Death Week: Programmed Death

Cell death in fruit fly eye. Dead cells (red), induce the living cells (green) to start dying (blue).

It’s strange to think that some things die in an orderly way.  There aren’t final gasps, last rites, or funeral mourners bemoaning the loss of days not lived.  Some things, contrary to our dreams of immortality, are set for a cycle and not only will they die, but they must.  And by things, I mean cells.

By the end of today, about 50 to 70 billion cells will have died in your body.

This is called apoptosis.


Officially known as regulated cell death, it’s been dramatized as “cell suicide,” but is more simply, pre-programmed death.  The cells are directed to die because their function is no longer needed or other cells have been created to replace them.  It’s why you don’t have the webbing between your fingers that you were born with – the cells died.  If your cells were immortal, a la Henrietta Lacks, you’d have cancer.  There would be an explosion of cells dividing and proliferating without control – essentially what a malignant tumor does in the body.  Regulated death of our cells is the only escape from this fate.

Therefore, cells are transient things; A human liver cell lasts about 300-500 days, the tongue about 10-14 days.  However, apoptosis is not to be confused with necrosis, a process where cells die due to injury (perhaps heard most frequently on shows like House M.D., accompanied by the phrase “flesh-eating bacteria.”)

Given our knowledge of programmed death, it seemed inevitable that someone would extrapolate to much more than cells.  And Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University did just that in 2008.  In his paper, published in Artifact, he called it, “whole-body apoptosis.”  And it’s probably what you think.

To his credit, he opens the paper with a quote by Woody Allen:

“Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.”


What Dennett proposes is that for humans aged 85 or older, it would be pertinent to have each body “switch itself off quite abruptly and painlessly.”  He argues that while humans don’t want to know exactly what day they would die, a system with built-in randomness of whole-body apoptosis over a five year curve would be sufficient.  People don’t want to suffer when they die and his system can be thought of as a self-generated lightning strike: Quick, painless, and efficient.  He then offers the first iteration in layman’s terms:

“Whole-body apoptosis 1.0. We install in every human being and in every subsequent human embryo a system that ensures the swift, painless death at some randomly determined time between the age of 85 and 90, if death from some other cause has not already occurred.”


The bigger question is, how do we get there?  Dennett says a genetically engineered “enzymatic time-bomb that would reliably explode at some time late in life.”  Such a bomb might suffocate the body by stopping muscle movement or producing nerve gas.  To get this time-bomb into the body would require a surgery, only “moderately more momentous a life decision than a vasectomy.”  But why stop there?  There are various poisons and toxins that could be packaged to detonate at the push of a button.

But while Dennett’s proposal might strike many as absurd and fit for a feature by The Onion, he only asks for consideration by those who might refuse the procedure (whom he aptly calls, much to my delight, “the diehards”).

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