Part I: The Intrusion of Death
Death: Event Or Process?
But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil
thou shalt not eat of it:
for in the day thou eatest thereof
dying thou shalt die.
Because of the
importance to the living of transplanted organs from the recently
dead, one of the great problems today is that of establishing
when death has really occurred. What is death by definition,
a process or an event? By what criteria is death to be certified
in any particular case ‹ especially when the living are waiting
to benefit from it?
The situation is viewed differently by
the biologist, the medical man, and the legal authority. The
biologist may say that the problem is so complex that a facetious
answer is about the best that one can give at the present: the
difference between a live body and a dead one is that a competent
physicist could predict what would happen if you kick a corpse
but not if you kick a live body! This is another way of saying
that the living are distinguishable from the non-living chiefly
because they are unpredictably reactive.
Even the medical people have in the past
adopted the same basic principle in so far as they view the absence
of responsiveness or reactivity to various stimuli as the most
convincing evidence of real death. This is valid up to a point,
but recent resuscitative techniques have seriously challenged
As a result of a legal dispute involving
an inheritance, it became necessary quite recently to determine
precisely which of two men,
who had both been killed
in an accident together, had actually died first. The Harvard
Medical School set up an ad hoc Committee to establish
a definition of death suitable for such emergencies. They published
their report under the heading, "A Definition of Irreversible
Their basic conclusion at the time (1968) was that four criteria
may be used, which are as follows:
1. Total unresponsitivity, i.e.,
total unawareness of externally applied stimuli, even when painful,
by vocal or other response, including groans, or withdrawal of
limb, or quickening of respiration.
2. No movement or breathing over
a period of at least one hour. Artificial respiration to be cut
off to see whether any attempt at breathing would be made within
a period of three minutes.
3. No reflexes: the pupil fixed,
dilated, and unresponsive to a light source. Since the establishment
of a fixed dilated pupil is clear-cut in clinical practice, it
was felt that there should be no uncertainty in such a case.
4. Flat encephalogram for 24 hours
with no measurable change.
NOTE: in each case the assumption is made that there is no
evidence of hypothermia (temperature below 90 F. or 32.2 C.)
or the use of central nervous system depressants such as barbiturates.
In the light
of these criteria it is interesting to note that legal opinion
was at that time committed to the definition of death as given
in Black's Law Dictionary, which reads: "Death occurs
precisely when life ceases and does not occur until the heart
stops beating and respirations end. Death is not a continuous
event but an event which takes place at a precise time."
Undoubtedly, this legal position will have to be modified, for
measures are now possible for the revival of the "dead"
under circumstances which blur the issues in very embarrassing
ways. Indeed, as Professor F. Camps said (in reviewing a book
entitled The Chemistry of Death by W. E. D. Evans), "It
would now appear to be possible to die several times on the basis
of medical evidence." (37) The pertinence of this remark and the serious nature
of the problem will be seen from the following illustrations.
In 1962 there appeared in World-Wide
Abstracts from General Medicine a report by a Dr. E. Doskaoh
from India of a case of resuscitation under rather extraordinary
A young man in the northern part of that country was apparently
thrown from a tractor in the middle of winter during a severe
snowstorm, with only
36. Special communnication, Journal American
Medical Association, vol.205, 1968, p.337.
2 of 15
37. Camps, F., The New Scientist, 27 Feb., 1964, p.558f.
38. Doskaoh, E. Worldwide Abstracts of General Medicine,
vol.5, no.2, 1962.
minor injuries which
nevertheless brought about his collapse. He was found later in
the field, manifestly dead, his whole body covered with hoarfrost
and his limbs "ringing like wood when struck with a percussion
hammer." A film of ice covered his wide open eyes, and no
breathing, heart beat, or pulse could be detected. He was taken
to a local hospital and treated with heaters, rubbed with alcohol
and bathed in hot water. Heart massage and artificial respiration
were started and 150 ml. of blood was injected intra-arterially,
and glucose and alcohol intravenously. After forty minutes of
artificial respiration, signs of spontaneous breathing became
evident. Five minutes later a faint pulse could be felt.
One hour and fifty minutes after
the start of resuscitation, the man was clearly alive, although
remaining unconscious for some time. Upon the return of consciousness,
he was able to describe how the accident had occurred. He later
developed pneumonia and showed some signs of mental disorder,
from both of which he recovered. The terminal two phalanges had
to be amputated from four fingers of his right hand and three
of his left. No mention is made of any other operation being
required. One year later the man was able to return to work.
