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The Evolution of Grief, Both Biological and Cultural, in the 21st Century


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Three months ago, I received an email informing me that a high school friend, Pat, had died.

I read his obituary and my body stopped functioning. I froze on the spot, limbs tense but trembling. My mouth went dry, my vision blurred. As I waited for my train in the packed station, I could barely stand as my muscles turned to jelly and legs folded beneath my body. I tried to maintain composure in the public space, but my contorted face betrayed my sorrow.

It was shocking to me: I felt real physical pain — a biological response brought about by stress hormones — in response to death. Not only was the feeling new to me, but it also didn’t make sense. Mourning left me depressed, unable to work, even unable to eat at times (the real shocker). And everyone mourns; as long as we are mortal, death and grief happen. So why would such a negative reaction to death be passed on through the generations? We’re certainly less able to reproduce when we’re grieving. Why didn’t natural selection help me out and ensure that I felt less awful?

Evolutionary biologists think that grief is passed on not because it provides benefit in itself, but rather it is a side effect of having relationships. As anyone who every had separation anxiety as a kid — or who lost track of their parents at the beach — knows, our bodies produce stress hormones when we’re separated from our parents, and the only way for those bad feelings to go away is to come together again. This biological reaction to separation keeps us together because staying together provides an evolutionary benefit. Kids and their parents — the core relationship evolutionarily — rely on one another for protection and genetic proliferation respectively, and so being drawn together and kept together is advantageous.

In more social animals, such as humans, those reciprocal relationships extend beyond parent-child. Our siblings help us survive, as do our aunts, uncles and friends. And, when we are separated, our bodies send out alarm cries to bring us back together. But, after death, the two cannot be rejoined. I stressed out while my hormones pushed me to find Pat. But he isn’t coming back, compounding the stress. “Grief – in its most basic form – represents an alarm reaction set off by a deficit signal in the behavioural system underlying attachment,” writes psychology professor John Archer of the University of Central Lancashire in his book The Nature of Grief.

This idea was endlessly comforting in my mourning. In an 1843 letter to his second cousin, Reverend William Darwin Fox, Charles Darwin wrote, “Strong affections have always appeared to me, the most noble part of a man’s character and the absence of them an irreparable failure; you ought to console yourself with thinking that your grief is the necessary price for having been born with (for I am convinced they are not to be acquired) such feelings.”

Grief is the price we pay for friendship.

Digital love

But these clear ideas became muddled when Steve Jobs died last month. The massive public displays of mourning confused me, as did the outcries from so many friends. When I heard the news, I let out my obligatory, “oh my god,” but didn’t even feel butterflies. My sadness was abstract, not substantial: I could recognize the loss and empathize with those who actually knew the man, but I myself was not in any kind of mourning.

The onslaught of mourning continued, nonetheless. First with disbelief, then meditations on what we lost, leading into the less savory game of casting blame. Twitter and Facebook were flooded with updates and links for weeks. At first I wondered whether the outpouring would have occurred in a world without social media. But many people in my parents’ generation can pinpoint the spot they were when they heard that Martin Luther King, Jr., JFK, or Elvis died. Mass public mourning is not new — but why does it occur?

Here culture seems to play in more than strict biology. We know that death is sad, and that inspirational people are worth grieving over, even if they did not directly touch our lives. Oftentimes their deaths are symbolic: the loss of a freedom fighter, a rock ‘n roll pioneer, or, yes, a technological genius.

Yet there is something performative about mourning for public figures, which is evident on social media. To let others know that you are in the know, and that your heart is big enough to recognize the role of relative foreigners in your life. And this isn’t just true of public figures. Since (and certainly before) Martial in Ancient Rome, writers have documented false acts of mourning for personal gain, whether material or just for attention.

After I heard about Pat’s death, those who did not know him all asked me the same question: “Well, were you close with him?” The answer is no. We shared many experiences that shaped me in my adolescence, but I hadn’t seen him in half a decade. And even so, his death paralyzed me. I even berated myself for just seeking attention and using his death to showcase my own humanity.

In the Iliad, Apollo rants about Achilles’s revengeful slaying of Hector for the death of his friend Patroclus. “Man may lose one far dearer than Achilles has lost,” he told the other gods. I could lose friends far dearer than Pat, people could lose ones far dearer than Steve Jobs. But grief strikes us just the same. Maybe they remind us of our own mortality. Maybe they are symbols of just how much we have to lose. Or maybe we’re just sad.

The mark of a technophile

Some of the grief over Steve Jobs was focused less on the man and more on the products he gave to us. “Can you imagine a world without the iPod? What if we all carried Zunes?” was a common refrain. Eulogies focused on his design aesthetic and his understanding of what customers value. More than Jobs himself, did we mourn for the brain behind our beloved objects and the loss of his potential innovations?

Even as a luddite, I must admit that I love my tech. I once spent hours on a frigid Minnesota winter night hunting for my lost silver iPod with a flashlight on a field of icy snow — an act that could be chalked up to cost rather than love. But we feel so strongly about our technology that we desperately seek proof to demonstrate that we have real relationships with these devices. The NYTimes even published a terribly erroneous op-ed on the topic, so great is the public desire for such biological evidence.

I’ve recently experienced the death of my favorite technology: Google Reader sharing features. I won’t go into the details of why I’ll miss it, as they’ve been meticulously documented elsewhere. But this experience, shared by other ‘sharebros,’ or google reader sharers, is quite akin to mourning. I kept a tab with the old version of reader open for days, even though its features were no longer functioning. I’m angry, sad, and scold myself for becoming so dependent upon it. And my brain has not yet adjusted to its demise: I still try to share items with my friends, despite my knowledge of the broken link — an experience Greg Hunter described as “Internet phantom pains.”

Whether these feelings are mourning for the end of a relationship or simply withdrawal to an addiction is unclear — and some scientists think that they are similar processes. In which case mourning for the tech and mourning for the man behind the tech may not be unlike. The public figure Jobs is a symbol for the technology with which we have a relationship, making his death meaningful to all who love his brainchildren.

Images:

Candle: ‘I’m with you‘ by Flickr user rosmary under Creative Commons licensing

Post-it: ‘Thai Apple Fans React to the Death of Steve Jobs‘ by Flickr user Nopphan Bunnag under Creative Commons licensing

Hannah Waters About the Author: Hannah Waters writes about natural history and the way people think about nature. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA, but really on the internet. Follow on Twitter @hannahjwaters.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ajsnyc 9:54 am 11/14/2011

    The widespread, recent sympathetic reaction to the elephant losing her dog companion suggests to me that in fact we are evolving in this way, and it is far from painless.

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  2. 2. hanjeanwat 4:05 pm 11/20/2011

    Thanks for the comment! Yes, I agree with you. For more about animals grieving, I recommend this piece by Eric Michael Johnson

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2011/09/29/touching-death/

    Best,
    Hannah

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  3. 3. Milt Mays 12:20 pm 11/21/2011

    I find it interesting that we also cry and get great emotion with joy. Perhaps Grief sits next to Joy so close in the brain that they hug during times of stress. I know I loved my Dad, but had a delayed reaction that still happens from time to time, yet when he died it was minimal. We are complex creations of Joy and Grief and everything in between. Isn’t it great to be alive!!
    Milt Mays http://www.miltmays.com

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  4. 4. meeralee 11:09 am 12/20/2011

    This is an absolutely lovely piece, Hannah: smart and intriguing. Your kicker reminded me of the way my dad once seemed to grieve for an old email address…

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