“A single tree dying is not the aspen dying...” (Image: Aspens in winter, courtesy Steve McBride Fine Art)

Few things occupy the public imagination like aging and death. But when it comes to organisms and systems beyond ourselves, there is still much we do not understand about either — even something as seemingly obvious as when something can be considered deceased. 

“We know what we mean when we say a person is dead. This is because our concept of death is tightly connected to our own experience of life,” says Annette Baudisch, a demographer with the University of Southern Denmark. “Once we start discussing other types of individuals, it becomes tempting to mix up different kinds of death.” For example, at first glance, it may appear to us that a dead aspen tree is a dead aspen tree. But in reality, it represents the death of just one part of a larger organism that is still very much alive. 

“A single tree dying is not the aspen dying because we know that aspens are clones,” says SFI President David Krakauer, an evolutionary theorist. “So even in the world of life, what’s living and what has died is complicated. Phenotypes might die as genotypes live on”

When it comes to inanimate objects or ideas, the definition of death becomes even murkier. When we say an old constitution no longer used for governing is “dead,” is it really dead, or merely dormant? Similarly, is an idea that people no longer discuss really dead, even though someone might resurrect it one day?

These are some of the themes that emerged in a small planning meeting for a new working group, “The Birth and Death of Individuals,” which plans to develop a new interdisciplinary theory of birth, aging, and death.

The group seeks to combine ideas from formal demography, scaling, and the theory of individuality. They have laid out four steps in forging the new theory: developing a framework for classifying individuals in time; crafting a typology of how individuals age, including individual societies and institutions; creating models to determine patterns of birth and death for those types; and analyzing how individuals within a population age. 

At the group’s planning meeting on November 24, Baudisch, Krakauer and a small number of researchers from a variety of fields began to tackle the first step. 

“Before we talk about death we need to talk about individuals,” says Krakauer. “What is this unit that we describe as aging and dying?”

“The idea was that, once we have a kind of backbone general definition of ‘the individual’ in place, we can begin to put meat on the definition and distinguish among different types of individuals,” adds Baudisch. “Ideally we would identify a deep ordering principle along which we could align individual types.” 

Doing so would lay the foundation for a general classification of death processes.

At the group’s next meeting, the team plans to further refine the concept of the aging individual and identify and recruit researchers from additional disciplines who have studied different types of death. In the meantime, Baudisch plans to begin work on a periodic table of sorts that lays out the organizing principles of life and death.