The Russians have had somewhat
similar experiences with frozen men. V. A. Negovsky and V. I.
Soboleva have reported the case of a tractor driver named Vladimir
Kharin, on a farm in Tselinny Territory, who was caught in a
snowstorm when his tractor stalled. (39) For two hours he tried to get it working again until
with hands numb his strength gave way. The engine refused to
start and Kharin began to walk on foot back to the state farm
which was some ten miles away. His last thought before losing
consciousness was that he was only twenty-three, had a wife and
daughter, and very much wanted to live. After he had lain in
the snow for about three hours, he was found by a crew of workmen
from the Yaroslavsky State Farm in the Aktyubinsk Region. He
appeared to be dead, his frozen fists were tightly clenched,
his still body sounded hollow and wooden upon the floor of the
truck where he was laid, and his eyes, covered with a film of
ice, were glassy.
He was taken to a hospital and
examination showed that both heart and respiration had stopped
and his pupils did not react to light. His skin, instead of the
usual corpse-like pallor, was bluish-purple in colour. It thus
seemed that he might still be in a state of clinical rather than
biological death. An attempt was made to save him.
The heroic measures taken are then
described. After forty minutes he began to revive, his skin became
warm and his pulse could just be detected. Consciousness returned
twelve hours after the patient had been admitted to the hospital
and he was able to answer questions. Several months later Kharin
39. Negovsky, V.A. and V.I. Sobelva, "Delaying
the Process of Death", Discovery, Dec., 1964, p.20.
sufficiently to return
to his job.
It will be noted
in both these cases that most of the accepted signs of death
were manifested. It will also occur to a knowledgeable reader
that some brain damage might have been expected. However, the
situation was such that both men were undoubtedly in a state
of deep hypothermia, a circumstance which protected their central
nervous systems from damage due to lack of oxygen. If we were
guided by the four criteria listed in the Harvard Medical School
Committee Report, we would have to say that both these men were
indeed clinically and legally dead ‹ but they
were clearly not biologically dead.
A classic example of a man who
"died" several times and finally recovered from the
ordeal is the case of the Soviet theoretical physicist, Dr. Leo
Davidovich Landau. (40)
This renowned teacher with an international reputation, on the
morning of January 7, 1962, was involved in a car accident in
which he was so badly injured that the medical report refers
to his condition as being "simply appalling." He was
rushed to a hospital in Moscow still breathing but terribly injured.
Examination revealed a fractured skull, nine fractured ribs ‹
some of which had pierced the membrane enveloping the lung, the
left lung had collapsed, on the right side blood had accumulated
in the pleural cavity and that lung was also partially collapsed.
Three pelvic bones were broken as well as the left leg, and shattered
bone had perforated an unknown number of internal organs. In
spite of tremendous efforts made to keep him alive, Dr. Landau
died literally time after time, being again and again revived
by the taking of extraordinary measures in which a team, composed
of the very best brains that Europe and America could provide,
co-operated. Time after time his breathing and pulse stopped
and he was, to all intents and purposes, clinically dead. Yet
eleven months later Dr. Landau was well enough to walk to a brief
ceremony in a hospital conference room to receive the Nobel Prize
Until very recently, it was such
instances as these that had driven specialists to conclude that
the only safe criterion of real death is the total absence of
any electroencephalographic signal for a period of twenty-four
hours, assuming there is no evidence of severe hypothermia (from
cold exposure) or the use of depressant drugs. This has been
referred to more simply as "electrocerebral silence."
However, even this criterion has recently been shown not to be
dependable. Under the title, "Death Needs Better Definition"
(41) two cases
have recently been reported from Israel which seriously challenge
the usefulness of electrocerebral silence as absolute proof of
death, although the report does admit that in probably 99.9%
of cases it would be adequate. The first exceptional case reported
is that of a fifteen year old boy
40. Dr. Leo Davidovich Landau: The Man
They Wouldn't Let Die, Alexander Dorozynski, New York, Macmillan,
41 "Death Needs Better Definition", Science Journal,
Feb., 1969, p.11, 13, over the signature of Hadassah Gillon.
who fell into a deep
cave while on a hike. On admission to the hospital, he was in
a profound coma, a condition which technically means a total
absence of reactivity to any stimuli. His pupils were widely
dilated and did not respond to light. Nor did he react to painful
stimuli in any way. Shortly after admission he stopped breathing
and artificial respiration was begun. The electroencephalograph
(EEG) reading of the electrical activity of the brain was completely
flat. He therefore had fulfilled the four conditions of true
death according to the Harvard Committee Study.
