The book is also a record of how the world has perceived biology in recent times
The book is also a record of how the world has perceived biology in recent times

'Why We Die' book review: Solace to the temporality of the animate

This book offers a panoramic view of the unfolding of the secrets of ageing and death in crisp cogent writing that unfolds as a journey.

There is something uncouth, almost delicately unspeakable, about death. It is best left out of art, plans, social interactions, and especially, books. Yet, nothing is as inevitable. Most of us won’t prep for it, and we most certainly do not, even for a moment, ponder upon the science of death. Yet, as the author of Why We Die points out, we witness death and educate ourselves on the slow unravelling and decay of many systems, including those of civilisations, cities, organisations and organisms.

It takes a prolific genius to take a bull by its horns, to stare down death until it gives up some of its highly encrypted secrets. And thus, not only do we have an exquisite exposition on death, its science and a 360-degree view of its domain; we are treated to the most nuanced understanding of the science behind the process of a demise by molecular biologist and Nobel Prize recipient, Venki Ramakrishnan. The expert dissemination in the simplest language of rather complex notions and through prolonged engagement with past practitioners of the science of biology is the core reader experience.

Structured almost like a page-turner of a whodunit, questions and hypotheses fly at each other, flop or survive and then usher us further on this quest. A who’s who of scientists appear: Darwin, Lamarck, Newton, Einstein or Fleming, in a dazzling array to implant their theories, provide counterpoint and take the discussion ahead with disarming ease. This is, at the same time, a profound research report tome as well as an introduction, for the lay reader, to the fascinating world of pertinent science: that encompasses soil worms, killer whales and Alzheimer’s in humans.

Part enquiry, part a summation of scientific advances, the book is also a record of how the world has perceived biology in recent times and how that has stretched the limits of our understanding of ourselves and the world. “Clinton said, ‘Today we are learning the language in which God created life,’ while Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and passionate atheist, said, ‘along with Bach’s music, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the Apollo space program, the Human Genome Project is one of those achievements of the human spirit that makes me proud to be human.’”

Ordinary life events we experience, but do not understand the science of how or why they occur, are demystified as well in this circular discussion on ageing and death: for example, menopause which is unique to humans. “…perhaps menopause developed as an adaptation to maximise the chances of a woman’s children growing up—and thus propagating her genes. This is the so-called good mother hypothesis… The grandmother hypothesis for the origin of menopause takes the idea one generation further.”

How biologists combine theory with data and observable behaviour is laid out with fascinating ease. The story of the discovery, and the subsequent investigation of the potential wonder drug rapamycin—with a myriad of ramifications for human health and longevity—is not only beautifully elucidated, but also alerts us to the global effort it takes for even a minor step forward in medicine. Scientists, and generations of them, form almost an army that is relentlessly on its march ahead in the service of knowledge and humanity. That science truly does stand on the shoulders of giants, and that only via a free interchange of findings and of theories between scientists otherwise geographically or chronologically separated, alert us to a community of legends we would otherwise not know of. It is especially delightful to find India and religious diversity in our country find a mention in this work as also the Indian propensity towards diabetes and obesity. That the towering scientist JBS Haldane lived and worked in India is another discovery. What is especially eye-opening is superstar linguist GN Devy’s views on death almost encompassing the distillate of Indian philosophy with Buddha-like detachment: one strives to be indifferent to it. “So even if we as individuals die, our society, and indeed life on earth, will go on. Our own genes will live on our offspring or other family members. Life has been going on continuously for several billion years while we individuals come and go.”

As a book, Why We Die redefines the scope of a book. Rarely do lay readers have access to the workings of the finest minds or of the thrust of science at its highest level. This offers a panoramic view of the unfolding of the secrets of ageing and death in crisp cogent writing that unfolds as a journey, delightful at every pitstop. It represents a culmination of learning deciphered in relevant terminology and offered as solace to the temporality of the animate.

Why We Die

By: Venki Ramakrishnan

Publisher: Hachette

Pages: 243

Price: Rs 699

The New Indian Express