Can Darwinism help us grasp this uniquely human tendency, asks Alex Defert
A Very Human Ending
by Jesse Bering, Doubleday, 288pp, £16.99
The taboo of suicide runs deep in human consciousness. We fear it, avoid discussing it and, for the most part, find the train of thought that might lead to it abhorrent or distressing. I imagine that some people will avoid picking up a copy of Bering’s book for that reason; but that would be a mistake. This is an incisive and thought-provoking foray into a sorely needed conversation.
“Globally, a million people a year kill themselves, and many times that number try to do so,” begins one chapter. “Between now and the time you finish reading the next paragraph, someone, somewhere, will decide that death is a more welcoming prospect than breathing another breath in this world.” Our escalating mental health crisis demands that we grapple with the potential causes and reasoning behind such behaviour, and Bering has created an empathetic and moving odyssey into a universe of cognition in which the embrace of death is a welcome friend rather than a looming chasm. His own ongoing struggles with suicidal thoughts, coupled with his psychological training, combine to form a fascinating scientific journey.
Is suicide a form of mental illness, an evolved altruistic calculation or an adaptive feature of our evolutionary past? Why do we have a taboo around the subject? What role does religion play in preventing or exacerbating suicidal tendencies? And how does media coverage of suicide affect us?
In his careful consideration of the different perspectives on human thought, Bering ultimately comes down on the side of a mechanistic, materialistic view of consciousness where every aspect of human behaviour can be understood through the lens of Darwinism.
The apparent paradox of improving our chances of passing on our genes through our self-destruction is neatly and intelligibly explained. Bering argues that evolution is inherently mathematical rather than moral and, under certain conditions, an individual’s survival might be disadvantageous. If they have both poor reproductive prospects and a negative impact on the prospects of their kin, the logic of removing oneself from the equation becomes clear.
In this, Bering is careful not to pass moral judgment. We struggle to know what should, and should not be, said to such people. Even the best intentioned prevention programmes can end up increasing the number of attempts. Suicidal tendencies spread among the susceptible, while copycat behaviours are programmed into us and can often leave us exposed to dangerous patterns of thought.
Perhaps the best tactic, Bering suggests, is to remind those considering it that suicidal feelings are usually temporary, and that if all else fails there will be opportunities to kill themselves later. Does this cross an uncomfortable rubicon between honesty and callousness? Or is it simply the truth?
Although blunt in its assessments, this book is not a work of chilly statistics. Indeed, at the heart of it is the story of a 17-year-old girl, an aspiring poet, who took her own life. The secret journal in which she documented her thoughts and feelings in the months before her death are heart-rendingly eloquent. It is often hard to read. Her pain is palpable in ways that are raw and jagged: “Please fix me or I can’t be here. PLEASE MAKE THIS SAD STOP … God, something out there, please make it stop. Just make it stop.”
For her, and many others, simply being conscious is excruciating. When the agony of being alive surpasses that of leaping into space and hurtling towards concrete, action becomes inevitable.
The call to God that she made raises the question of the role of religion in suicidal thought. Bering refers to studies that conclude that overall there is little evidence that the religious proscription against suicide has any effect. Indeed, the feelings of shame created by regarding suicide as a mortal sin may even promote suicidal behaviour. But at the same time, religious belief itself is strongly correlated with reduced suicidal tendency.
Perhaps this is due not to the spiritual aspects of a religion, but to its social construction. Bering notes that suicide is more common in Protestantism than in Catholicism. Might this be down to the higher degree of social integration and moral regulation inherent in the latter? This ‘‘network theory’’ seems to be supported by statistics: regular churchgoers are four times less likely to die by suicide than their peers.
Yet the tighter the community, the greater the feeling of shame if one falls foul of it. A devout religious person is more likely than a non-religious person to commit suicide if they feel they have committed a sin beyond forgiveness.
Human beings seem to be the only animals that intentionally end their own lives. Accordingly, Albert Camus described suicide as “the one truly serious philosophical issue”. Before we decide to do anything we have to decide first that we want to exist. As such, our capacity for suicide may define human beings more keenly than love or hate or any other of our feelings. At its core, A Very Human Ending is an unflinching and striking rumination of humanity.
Throughout, Bering takes pains to remind us of the stark differences in our perceptions of reality; between that of a suicidal person and one who is not. They are effectively occupy different universes, with different laws. It is time we took a deeper look into what goes on there.
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