Nevertheless, he was kept on artificial
respiration in order to maintain a pulse and on drugs to keep
the blood pressure up, although throughout this period the EEG
reading was flat. The report continues: "Then his condition
began to improve, spontaneous respiration was regained and the
EEG changed. After a further week he was conscious, and two months
after the accident the boy was physically and mentally in an
excellent condition with a normal EEG." He has since been
reported as being "completely recovered" and "absolutely
A second case is reported of a
fourteen year old girl wounded in the head by a shell fragment
during the Six Day War in Israel, although in this case the sole
evidence of death was a completely flat EEG recording. This girl
was still breathing spontaneously and her blood pressure was
normal so that she was "alive" according to the Harvard
criteria, in spite of the electrocerebral silence.
As the report states, it becomes
exceedingly difficult to define death in circumstances such as
these. Had the heroic measures not been taken and sustained for
an exceptionally long time in the case of the young boy, it is
probable that he would never have given any signs that life still
lingered in his body and therefore he would have been considered
dead; and to all intents and purposes he was dead. (42) It is the opinion of some
medical authorities that an individual kept alive solely by artificial
means but without consciousness is not really a "person"
but is merely a "heart-lung" preparation.
A further complicating factor which
is becoming increasingly apparent is that a body does not die
at the same time everywhere. Some parts of the body may die while
other parts remain alive. This is the difference between necrosis,
which is death of tissue, and death which commonly
applies to the decease of the whole organism. It is usually the
necrosis of some vital tissue which brings about the death of
the whole. Experiments with animals have shown that even after
the death of the whole, many tissues can be kept alive when isolated
from the body. The heart of a frog can be kept beating long after
the frog has died as a result of its removal. A human heart can
be kept alive and will record characteristic electrocardiograph
42. The problem of deternububg wgeb deatg
gas ccyrred us oartucykarkt acyte wgeb tge dtubg ubduvdyak us
a oitential donor of some organ such as a kidney, to a living
individual who may be seriously in need, because such tissue
deteriorates very quickly in the dead and must be removed at
the earliest possible moment for transplant. Early in March,
1974, it was reported that a sixty-five year old man who had
been injured in a road accident, and whom two doctors had presumed
dead, began breathing again in a Birmingham hospital when an
attempt was made to remove his kidneys in just such an emergency
[Robert Jones, "Organ Grafting Dilemmas", New Scientist,
7 March, 1974, p.595)
waves for sometime after
its former owner has ceased to live. (43) Such a preparation was maintained by a group of surgeons
at the University of Amsterdam and continued to beat on the laboratory
bench for six hours, during which time hundreds of measurements
were made of the electrical activity accompanying each cardiac
contraction. Dr. Harold Hillman in the Department of Physiology
at the University of Surrey, observed that an excised perfused
kidney can go on producing urine, and even an excised udder will
continue to give milk. (44)
It is therefore
quite proper to speak of three kinds of physical death: clinical,
biological, and cellular. Clinical death occurs first:
confirmed by cessation of pulse and breathing. Thereafter, sooner
or later, there follows biological death which has been defined
by Dr. A. S. Parkes as "the state from which resuscitation
of the body as a whole by currently known means is impossible."
(45) Thus a man
is clinically dead when normal means of detecting the four signals
of life produce no measurable response. But heroic measures could,
in some cases, probably resuscitate some individuals who have
been pronounced clinically dead. Whenever such measures fail,
it may be assumed that life has indeed fled and the individual
is now biologically dead. Nevertheless, he is not wholly
dead, for his hair may continue to grow and a very large proportion
of other tissues are capable of being kept alive by cultivation
in the laboratory. (46)
In fact, Professor Robert C. W. Ettinger holds that as much as
95% of body tissue is still viable, including brain tissue. (47)
So certain is Ettinger that the
body can in many cases be revived successfully after death due
to some fatal disease (provided that it is protected against
putrefaction by immediate freezing) that he abandoned his university
career and established a company which undertakes to preserve
the recently dead by freezing, with a view to making it possible
that if a cure for their fatal disease should be found, they
may be restored to life. They would then be provided with curative
treatment in the hopes of complete recovery. The idea is not
perhaps very realistic in view of the problems that will be created
for any who do so recover, when they find that their world is
no longer recognizable, or simply treats them as though they
were still dead. But it does, however, point up the difficulties
of defining in any simple way when a man really is dead in the
eyes of the law.
