The Worm At The Core: On the Role of Death in Life. By Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. Random House. On Sale: May 12, 2015. $28.00
Is the death at the core of human behavior and civilization? That is the assumption under which psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Psyzczynski operate as they set out to explore the role of death in society in their new book, The Worm At The Core: On the Role of Death in Life. The book outlines and expounds on the author's Terror Management Theory (TMT), the conclusion of thirty years of research, which draws on hundreds of experiments. TMT ambitiously postulates that the fear of death and the desire to overcome death is the driving force behind a large swathe of human behavior. It is death that encourages virtue and vice: rigorous exercise regiments and smoking, sexual promiscuity and gambling. Death is the fulcrum of beauty customs, including tattoos and piercings, and exacerbates homophobia and racism. It is death that inspires the greatest creative works, creations that will grant their authors symbolic immortality, and death that rouses science to push the boundaries of nature in an endeavor to secure literal immortality.
Death and its effects surround us, even if we are not fully aware of it. The Worm At The Core draws back the curtain and shows how death can explain nearly every facet of human civilization: religion, science, art, politics, history, human evolution and human development. Despite death's pervasiveness in the living world, the authors conclude that its inevitability should not entail a resigned languor in our daily activity. Rather, death should inspire a newfound appreciation of life, and perhaps even a reorganization of priorities and revision of lifestyles.
Such an ambitious theory is bound to raise questions about its plausibility, and some of the evidence the authors present is not always convincing. Many of the experiments cited in the book establish a correlation between thoughts of death and certain actions such as chauvinism or binge smoking. Yet it may be that death is not the causal variable, but rather the confounding variable. Death might incite a second emotion, sorrow, for example, that then encourages unhealthy behavior. Might the thought of a cheating partner also encourage binge-eating, or even racism if those thoughts engender a pessimism that leads to hostility?
Yet some 300 experiments and strong logic do present overwhelming evidence in support of TMT. Aspiring, expansive and thorough, The Worm At The Core will demand the reader to rethink not only their actions but also the society they live in. The book is very well written and incredibly accessible to the layperson without previous knowledge of psychology. TMT will challenge our reality and can yet prove to be one of the most important theories of this generation. It is well worth the read.