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What is Death?: A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life [Hardcover]

Tyler Volk
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)


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Book Description

March 1, 2002 0471375446 978-0471375449 1
what is death?
A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life
Answering the question ""What is death?"" by focusing on the individual is blinkered. It restricts attention to a narrow zone around the individual body of a creature. Instead, how expansive is the answer we receive when we look at the context of death within the biosphere. Death now is tied to all of life, via the atmosphere and ocean. Death supports the awesome biological enterprise of making abundant the green and squiggly life. Talk about death has headed us straight into a contemplation of life, not only individual life, but big life, life on a global scale. Death and life are neatly dovetailed by the supreme cabinetmaker of evolution. Again, the crucial feature is not the death of any one creature per se, but rather what is done with death. To reach into the meaning of death, we must reach out into the wider context of which death is a part.

Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

What is Death?

They are the questions that have challenged philosophers, theologians, artists, and ordinary human beings for millennia: Why are we born only to die? Does death have meaning? What happens to our "selves" after we die? In What Is Death?, biologist Tyler Volk considers these piercing questions from a unique perspective that allows him to offer readers alternatives to many traditional religious explanations.

Inspired by his own confrontation with mysterious neurological problems, Volk embarks on a personal exploration of the meaning of death and its powerful implications about the meaning of life. The answers–and further questions–that he discovers by asking "What is death?" are surprising, diverse, uplifting, and extraordinarily life-affirming.

What Is Death? examines the phenomenon of death from organic, personal, and social points of view. It sheds light upon the life spans of creatures and the role of cell death in bodily health; contemplates the links among the personal confrontation with death, our brain, and consciousness; and probes the customs and rituals that surround death in various cultures.

By illustrating how death is integral to life at every scale, What Is Death? will enable those who embrace its vision to live more vigorous, loving, and meaningful lives. This engrossing look into the mysteries of existence offers immensely rewarding reading to anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of the one universal fact of life: death.

From the Back Cover

what is death?

A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life

Answering the question ""What is death?"" by focusing on the individual is blinkered. It restricts attention to a narrow zone around the individual body of a creature. Instead, how expansive is the answer we receive when we look at the context of death within the biosphere. Death now is tied to all of life, via the atmosphere and ocean. Death supports the awesome biological enterprise of making abundant the green and squiggly life. Talk about death has headed us straight into a contemplation of life, not only individual life, but big life, life on a global scale. Death and life are neatly dovetailed by the supreme cabinetmaker of evolution. Again, the crucial feature is not the death of any one creature per se, but rather what is done with death. To reach into the meaning of death, we must reach out into the wider context of which death is a part.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (March 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471375446
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471375449
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,401,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tyler Volk is Science Director for Environmental Studies and Professor of Biology at New York University. Recipient of the NYU All-University Distinguished Teaching Award, Volk lectures and travels widely, communicates his ideas in a variety of media, plays lead guitar for the science-inspired rock band The Amygdaloids, and is an avid outdoorsman. Volk's previous books include CO2 Rising: The World's Greatest Environmental Challenge; Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind; and Gaia's Body: Toward a Physiology of Earth.

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A scientist bravely confronts mortality May 20, 2003
Format:Hardcover
In an era when religion's malignancy is becoming increasingly apparent, we urgently need to be shown that spirituality is quite compatible with a rational, scientific, areligious worldview. This task has been taken on by some very good books recently, notably "The Problem of the Soul" by the philosopher Owen Flanagan and "The Sacred Depths of Nature" by the biologist Ursula Goodenough. Another excellent addition to this genre is "What Is Death?" by the biologist Tyler Volk. He begins his narrative on a personal note, describing how a near-death experience left him anxiously pondering his mortality. We then follow him as he explores death from many different perspectives-genetic, neurological, ecological, cultural-and eventually arrives at a better understanding of how vital death is to life. Particularly fascinating is Volk's discussion of recent research showing how death influences our thoughts and behavior even when we are not consciously thinking about it, often by making us cling more tightly to our beliefs. These findings obviously have tremendous relevance for understanding post-9/11 events. "What Is Death?" has not entirely dissolved my fear of mortality; I don't think any book could do that. But after reading it, I felt more sympathy with the lines that end Robinson Jeffers's great poem "Night": "A few centuries/Gone by, was none dared not to people/The darkness beyond the stars with harps and habitations./But now, dear is the truth. Life is grown sweeter and lonelier,/And death is no evil."
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important to individuals and to the human species April 6, 2002
Format:Hardcover
Although beautifully written, "What is Death?" may be a challenging read for some because Tyler asks us to confront our mortality. The book is worth every second you spend with it.
Tyler presents information which is powerful and important to us as individuals. Equally important in this time when we are all confronted with the causes and effects of terrorism, Tyler presents important research about what all human beings do when confronted with mortality--which includes defending our worldviews more fiercely...
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Case for Gratitude November 9, 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There is nothing morbid about this book. Tyler Volk's openness and sincerity about the sometimes difficult topic of death had just the opposite effect. My understanding of life, and my gratitude for it, was enhanced. - In just over 200-pages, Volk covers a lot of territory. In three parts, he sensitively explores what neurologically makes us a conscious self, warmly discusses cultural attitudes, and knowledgeably looks at how the myriad forms of death make biological life possible. - If you enjoy reading about the natural sciences or social-cultural topics, you will enjoy this book. Because I enjoy both, I had a great time. It brought to mind cell biologist Ursula Goodenough's "The Sacred Depths of Nature," which I also found edifying. - As the author of "What is Death?," Tyler Volk comes across graciously human and without pretense. Unlike an aloof scientist narrowly consumed with a field of interest, I experienced Volk as down to earth and someone who shares the foibles and joys of being alive. Like each of us, he also is trying to come to terms with his own life and death. Volk's honesty in relating some of his personal journey enhances this fine volume.
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