Finally, to revert to the third
type of death, we have cellular death where even the tissues
have begun to suffer general putrefaction, the final evidence
of the total disorganization of life. It is apparent from all
this that the legal opinion as set forth in Black's Dictionary
is really no longer adequate. It is as difficult to assign
a moment of cessation of person-hood during
43. "Human Heart Beats After extraction",
New Scientist, 28 Oct., 1965, p.248.
44. Hillman, Harold, "When is Death?", New Scientist,
19 Mar., 1970, p.552.
45. Parkes, A. S.: quoted by R.C.W. Ettinger, The Prospects
of Immortality, New York, Macfadden-Bartell, 1966, p.16.
46. See Notes at the end. of this chapter.
47. Ettinger, R.C.W., in his introduction to R.F. Nelson, We
Froze the First Man, New York, Dell, 1968, p.8.
the process of dying
as it is to establish a moment of achievement of the status of
personhood during foetal development.
In scientific circles there is
considerable difference of opinion as to whether death is a process
or an event, as witnessed by two recent contributions (and the
attendant correspondence) to Science by Professor Robert
S. Morison and Dr. Leon R. Kass. (48) Morison's view is that the simple facts of the case
strongly favour the "process" concept and that to choose
any particular criterion of death in order to make it an event
and to favour this above other equally real evidences of continued
life, is quite arbitrary. The only single decisive terminal
event that could conceivably be taken as conclusive, he holds,
would be when "some spirit or essence associated with life
has left the body and gone to a better world". (49)
I am not sure that Morison is serious
here, but apart from the optimism implicit in the journey "to
a better world," I think the departure of the spirit really
is the one crucial terminal event, even as I hold that the giving
of a spirit by God (Ecclesiastes 12:7) is the one crucial initiating
event that converts the mere organism into a "person."
Accordingly, I propose that the
physical death of a person really involves two factors. The first
is the departure of the spirit back to God who gave it (an event)
which presumably would be followed at once by complete electrocerebral
silence indicating the total absence of consciousness: and the
second would be the progressive breakdown (a process) of
all functions of the body unless artificial means are used to
prevent it. Where artificial means are used and recovery of true
consciousness follows (beyond mere reflex activity) I would presume
that the spirit has returned. This is the kind of revival recorded
on a number of occasions in the Bible, and would apply in the
cases of Dr. Landau and the two Israeli children. Those who have
been clinically dead can obviously recover their personal
identity when they are resuscitated. Presumably such recovery
is only possible because God has been pleased to return the spirit
to the revitalized body, thus reconstituting the whole person
again. This must surely have happened in the case of the widow
of Nain's son (Luke 7:11-15) and of Lazarus (John 11), and of
all others who were truly dead and yet were brought back to life
by the Lord.* Indeed, Luke 8:55 tells us, in the case of a young
girl brought back to life, that "her spirit came
again and she immediately rose up." Moreover, in these three
cases at least, there is no indication that the individual suffered
any change in identity. Any brain damage that might have been
done must have been miraculously repaired, or never occurred.
It does not seem
to me that merely to restore the functions of the
48. Morison, R. S., "Death: Process or
Event?". and L. R. Kass, "Death as an Event: A Commentary
on Robert Morison", Science, vol.175, 1971, p.694-702.
49. Morison, R. S., ibid., p.695.
* See also the two cases in the Old Testament: 2 Kings 4:18-37
organism is the undoing
of "death" in the human case, unless there is a return
of consciousness as evidence of the presence of the spirit once
again. Even reactivity to physical stimuli is not by itself a
sufficient evidence that consciousness has returned, for anencephalic
children (in whom there is no brain wherein consciousness in
the ordinary sense could be seated) will respond to environmental
stimuli. Similarly, animals without brains can perform many functions
of life such as landing on their feet when dropped in an upside
down position, (50)
flying and perching, (51) running on a treadmill, (52) and even raising their young . . . all entirely without
"consciousness." (53) For this reason, let me repeat, I do not believe
that mere restoration of bodily functions can be equated with
the undoing of death in the human case.
