Reading about Death

This fall, I will be leading a discussion group on The Meaning of Death in Biology, Theology, and Law at Harvard. I’m particularly interested in how the concept of death is used by different disciplines and how often they claim to be using “biological” criteria. Is death a scientific idea? Should it be? My hope is that by gathering people from different disciplines, we can think more critically about the idea.  Thank you to John Wakeley (Harvard Organismic and Evolutionary Biology) and David Lamberth (Harvard Divinity School) for being co-sponsors.  Here is a list of our planned meetings. I’ll be posting summaries of our discussions on this blog as well.


9/4     “And death shall have no dominion” – Contemporary issues in dying

What is at stake in the question of defining death?

Wood, Daniel (2014) “When does life end? Two emotional cases probe the complexities.” Christian Science Monitor (online: 19 Jan 2014)


9/18   The Death of Philosophy

What work is being done by the concept of death? To what extent is death a question for biology?

Luper, Steven (2009) “Death.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


10/2   “Stayin’ Alive” – Homeostasis in biology

What is the history of self-regulation? Is an end to homeostasis a good candidate for defining death?

Woods, H. Arthur and J Keaton Wilson (2013) “An information hypothesis for the evolution of homeostasis.” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 28(5): 283-289.

Alt: Cooper, Steven J. (2008) “From Claude Bernard to Walter Cannon. Emergence of the concept of homeostasis.” Appetite 51: 419-427.


10/16 “Through the law, I died to the law” – The Legal concept of Brain Death

What is the current state of law regarding death? What is brain death and is it a coherent standard?

Uniform Determination of Death Act:

LiPuma, Samuel H. and Joseph P. DeMarco (2013) “Reviving Brain Death: A Functionalist View.” Bioethical Inquiry 10: 383-392.


10/23 “To be or not to be” – Senescence and Life History Theory

Is death adaptive? What are the relative roles of propagation and perpetuation in how we think of death?

Hammers, M., D. S. Richardson, T. Burke, and J. Komedur (2013) “The impact of reproductive investment and early-life environmental conditions on senescence: support for the disposable soma hypothesis.” Journal of Evolutionary Biology 26: 1999-2007.


11/6   “Dying he destroyed death” – Christian perspectives on death

How are the concepts of life, death, and soul applied in Christianity? What is the relationship between vegetative, rational, and eternal life? What are the moral implications for those at the end of life?

Veatch, Robert M. (1986) “Death, Determination of.” Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics. (Eds.) James F. Childress and John MacQuarrie (Philadelphia: Westminster Press) 144-146.

Sgreccia, Elio (2004) “Vegetative state and brain death: Philosophical and ethical issues from a personalistic view.” NeuroRehabilitation 19: 361-366.


11/20 “He who created death and life” – Muslim perspectives on death

How are the concepts of life, death, and soul applied in Islam? What are the ethics of organ transplantation and how does biological death relate to normative death?

Rasekh, Mohammad and S.M.R. Ayati (2007) “The Concept of Death: A Religio-philosophical Analysis.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 18(3): 377-389.


12/4   Death and Cessation – Buddhist perspectives on death

How are the concepts of life, death, and cessation of suffering applied in Buddhism? How do traditional Buddhist categories of life and death map onto modern medical definitions and what are the impacts for ethics?

Keown, Damien (2005) “End of Life: the Buddhist view.” Lancet 366:952-955.

Keown, Damien (2010) “Buddhism, Brain Death, and Organ Transplantation.” J. Buddhist Ethics 17.


P.S. I can also recommend a book: The Definition of Death edited by Younger, Arnold, and Schapiro, esp. chapters 4 and 15.


2 thoughts on “Reading about Death

  1. Pingback: Meeting 3:1 – Uses of “Death” as a Concept | Science, Spirit, and Scripture

  2. Pingback: Aristotle’s Substances | Science, Spirit, and Scripture

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