Did Suicide Exist Before Society?

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We don’t know when suicide began, but we’re rather sure it began with humans. This begs the question: when? At what point along the evolutionary journey of Homo Sapiens did we, for reasons absent from any other prior species, begin killing ourselves? The question implies that the impulse to suicide is, ironically, self-inflicted. Evolutionary Biologist Olivia Judson comments:

“Suicide is an essentially human behavior…I’m not sure what this means. but it has made me think. We live in a way that no other animal has ever lived: our lifestyle is unprecedented in the history of the planet. Often, we like to congratulate ourselves on the cities we have built, the gadgets we can buy, the rockets we send to the moon. But perhaps we should not be so proud. Something about the way we live means that, for many of us, life comes to seem unbearable, a long, melancholy ache of despair.” (A Long, Melancholy Roar)

If suicide is essentially human, it may not be inherently so. There was likely a time when humans existed, and suicide did not. Perhaps there’s an underbelly to ‘progress’ that exacerbated things, but suicide predates industrial notions of progress. This is fertile terrain to explore, because the bursting of suicide onto the existential scene marks an unprecedented development in consciousness and the agency we exert upon our lives.


Anthropology of Suicide

We know a few things about the antiquity of suicide. In the Greek colony of Massalia (600 B.C.), citizens could apply to their Senate for suicide. If their reasons were judged sound, the citizen was given hemlock to carry out the deed, free of charge. 

The Berlin Museum houses what is considered the first suicide note in existence, dating back to ancient Egypt, around 1900 B.C. It was translated into German by Adolph Erman and given the title, “The Dispute With His Soul Of One Who Is Tired Of Life.” In it, the subject dialogues with his soul, and writes four poems. 

Beyond this, we cannot know. Recorded history began around 4,000 B.C. with Sumerian writing, and homo sapiens emerged from the chimpanzee evolutionary line some 2.49 million years before that. Somewhere in between, we began living in such a way that life was occasionally deemed not worth living. 


Dawn of the Question

The emergence of this question, which Shakespeare immortalized — to be, or not to be, that is the question — marks a fascinating turn in human development, in the development of life itself. What caused it? 

It’s a daunting question that I can’t hope to answer, nevertheless, to spend time conjuring a theory trumps most other ways I’d spend an afternoon.

Yuval Noah Harari, professor of history and author of the provocative (and excellent) Sapiens, posits that human history has so far experienced three distinctive revolutions: Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific. The Cognitive Revolution (70,000 B.C.) is essentially marked by the evolution of abstract thought and imagination: 

“As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution.”

And, as the human mind was untethered from immediate sensory experience, raising its sights to uncharted mental terrain, it’s possible that here, the capacity for reflection emerged. Suicide may not have been possible until the dawn of reflection because the question could simply never have arisen. It might have been no more possible for a pre-reflective human to consider killing itself than an antelope or a bird; prior to reflection, our sensory experience stimulated a mental life purely informed by survival. But, with imagination and reflection, we outgrew the singular dominance of evolutionary principles:

“The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.” (Harari, Sapiens)

At some point in history, perhaps pre-history, death was just death. It marked the end of experience, nothing more. There were no stories, beliefs, or myths about life after death. With the Cognitive Revolution’s bestowment of complex language, imagination, and what Harari calls “intersubjective phenomenon”, it became possible to die for something, which likely revolutionized the landscape of suicide.


Suicide & Philosophy

I’m also going to hypothesize that the emergence of suicide as a consideration may have also given birth to philosophy, if we define that as the practice of asking how to live. The consideration of how to live is predicated upon a decision to live, implicit or not. It’s possible that this decision never occurred to Homo Sapiens before the Cognitive Revolution’s deliverance of reflection. 

Once it did, our lives now available as objects of our own awareness, existence became a kind of question, and our lives a makeshift sort of answer. The question needn’t be taken up, often it isn’t, but it remains. This is what French philosopher Albert Camus is most remembered for, posing suicide as the primary question of philosophy:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.” (The Myth of Sisyphus)

Is life worth living? Anyone around to consider the question has answered in the affirmative, on one level or another. Philosophy may be largely a character trait of those who aren’t comfortable living out answers to questions they haven’t themselves considered, answers they haven’t meant to give. 

Whenever the first suicide was committed, however long ago, it ripped human life wide open. Camus describes the onset of philosophy, what he calls the “inaugural impulse to consciousness”, in much the same way I imagine suicide rattling humanity: 

“Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had changed greatly since, and that that experience had ‘undermined’ him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.”

Once death revealed itself to us as an option, life, too, became optional. Existence took on a depth, unlocked a vast basement rendering all things built upon it unsteady. But perhaps this isn’t an externality of our notions of progress, as Olivia Judson suggests. Perhaps suicide was an inevitable result of awareness coming to behold itself, and the act is only as unprecedented in the animal kingdom as is reflection. Perhaps society didn’t create suicide; it merely rationalizes it, as we do with most things we don’t understand, because who understands life

The question remains open, and there’s probably a great novel to be written about the first human to ever contemplate suicide. How did the idea come about? But, with Camus, I prefer to view the onset of suicide — the realization that living is a choice — as a tool for focusing our attention upon the answers we live to Shakespeare’s question. I’m still here, and unlike pre-suicidal humans, I can endeavor to understand why, and for what.