Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Email

Expand your perspective with thought-provoking insights, quotes, and videos hand-picked by our editors—along with the occasional update about the world of EnlightenNext.

Privacy statement

Your email address is kept confidential, and will never be published, sold or given away without your explicit consent. Thank you for joining our mailing list!


Even the Heavens Are Not Immortal

An Alluring Vision of Death 

An interview with Connie Barlow
by Craig Hamilton

Connie Barlow

In a culture obsessed with the preservation and extension of life, defending the value of death may seem like a task fit for few but the devil. But for biologist Connie Barlow, singing the Grim Reaper's merits is becoming nothing short of an inspired mission.

Having spent the last three years on a nonstop nationwide speaking tour with her husband, Michael Dowd, this itinerant “evolutionary evangelist” and author of such popular science books as Ghosts of Evolution and Evolution Extended has recently unveiled a new chapter in her running rendition of “the great story” of our cosmic and terrestrial history. Death, as Barlow tells it, is not something to be feared, or even merely accepted, but is a healthy and life-giving part of the cosmic process that deserves our wholehearted embrace.

Is science's race to free us from mortality's grip a misguided and perhaps even perilous attempt to override the cosmic order? What are the evolutionary implications of making a permanent break in one of nature's most time-proven cycles? If we were to do away with death, what would become of life? During a recent visit to the What Is Enlightenment? headquarters, Barlow spoke with us about her passion for the perishable and her thoughts on the quest for immortality.

What is Enlightenment: There's a growing body of scientists who are convinced that before long—some even would say in the next twenty years—we're going to have the capacity to extend the human life span indefinitely and attain physical immortality. Based on your own understanding of biology, do you think such a thing could be possible?

Connie Barlow: Honestly, I haven't wanted to think about it. But I guess I'd probably have to say yes. If we're speaking about long extensions of life, if not actual immortality, I'd certainly say yes. But I haven't wanted to think about it.

WIE: Why not?

Barlow: Because I don't like the prospect. For one thing, it will exacerbate the schism between the haves and the have-nots because, obviously, the whole world isn't going to have access to this. For another, I view it as undesirable because we're having enough trouble right now limiting our reproduction, and if we have a significant number of people who are engaged in that sort of life extension, it will create even more of a population problem on the earth.

But more fundamentally, I think that our tendency to avoid the thought of death or think that there's something wrong with death actually limits our understanding of life and our zest for life. When people have such an individualized sense of self and self-importance that they don't see the larger picture in which death functions, that to me is immaturity. I mean, if you view your individual self as being this body and this mind here, then the prospect of death could be rather frightening. But in what I would consider a broader, more mature understanding of the self, the fear of death eases up. In fact, death becomes something that's seen as good for the whole, and also good for individuals.

When I look at the new cosmology—which harvests discoveries from all the modern mainstream sciences—the conclusion I draw is that death is not only natural, it's generative. Understanding that death is natural and coming to peace with it can happen at any level of human development. For thousands of years, our myths and creation stories have given us that peace. But only recently has it become possible to see death not just as natural but as creative and generative at all levels of reality; not just to reconcile with the fact of death but to see goodness in and feel gratitude for death. So many of the things that we love and cherish in life would not even be here were it not for death. And the way that I've come to this more alluring vision of death has been through cultivating what I like to call “deep-time eyes,” eyes that see the fourteen-billion-year story of the universe as a sacred story.

WIE: Could you give us some examples of what helped awaken you to this more alluring vision of death?

Barlow: I'd love to. My own field is evolutionary biology and evolutionary ecology—that is, a deep-time understanding of ecology and biology. But the example that was the most eye-opening for me came later in life, from outside my own field. And that is the understanding from astronomy and astrophysics that what powers stars is the creation of elements.

The original simplest element in the universe is hydrogen; it's been here since the beginning, since the big bang. In the center of stars, gravity fuses hydrogen atoms into more complex atoms. Our sun is fusing hydrogen into helium right now. And as it approaches death, it will be fusing helium into carbon. Larger stars than our sun move on and fuse carbon into silicon, and silicon into calcium, and so on. Every single element in our bodies, other than hydrogen, was once inside a giant star that lived and died before our sun was born. As stars died and recycled themselves, they sent their elements pulsing or exploding out into the galaxy. These elements eventually came upon primordial clouds of hydrogen gas and were caught up by the gravity of those clouds as though by spider webs, providing the matter from which new generations of stars could be formed. And these stars, such as our sun, enriched as they were by the creativity of previous generations of stars, were able to have rocky planets around them, whereas the first generations of stars could not.

We are recycled stardust. Everything we love and everything we see is recycled stardust. And we're only here because the heavens and the stars are not immortal. To me, that's an eye-opening insight, particularly when we think of how our religious traditions view the heavens as where God is, as immortal. Over the life span of human cultures, stars do not come and go. But over the life span of geological periods they certainly do. Death is in the heavens just as much as it is on earth.

WIE: In this example from cosmology, you're using death as a metaphor, because the elements and the stars were never alive in the sense of our biological definition of life. In the way we normally think of live versus dead, they're dead matter already—dead matter taking another form. Are you saying that the same principles apply to living systems as well?

[ continue ]


Subscribe to What Is Enlightenment? magazine today and get 40% off the cover price.

Subscribe Give a gift Renew

This article is from
Our Immortality Issue


September–November 2005


More articles and interviews about similar subjects:
General Evolutionary Spirituality