There is a wide
measure of agreement among theologians that man is a dichotomy
of spirit and body. Both constituents must be present for the
organism to be a person. The "soul" or the "person"
emerges as a result of the presence of a spirit which comes directly
from God within a body which is derived from the parents. The
body without the spirit is a mere corpse (James 2:26). When the
spirit returns to the body, the person as such is reconstituted
This indicates that man experiences
two kinds of death. One is the departure of his spirit from his
body, and the other is the cessation of the electrochemical processes
which in an organized way prevent the body from disintegration.
The divergence of opinion on the question of whether death is
an event or a process could therefore result from the fact that
man has two kinds of life and therefore two kinds of death. He
may die as a person and he may die as an organism.
The spirit is given at some specific point in time near the
beginning of existence, and taken away at some specific point
in time at the end. It is therefore perfectly proper to speak
of death as an event in this connection, especially since
the law is primarily concerned with the rights of persons as
But biologically the death
of the organism, which is the chief point of interest at the
present moment, is almost certainly a process, and is presented
as such in Genesis. Genesis 2:7 records that Adam was warned
of the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit when he was
told that "in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely
die." The original Hebrew here is interesting and literally
reads "dying thou shalt die." There is some question
as to the precise meaning of this phrase but it would be quite
appropriate to render it "in the day thou eatest thereof,
thou art a dying man." He did not die that day but he became
that day a dying creature, a mortal man. Although he survived
another 930 years, he was already under sentence of death. Prior
to this he was not subject to natural death: he had enjoyed a
50. Decerebrate cats: Sir Charles Sherrington,
Man on His Nature, Cambridge University Press, 1963, p.149f.
51. Decerebrate birds: A. J. Carlson and V. Johnson, The Machinery
of the Body, University of Chicago Press, 1941, p.422; see also
Walter B. Canon, The Way of an Investigator, New York,
Hafner, 1968 reprint, p.121.
52. Decerebrate dogs: G. H. Bell, J. N. Davidson, and M. Scarborough,
Textbook of Physiology and Biochemistry, London, Livingstone,
53/ Decerebrate cats: H. C. Bazett and E. G. Penfield, "A
Study of the Sherrington Decerebrate Animal in the Chronic as
Well as the Acute Condition", Brain, vol.44, 1922,
which was contingent on his preserving it by not eating the forbidden
He lost this privileged condition,
and by disobeying a seemingly simple prohibition, introduced
some mortogenic factor into his body, as Eve had also already
done shortly before; and by natural generation this acquired
character ‹ mortality ‹ was passed on to all his descendants,
and so "death passed upon all men" (Romans 5:12). How
such an acquired character could be inherited is the subject
of later chapters in this work.
Considering man merely from the
biological point of view as an organism with an inherited condition
of mortality that was not originally intended for him, the question
arises, If this condition is passed on from generation to generation,
at what point in development does the process of dying actually
begin in the life of an individual? Dr. George Wakerlin in the
Journal of the American Medical Association pointed out
that "the various structures and functions of the human
being reach their acme and begin to decline at different times
in the life span." He observed: (54)
Aging begins with birth (or
possibly with conception) in terms of growth, with birth in relation
to arterial elasticity, at ten years of age in terms of acuity
of hearing, at fifteen years of age in relation to antibody production
and at twenty-five years in terms of neuromuscular function.
Such data suggest that aging may be a multicentric phenomenon
It thus appears
that in man the process of dying begins very early in life, if
not from the very moment of conception. It is this implication
that Kass objected to, if dying is admitted to be a process and
not an event. In his words it is tantamount to saying that "dying
(is) synonymous with living." (55) Maybe it is, for man! Indeed, Sir Peter Medawar
shows that we are actually dying in some cells of the body more
rapidly when we are young than when we are old. As he
put it, "We are all moving towards our graves, but none
so fast as they who have farthest to go." (56) Some years ago, the German evangelical scholar, Erich
Sauer, wrote: (57)
At the moment of the (fall), spiritual
death entered and with it also, under divine judgment, freedom
from bodily death was forfeited. . . .
Forthwith "life" is merely
a gradual dying and birth is the beginning of death.
It is remarkable
how the Scriptures can direct a man's thinking along the right
paths even when those paths are outside his normal range of competence.
