Awareness of Death and Personal Mortality: Implications for Anthropogeny

Event Dates: 
Mar 3, 2017 -
1:00pm to 5:30pm

While certain warm-blooded social animals and birds appear to react selectively and specifically to the death of other members of their group, humans seem to be very unusual in the quality and extent of our responses, and in the ability to translate these experiences into an understanding of our personal mortality. When during childhood do these levels of understanding emerge?  What is the underlying neurobiological basis for fears of death and mortality?   When during human evolution did these fears emerge, and how did our ancestors tolerate them without sinking into an evolutionary dead end of depression or hopelessness? Assuming we found a solution to this dilemma, why are we still the only mammals that commit suicide? What does the archaeological, historical and cross-cultural record tell us about these matters? And what are the consequences for our current human condition, ranging from self-esteem to social organization, to political leanings? This symposium will bring together expert speakers from a wide range of different disciplines that are relevant to seeking answers to these questions. In the process we will gain a better understanding of how increasing awareness of death and personal mortality shaped the origin of humans.

Examples of Organizations Relevant to Death Awareness and Mortality:

Academic/Research Organizations General/Public Outreach Organizations

Event Sessions

Media for each talk can be played by clicking on icons in the "Media" column, or by clicking on the individual talk titles below and then the attachment file at the bottom of the page.

Date Media Session Title Speakers Abstract Location
Fri 3/3 File Welcome Fred Gage Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File Opening Remarks Nicholas Humphrey Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File Responses to Death in Chimpanzees and Other Mammals Dora Biro

How non-human animals respond to dead or dying conspecifics, and what their responses may reveal about the extent to which a concept of “death” is present outside the hominin lineage, are... more

Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File Why do Corvid Birds Gather Around Their Dead? John Marzluff

The discovery of a dead member of one’s own species is a profound, potentially emotional, and certainly informative experience.  Social species, from insects to humans, seem especially intrigued... more

Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File Understanding of Death and Mortality by Children Paul Harris

Two different research programs have addressed children’s developing conception of death. On the one hand, children have been viewed as apprentice biologists who come to view death as an... more

Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File What is Fear? And Is Fear of Death Really a “Fear”? Joseph LeDoux

Fear is generally considered a response to an immediately present threat. As a result, when scientists study fear they measure the way the brain detects and responds to threats.  These responses... more

Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File "Mind Over Reality Transition": The Evolution of Human Mortality Denial Ajit Varki

Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species––including certain mammals (cetaceans,... more

Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File The Archaeology of Immortality in the Ancient World Colin Renfrew

Deliberate burials appear in the archaeological with archaic Homo sapiens, c.1000,000 BP, cemeteries prior to the advent of agriculture (before 10,000 BP). Belief in immortality is difficult to... more

Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File Death as Celebration: Cross-Cultural Perspectives Rita Astuti

Humans, like all other living organisms, are born and die. This is an incontrovertible and non-negotiable fact. However, because of their unique representational capacities, humans across the... more

Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File Human Mortality Denial and Terror Management Theory Sheldon Solomon

In The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human... more

Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File The Lure of Death: Suicide as a Uniquely Human Phenomenon Nicholas Humphrey

Once humans began to understand that death brings to an end a person’s bodily and mental presence in the world, the possibility arose that in certain circumstances individuals would deliberately... more

Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Fri 3/3 File Wrap-up, Question and Answer Session, Closing Remarks Ajit Varki, All Speakers, Pascal Gagneux Salk Institute - Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium

Event Glossary

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