Does death exist online?

When someone we knows dies there are certain rituals we all observe; we attend a funeral and we try to say goodbye, but do we need to take part in those rituals if we can live forever online

Most people lead a double life nowadays: one in the physical, real world and one online. In the former, limited by deteriorating skin and bones, at some point we will all cease to exist, but do our online selves ever really die?

Not wanting to delve too deep into stoner philosophy, but with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and a litany of other social media apps and websites, does anyone really cease to exist and do we need to grieve if we still have an almost palpable presence to communicate with? In the past anyone who continued to have contact with the dead would have been ostracised and recommended therapy, but now is it really so crazy that people continue to message Facebook accounts after loved ones have passed away?

“For something like Facebook people’s responses have been ‘when I sit on a park bench and I say a prayer and I talk to her, I don’t know if she hears me, but when I write to her on Facebook she hears me. I know it’s not logical, but that’s how it feels’,” says Stacey Pitsillides, lecturer in Design in the Department of Creative Professions and Digital Arts at the University of Greenwich.

But taking death online hasn’t just allowed people to maintain bonds forged in life, it has also created a legitimate space for people who might not be comfortable grieving in the real world. For example, people who suffer miscarriages or people with extramarital partners can find comfort in an online community of people going through the same things as them.

Message me when I’m gone

Our online presences have in some ways disrupted death. Age-old rituals and traditions no longer serve as a full stop at the end of a life well lived; we can think about ourselves as having a continued relationship with people that have died. This phenomenon may have been brought to the Western world by virtue of lingering digital existences, but as Hannah Rumble, member of the General Council for the Association for the Study of Death and Society (ASDS) and the editorial board for the academic journal Mortality, explains it has long been a part of the grieving process in other parts of the world.

“There is this new thing that people do, which is talking to the dead,” says Rumble.  “It follows a lot of cultures and traditions in Japan and Africa and in other places where actually talking to the dead as ancestors and figuring out what their place is in your life is quite an important thing – that kind of negotiation of actually I want to continue a relationship with you and not let go of it.”

Thanks to the digital world, we can see new rituals around death being constructed, and we are moving beyond traditional right and wrong ways of grieving. “People are making up their own rituals and the fact that these things are appearing online is quite good for people to begin to create the kind of space that allows them to feel comfortable enough to say in the middle of their friendship group, ‘I miss you and I wish you were back here’,” says Rumble.

At the wake

Whether you believe continuing relationships online after death is a good or bad thing, most people would agree that they have no right to impinge on others’ chosen method of grieving. Arguing that it’s a good idea to almost voyeuristically thrust yourself into the midst of others’ grief takes another level of apologist though. But Andréia Martins, journalist, anthropologist and PhD student at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society, argues just that. She explains that in her native Brazil one of the most important rituals following a death is the wake, and Martins is an administrator for a group of Facebook users who tune into strangers’ virtual wakes.

“On a Sunday afternoon they [the viewers] can be at their homes in front of their computers watching the virtual wake of a stranger and they will debate what they’re seeing,” says Martins. “They can make comments about trivial things like the amount of people in the room or the amount of flowers, if there are people crying, but they will also share their own experiences of death and dying, so it can be quite a therapeutic thing to do.”

Martins says she has identified three reasons why people would want to be virtually present at a wake organised for someone they don’t know. Firstly, curiosity draws people in; some people want to be aware of how friends and family behave at a wake. Secondly, if some young people weren’t allowed to attend a funeral for a family member they take the opportunity virtual wakes present to be involved in such a peculiar event, and, thirdly, if someone has recently lost a family person or a friend they may want to see others going through the same experience.

For some virtual wakes may be a morbid experience, but in Martins eyes – and I’m sure to their viewers as well – they have contributed to people having a “nicer relationship with death”.

The afterlife

What people who continue to message Facebook accounts, once their family and friends have passed away, have stumbled upon is that when we die we leave behind vast digital archives that contain our personalities, our fears, our interests and our desires. These archives are created incrementally from information that appears ephemeral, but adds up to us, a complete reproduction of our character. It’s not outrageous then that people would use that information to bring people back from the dead.

This idea has already been explored in fiction. In the sci-fi drama series Black Mirror, a young woman named Martha subscribes to a service that uses her deceased fiancé’s social media accounts to create a digital avatar capable of mimicing his personality. And this has already moved from fiction into real life; a Russian woman Eugenia Kuyda used artificial intelligence to bring back her friend Roman Mazurenko. The bot Kuyda created was able to impersonate Mazurenko and interact with people in text form. While it only represented a shadow of the real man, some people found it therapeutic.

Not everyone will be comfortable communicating with people once they have died, but soon enough everyone may have to ask themselves the question: if you have a chance to keep hold of your loved ones, albeit in another form, would you take it?

Advances in genetic technologies mean that it could soon be possible to de-extinct our closest relative. But even if we can, does that mean we should? We investigate

45,000 years ago our species was not alone on this planet. Alongside us, Homo sapiens, was a second member of our genus, Homo neanderthalensis, with its own tools, society and cultural practices.

At one time it is thought that there were around 70,000 Neanderthals living on Earth, mainly in what we now know as Europe and southwest and central Asia. How much our species interacted with this sapient cousin is not fully known, but there was certainly some interbreeding: while Neanderthals are long deceased, their DNA lives on in many Europeans and Asians.