I suspect that in the light of today's knowledge, Sauer might
even have said "conception is the beginning of
54. Wakerin, George E., "The Biology
of Aging", editorial, Journal of the American Medical
Association, 16 Mar., 1957, p.950.
55. Kass, Leon, "Death as an event: A Commentary on Robert
Morison", Science, vol.173, 1971, p.698.
56. Medawar, Sir Peter, The Uniqueness of the Individual,
New York, Basic Books, 1957, p.57.
57. Sauer, Erich, The Dawn of World Redemption, Grand
Rapids, Eerdmans, 1953, p.56.
death"; for it
is at the time of conception that the immortality of the seed
‹ or more precisely, of the body which is to house it ‹
begins to be surrendered. So that Psalm 51:5 is perhaps more
literally true than we have customarily allowed: "Behold,
I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."
This is not because the act of procreation is sinful in itself
but because it marks the point of entry into the stream of human
life (as it is conveyed from germ plasm to germ plasm) of that
particular form of poison which was introduced from the forbidden
fruit and which in Romans 5:12 is termed SIN and to which is
attributed the entrance of death. Thus mortality is passed on
by inheritance from generation to generation, and if we are permitted
to take this passage literally, it is passed on through the
male seed, "by man," and not through the seed of
the woman. Treatment of this point will be undertaken in Chapter
5 of Part II.
In all this discussion,
I think it is also important ‹ in the interests of precision
in the use of terminology ‹ to recognize the difference between
aging and senescence. We age the moment we begin
the process of living, since each day makes us one day older.
In itself, aging means no more than adding years to our past,
and hopefully it can be equated with the concept of maturing.
The rose in full bloom is older (more aged, in this sense) than
the bud which it formerly was, both bud and bloom being perfect
at each stage. Senescence and senility have a sadder note to
them, for they imply some measure of declining vitality and of
decay both mental and physical. But when reading the scientific
literature, it is well to determine what the writer means when
he speaks of ageing, for he may not be intending senescence.
I think both Wakerlin and Medawar wished to convey something
of senescence and death in their use of the word ageing. Of
course, to grow at all is to grow older and therefore to age,
but to grow older, as the amoeba or paramecium does, in no way
involves them in senescence provided that they divide once they
have reached a certain size. The process of division renews their
vitality entirely and they escape death altogether. Professor
Bradley T. Scheer makes this observation regarding senescence:
The problem of aging may be
segregated under two headings ‹ senescence and death. It
is ordinarily considered that the two are related and that death
is a consequence of senescence. This has not been proved, however,
and there are all about us instances of senile individuals who
do not die and dead individuals who never became senile.
The point he
makes is a useful one ‹ and certainly true. Nor can age
be linked with senescence in chronological terms, for there
is a disease of tragic nature in which the expected life span
58. Scheer, Bradley T., General Physiology,
New York, Wiley, 1953, p.428.
individual is compressed,
during which time the subject passes rapidly through childhood,
adolescence, manhood, senility and death: and all within the
space of a few years. The disease is known as progeria.
Progeria is a peculiarly sad disease
for those who are afflicted with it, for they see their lives
racing by while their contemporaries slowly mature with what
must appear to them "all the time in the world" to
enjoy life. It seems to me that we would all feel this if we
found ourselves living alongside of Adam or Methuselah. It is
not known what causes the disease but it is perhaps worth remembering
that we might not recognize it as a disease at all if it equally
afflicted all of us. The fact is that, for all we know,
we who live only three score years and ten may be suffering a
form of progeria relative to the biblical patriarchs whose lives
spanned ten times as many years and who evidently matured with
corresponding slowness, since the time from birth to maturity
was even then about one-sixth of the expected life span, (59) as it still is today both
for man and many creatures below him. Adam, for example, died
at the age of 930 years, but did not give birth to his first
son till he was 130 years of age (Genesis 5:3-5).
In order to give some force
to what is implied above, it may be useful to illustrate what
happens to those who suffer from progeria at the present time.
In 1962 an eleven year old boy in California died of "old
resembling a wizened old man, his skin rough and wrinkled, only
a few hairs on his head, the veins of his scalp protruding. His
teeth had "long since" been replaced by false teeth,
his voice was high and feeble and he was afflicted with arteriosclerosis.
He had already suffered two heart attacks. Yet the first eighteen
months of his life had been quite normal and he had been a bright
and cheerful child. A photograph of him taken when he was seven
years old fills one with sadness. And there are 52 known cases
at the present moment.
