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UC San Diego To Probe How Humans Became Aware Of Death

March 2, 2017 1:53 p.m.

UC San Diego To Probe How Humans Became Aware Of Death


Ajit Varki, co-director, Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny

Related Story: UC San Diego To Probe How Humans Became Aware Of Death


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Everything that is alive on the planet eventually dies but it is the special lot of human beings to be the only's issues with an awareness of our own mortality. The question of how that awareness of death has factored into our evolution and neurobiology is the focus of the latest symposium at the center in San Diego. The conference will touch on the neurological basis for fears of death and how our ancestors were able to tolerate these fears without becoming despondent or depressed. Joining me is the codirector of the Center for academic research and training in anthropogeny. He is a cellular and molecular medicine professor at UC San Diego. Welcome to the program.
My pleasure to be here.
Just as a reminder to our listeners anthropogeny is the study of human origins and there wouldn't be some that might argue that the awareness of our mortality is what makes us human. Would you agree?
The similar origins of humans we tend to focus on things and understanding about death and how we deal with it that is the focus of the symposium.
We have all heard stories about how chimpanzees or crows are dolphins or elephants responded and there are smart intelligent creatures that can recognize death when it happens but no other species seems to as far as we do in the follow up to such advance -- events and the question is why that is the question of the focus of the symposium and it tears that we became of not only the death of others for their own mortality and that becomes a question of how do we deal with that.
When that sense of mortality developed did it go hand-in-hand with the fear of death?
This is one of the conundrums because any animal should be afraid of its death but not know about it but have a intrinsically built-in. And some point it became a conscious fear. It should have been disabling. During the symposium we discussed how they got through this problem.
What is your theory?
My theory is that we had to at the same time and the same mind to my reality. You learn that the humans are good at denying all kinds of reality ranging from personal health to climate change so we seem to have a built-in pinch shot -- penchant for it.
In this case denying of that reality might have saved us from a fate worse than death. That is sort of the species not being able to progress.
Yes in fact one of the speakers in my country from Cambridge will be speaking on the topic of suicide so that is defined as the deliberate taking of one's own life appears to be uniquely human. Obviously you cannot take your own life unless he knew that you were model the question is how did we humans not and up just all committing suicide. It is a major problem in all societies because the rates increase.
It would seem our denial of reality about our own mortality is not all-encompassing.
Yes it is clearly not sufficient. And another talk you will hear about a management theory from Sheldon Solomon and it turns out that if you remind people of the mortality the mental functioning --
That is what we are doing now. Should we apologize?
At the same time you know we are laughing which is also a feature of human. We left that death. As part of the symposium we will probably not just quotes about death but also cartoons about death because they will see how they laugh at their own death.
Is the way that we deal with the knowledge of our mortality change over time. To modern humans look at it differently?
We will discuss from prehistoric times to all the societies went together. There are changes but the basic features are still the same.
What are some of the questions that the conference hopes to answer.
We will talk about how this denial that we have affect other things that we deal. Why is it that suicide that we mentioned is so common and what can we do about it?
Despite many of them do not recognize it why is it that none of them commit suicide. At the end of the day and is part of the ongoing quest to say where did we come from and how did we get here which is the theme of Carter.
Can we approve -- improve our awareness of death.
There are groups like death Café and other groups that suggest we can do a better job of dealing with death if we can face in a rational fashion without being afraid. The tendency is to not talk about it. The tendency is to avoid the issue as much as possible but it probably needs to be more open discussion about death and implications.
The conference on awareness of death and personal mortality takes place tomorrow afternoon at the salt Institute's auditorium and I've been speaking with the codirector of the Center for academic research and training in anthropogeny. Thank you.
Thank you very much.