here heart attack, and the wonder of cell machinery resist the inevitable as systems and their backups struggle to counter power failures and starvation in a chain reaction of fading miracles. Like a community, some components are wholly unaware of disaster while others sacrifice themselves, transferring energy to last lines of defense - pumps stationed in cell walls countering a siege of water pressing in about to wash them away.

Such stunning, intentioned actions of this tiny, helpless, complex organism, the cell (of which we possess about 100 trillion – as many cells as there are stars in the nearest 400 spiral galaxies including the Milky Way!) is starkly contrasted against our cell’s decision to commit suicide. This happens when life is late, or as early as the womb when ancient relics of evolution are flushed out of us - like reminders of an ocean origin when interdigital webbing of our onetime fins are removed through PCD, leaving what’s left between our fingers. Once the nucleus decides to pull the trigger, one last set of instructions emerge as its DNA begins disassembling. All the while a stack of unread commands are being executed by unwary elements of the cell. The cell detaches from its neighbors, undulates, breaking into globules while still ignorant workers in these blobs work away, floating into a void, devoured by immune systems. Awful…

But there are rays of hope for immortality. “Growth factors” are given to cells like lymphocytes to put a safety on their trigger. And there are executioners in this tragedy, T-Cells. Having spotted an invader they do not murder the foreigner, they command the interloper to kill itself, orders dutifully followed. T-Cells know the security code.

Clarks notes an important difference between us and other “primitive” life forms. For example, paramecium dodge death by letting their macro-nuclei run the show while a micro-version lays dormant. After enough cell splitting, it has sex with another paramecium. Its macro-nuclei suffers PCD and the micro takes over as a newly minted micro-nucleus goes to sleep. Once eukaryotic cells (what we’re made of) became multicellular, reproductive DNA would be not only kept in separate nuclei (as the paramecium) but in separate cells – our germ cells (sperm, egg). The rest of us, our bodies, are their guardians, not only redundant and irrelevant but we turn dangerous with too many divisions. When our germ cells meet others, clocks are reset just as they are for paramecium. Sex can save our germ cells but it cannot save us.

These growth factors, security codes, telemeres or some other mechanism may finally be commandeered to salvage us from oblivion. For now, as Clark writes, we must die and there are many mechanisms built into us to make sure we do. Death does not just happen, it is worked toward, with safeguards to assure cells don’t backslide into immortality – as cancer cells do, a recipe for disaster. The winner is our species because germ cells are immortal through sex as we contribute molecular chains of ourselves to the future and whoever is made of us. Clark reveals this and so much more. A pure joy to read.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 21, 2014 – Shelved
April 29, 2014 – Shelved as: favorites

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Rachel Y wow just stumbled on the fact you read this too and wrote this stunning synopsis and review. of course we'd both love it!! i'd really like to reread it... i don't know what i was doing reading it in high school, haha. my AIM screen name was apoptosis, not morbid at all right? plz let me know if there are any other books like this that you've read that i should read (and i will also go troll your favorites shelf now.) trying to ramp up my non-fiction reads...

message 2: by Brett (last edited Sep 01, 2017 07:35PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brett Williams Hi again, "Apoptosis"


Hmm... Non-fiction like this. Well, Anything by Timothy Ferris is usually a pretty good bet. Sagan's "Demon Haunted World," really good. (His "Billions and Billions" was awful.) Three other swell reads over different subjects are Peter Gay's "Enlightenment: Rise of Modern Paganism," really good writer and the National Book Award winner for this one. Allan Bloom's "Shakespeare's Politics," short and good. And Bloom's "Love and Friendship." Boy, I miss that guy's brain.

OH! And heavens... If you're interested in a history of religion, Marcel Gauchet, "Disenchantment of the World." Wow, wow.

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