In 1967 there was a report from
New Brunswick (Canada) of an eleven year old child who had already
aged to the condition of a ninety-five year old. (61) And this unhappy boy's
sister, who was then two years younger than himself, was equally
afflicted and already showed all the characteristics of an eighty
year old woman at the time.
In 1970 the San Francisco Chronicle
the case of a young girl of fourteen who had died suddenly and
quite unexpectedly, and whose autopsy showed that she had actually
succumbed to arteriosclerosis such as would normally be found
in a seventy-five year old woman.
Recently there was reported a case
from San Diego of a "little old lady," Penny Vantine,
who at only five years of age was already an old woman (Toronto
Star, 9 July, 1979). Weighing barely nine pounds
59. Total life span versus birth-to-maturity
ratio = six to on: see Paul A. Zahl, "Need There be Death?",
a contribution in a report published by the New York Joint Legislative
Committee on "Problems of the Aging", 1950, p.134;
and see Fritz Kahn, Man in Structure and Function, New
York, Knopf, 1960, vol.1, p.57. Maturity is marked by birth of
60. Progeria: see William Reichel, Rafael Garcia-Bunuel and
Joseph Dilallo, "Progeria and Werner's Syndrome as Models
for the Study of Normal Human Aging", Journal of the
American Geriatrics Society, vol.19, no.5, 1971, p.369-375.
See also A. L. Rosenbloom and Franklin L. DeBusk, "Progeria
of Hutchinson-Gifford: A Caricature of Aging", American
Heart Journal, vol.82, no.3, 1971, p.287-9; and A. Schaman
Danes, "Progeria: a Cell Culture study on Aging", Journal
of Clinical Investigation, vol.50, 1971, p.2000-3. For a
popular account, see S. Katz, "Old Ag at Eleven", MacLean's
Magazine, 11 Aug., 1962, p.12f., photograph p.40.
61. Progeria: reported in the Toronto Evening Telegram,
9 Mar., 1967, p.9, under the heading, "MDs probe death of
body 'aged 95'."
62. Reported in San Francisco Chronicle, 17 Junbe, 1970,
and only twenty-nine
inches in height, her appearance and constitution was already
that of an eighty year old. It was reported by her doctors that
she was aging at the rate of fifteen to twenty years every twelve
Imagine what this unfortunate child
must think as she looks up at the nurse holding her, "This
person is already forty, or eight times as old as I am . . ."
Were I to experience such a thought, being now seventy, what
would my feelings of awe be to think of my nurse as already 560
years old and obviously still quite young! There really is no
way in which we can know whether we, too, in our apparent normal
state of being, are not afflicted with progeria or some such
disease as Cockayne's Syndrome which afflicts little Penny Vantine.
It is well to ponder what this
signifies. We have no way of knowing whether we might not in
fact be living ‹ all of us ‹ at a tremendously accelerated
rate relative to what men lived in pre-Flood times. Their rate
of living, slow as it might seem today, may actually have been
much more nearly what was intended as normal for the whole human
race. But the rate of living of Adam and Eve before the Fall
may have been even more leisurely. Even after the Fall, Adam's
"childhood" still lasted around a hundred years; our
childhood lasts perhaps fifteen; these four sad victims of progeria
had a childhood of little more than a year.
Consider for a moment what the
consequences would be if at some time in the future the normal
life span of man was reduced to ten or twelve years, as though
the world had become a progeriac world. There would be no Michelangelo
to paint a Sistine Chapel, for no man would live long enough
to complete the task. And perhaps there would be no one even
to build a Sistine Chapel because, if the only people alive were
little people with the stature and strength of an eight or ten
year old, no one would have sufficient energy to erect anything
more than small structures involving comparatively light materials.
It is conceivable that some compensation would result from the
development of refined machines representing a kind of building
automation, but it is difficult to see how the fan tracery of
a Gothic cathedral ceiling, for example, could be handled mechanically.
The human hand has a dexterity that is not likely to be replaced
by machinery where art is concerned. The time available, the
energy required, and the necessary experience of life would all
be drastically curtailed in a progeriac world.
There is one other factor of great
significance in this shortened life span experience. It takes
a certain amount of time to accumulate knowledge whether by reading
or by visual means. It is true that speed reading might compensate
a little but surely not sufficiently to allow an educational
process which would be limited to a period
between the ages of,
say, seven and ten to compensate for a formal educational process
that may today well occupy the period from seven years of age
to twenty-seven in the pursuit of some higher degrees. The accomplishments
of today would surely be severely curtailed.