But now, with the advances of genetic technologies, Neanderthals could return. Recent advances of gene editing tools such as CRISPR, as well as the sequencing of DNA taken from the bone of a female Neanderthal who is thought to have walked the Earth some 50,000-100,000 years ago, mean that what was once pure science fiction could soon become a reality.

Legendary geneticist George Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School who is currently spearheading the project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, has said that he thinks the de-extinction of Neanderthals will occur in his lifetime.

“The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before,” he told Spiegel Online in 2013. “In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning.

“We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?”

Bringing Neanderthals back from the dead

When we consider de-extincting Neanderthals, it is important to note that we would not be bringing back a precise, perfect copy of the Neanderthals that lived on Earth up until their extinction some 40,000 years ago.

As Douglas McCauley, assistant professor in the University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, explains, the question of whether we can bring Neanderthals back from extinction “depends upon how much of a purist you are about the definition of Neanderthal”.

I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges

In the simplest terms, any scientists who set out to de-extinct Neanderthals will do so by cobbling together modern human and extinct Neanderthal DNA.

“The technique that many de-extinction scientists are now using to bring back extinct species is to sequence the genome of the dead species – line it up next to the genome of the nearest living relative – then use CRISPR gene editing techniques to modify elements of the genome of the living relative to approximate elements of the genome of the dead species,” explains McCauley.

This is the approach being taken by the Harvard team currently attempting to de-extinct the woolly mammoth.

“Here they are using the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth and the genome of a living Asian elephant. The goal, however, isn’t to bring back a perfect replica of the woolly mammoth. A success would be to genetically engineer a hairy, cold-tolerant Asian elephant.

“This would also remain the same strategy for any group attempting to bring back a Neanderthal. Again, this would be more like engineering increased Neanderthal-ness into the human genome – not like cranking out a carbon copy of a Neanderthal.”

This approach should be technically possible for Neanderthals in the near future. But, as McCauley explains, that doesn’t mean it will actually happen.

“Technically engineering more Neanderthal into the human genome will indeed be possible very soon,” he says. “Practically, I don’t really see this happening. People will most certainly use CRISPR and next-generation gene editing techniques to edit the human genome – but I think this is much more likely to be tuning humans up, rather than tuning down.

“I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges.”

Criteria for de-extinction

De-extinction is, in general, a topic that is set to be the subject of ever-greater discussion in the coming years, as hypothetical concepts become scientific reality.

“It is on the precipice of moving from a crazy idea we once mused about over coffee, to a real possibility we can actually make happen in the lab. From science fiction to real science,” summarises McCauley.

However, with such abilities come significant moral questions. De-extinction could be a vital tool for conservation, but it could also be used to produce creatures that are more reminiscent of science fiction horror stories than of scientific value.

As a result, efforts are already being made to build a moral framework within which de-extinction scientists can work. As part of this, McCauley authored a paper along with several colleagues that recommended using three specific criteria for the selection of candidates for the de-extinction process.

“I am a conservation biologist and an ecologist. The three criteria we issued were created from that vantage point: what species would we bring back if we genuinely wanted de-extinction to combat the ecological crisis being created by the ongoing human-driven mass extinction?” he explains.

“We suggested recovering species that: 1) performed ecological jobs that were highly unique and were not replicated by other surviving species; 2) recent extinctions for which the technological and ecological barriers for recovery and restoration were lower; and 3) species that we could meaningfully recover to historic levels of abundance.”

If following this approach, scientists would therefore favour species to de-extinct that could not only fulfil a role in the ecosystem that another species had not taken over, but were likely made extinct fairly recently and would survive and flourish in the current environment. And under these criteria, Neanderthals would be a poor choice.

“Neanderthals most importantly fail the first test,” explains McCauley. “Their ecology is very similar to another species that survived and thrived – our own.

“To put it bluntly, from a conversation biologists point of view: the last thing our planet needs right now is more hungry Hominids.”

Neanderthal revival: the moral issue

This is not to say, as some have suggested, that Neanderthals would pose any particular threat to modern humans.

“Quite the opposite,” argues McCauley. “The greatest challenge would be keeping de-extincted Neanderthals alive and safe from us, not worrying about them taking over.”

As these newly engineered Neanderthals would not be true replicas of their past equivalents, they would be likely to suffer from genetic issues, as well as being potentially highly ill-suited to the human-occupied modern world.

There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals

“There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals (e.g. birth defects), they are likely to be quite susceptible to modern disease, and it is unclear what habitats they would slot back into,” he adds. “Our species has taken over all of the once prime habitat of Neanderthals.”

Then there is the matter of Neanderthals’ original demise; something that could easily play out again if we were to bring back a group of the species. It’s hard to see the scientific value of de-extincting a species that would be at high risk of quickly becoming extinct again.

“It is important to remember that we likely played an important role in the original extinction of Neanderthals,” explains McCauley. “We competed heavily with them for food and homes and we may have given them lethal diseases. Reviving Neanderthals might simply be an act of recreating history.”

Value in de-extinction

For McCauley, there is currently no circumstance under which bringing back Neanderthals would be a good idea. But that does not mean that de-extinction as a wider practice does not have value – in fact, it could offer significant benefits, provided we select the right species to focus on.

“There is a very long list of other species that I think would be smarter to bring back before we started in on Neanderthals,” he says.

“As an ecologist that looks out at a world with species being driven extinct in all directions around us, I am all ears for smart new conservation tools.

“The challenge here will be carefully selecting targets that meaningfully help the planet, not using this new-found power to create oddities for zoos or bio-bazaar.”

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