Efficiency Above All: A Biological Look at Suicide
"And let me ask you this; the dead,
where aren't they?"
– Franz Wright, New Yorker Magazine, Oct. 6, 2003
"Dear Mom and Dad," the letter begins benignly, "Thank you for all of your commitment. But I am not a suitable daughter, and you will all be better off without me. Please realize I have done this for your own good." Nothing more. And beside it, Mr. and Mrs. A find their daughter, dead by her own hand.
So begin the episodes of anguished soul-searching, of horrific "if-onlys" experienced by the family members of countless suicides. Anyone who has faced what Mr. and Mrs. A now grapple with knows that the girl is wrong: they will not be better off, not feel happier, without her. Yet each year, thousands of suicide victims express similar convictions: I am killing myself, they reassure us, for your own good. This thinking – this appeal for selflessness that our society cannot condone – where does it come from? Why, in truth, do people kill themselves?
The problem of suicide ravages the minds of its survivors – of philosophers – and, more recently, of psychologists. We simply cannot understand it. Why suicide? While many non-biological scientists are inclined to define suicide as a conscious act – thereby excluding, perhaps, all non-human self-inflicted deaths (1), (2) – lets us stick with the more basic definition of suicide as self-murder, with or without cognitive "knowledge" or "intent" (***). And, as the concerned psychologists plunge on in their direction, let us examine this problem from a different standpoint, that of biology. In order to make sense of the biology of suicide, however, we must first understand the more general omnipresent phenomenon: death.
All life has a catch: it ends. No living thing can escape death. Not only do people, animals and plants die, the components of living systems also die independently from their hosts, and continually (3). It begins in the fetus, whose extra, formative cells – like the webbing between the fingers and toes – die at a certain stage in development (4), (5). But cells also die by the trillions in the stretch between birth and death. In fact, every cell in the human body (except select nerve cells) will reproduce and die at least once during the human lifetime (4). Some cells, such as skin cells, die daily; we live beneath a protective layer entirely composed of dead skin cells (6). Truly, death exists all around us, upon us, within us. There is no escape.
But why – why death? Well, this mysterious force that we fear above all else works to keep life in balance. If living things did not die, but new things were born, then life would accumulate until it ran out of space and resources and could not survive. And if new life were not born – if reproduction did not exist – then life could not grow and change and increase in diversity. Life would be stagnant, and this WOULD NOT BE LIFE as we call it. For this reason, both...