However, consider the converse
course of events. Suppose that we lived in pre-Flood days and
had ten times the number of years that we now have in which to
accumulate knowledge and skill by study and experience. How rapidly
would civilization develop! If we look upon a progeriac world
as a world of little people when compared with our own adult
world, would we not be required to look upon a super-super-centenarian
world as a world of very much "larger" people compared
with ourselves, indeed a world of giants? Maybe there were "giants
in the earth in those days" (Genesis 6:4) for this very
reason. In short, it would be a very different world, but not
an abnormal one. It is our world that is abnormal by their
standards, just as a progeriac world would be abnormal by ours.
There really is nothing impossible
in this hypothetical situation. We are merely judging the old
world by the wrong standards; and the progeriac world looking
back upon ours might smile at any idea that there were "giants
in the earth" in our day except that they might look upon
our buildings and wonder at the size of things as we in fact
wonder today at the enormity of some of the structures of antiquity.
Certainly there is nothing unreasonable
about these very ancient records of unusual longevity in the
early chapters of Genesis. They have not been taken seriously
enough, either by those in the Life Sciences (which is a pity)
nor even by Christians (which is a tragedy). From these records
we may learn a great deal about the potential life span
of man, as well as about the origin of death as it relates specifically
to man by contrast with other species.
As we have already
noted, death for man comes as a tragedy, a violent rending asunder
of his being in a way that does not seem equally true in the
animal world. It all began with an event which theologians associate
with original sin. By an act of disobedience Adam introduced
to all his descendants an inheritable disease in the form of
a transmissible agent of death both biological and spiritual.
Its biological effects can be explored as one would explore
the effects of any other genetically determined pathological
condition. The very concept of an acquired mortogenic factor
which can be passed on by inheritance has particular significance
for the geneticist. And the fact that Adam and Eve acquired mortality
which was then inherited by their descendants is just such a
case, as Sir Gavin de Beer was astute enough to recognize. (63) Yet, to my knowledge,
no Christian writer with a background in genetics seems to have
recognized its implications.
63. de Beer, Sir Gavin, reviewing Theodsius
Dobzhansky, Mankind So Far: The evolution of the Human Species,
in Scientific American, Sept., 1962, p.268.
So I propose to examine the evidence that men did
indeed live to such extraordinary ages, that these ancient records
are indeed sober history, and that the very figures given to
us can be usefully analyzed to show us a pattern of decline that
strikingly accords with what we now know from genetics about
the effect over successive generations wherever an inheritable
disease is involved.
Death has been imposed upon man
as a penalty. At first its effects were delayed, but after the
Flood those effects were greatly accelerated for reasons now
understood in part. Today we die at an age which to them would
have seemed comparable to the death of a mere infant. While we
may expect to live for three score and ten, they did not even
reach the child-bearing stage till they were one hundred and
thirty years old or thereabouts!
This death of which we speak involves
the separation of two components, and takes place when the spirit
leaves the body irretrievably. The departure of the spirit is
best described as an event. The dissolution of the body is best
described as a process. Death is therefore both event and
46. (see page 6) G.M. Gould and W. L. Pyle in their book Anomalies
and Curiosities of Medicine [New York, Julian Press, 1966]
observed concerning this phenomenon: "The hair and beard
may grow after death, and even change colour. Bartholinus recalls
a case of a man who had short black hair and beard at the time
of internment but who, some time after death, was found to possess
long and yellowish hair. Aristotle discusses post mortem growth
of the hair, and Garmanus cites an instance in which the beard
and hair was cut several times from the cadaver. We occasionally
see evidences of this in the dissecting rooms. Caldwell mentions
a body buried four years, the hair from which protruded at the
points where the joint of the coffin had given way. The hair
of the head measured eighteen inches, that of the beard eight
inches, and that on the breast from four to six inches. Rosse
of Washington mentions an instance in which after burial the
hair turned from dark brown to red, and also cites a case in
a Washington cemetery of a girl, twelve or thirteen years old,
who when exhumed was found to have a new growth of hair all over
her body. Nails sometimes grow several inches after death, and
there is on record the account of an idiot who had an idiosyncrasy
for long nails, and after death the nails were found to have
grown to such an extent that they curled up under the palms and
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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