Can Darwinism help us grasp this uniquely human tendency, asks Alex Defert

A Very Human Ending

by Jesse Bering, Doubleday, 288pp, £16.99

The taboo of suicide runs deep in human consciousness. We fear it, avoid discussing it and, for the most part, find the train of thought that might lead to it abhorrent or distressing. I imagine that some people will avoid picking up a copy of Bering’s book for that reason; but that would be a mistake. This is an incisive and thought-provoking foray into a sorely needed conversation.

“Globally, a million people a year kill themselves, and many times that number try to do so,” begins one chapter. “Between now and the time you finish reading the next paragraph, someone, somewhere, will decide that death is a more welcoming prospect than breathing another breath in this world.” Our escalating mental health crisis demands that we grapple with the potential causes and reasoning behind such behaviour, and Bering has created an empathetic and moving odyssey into a universe of cognition in which the embrace of death is a welcome friend rather than a looming chasm. His own ongoing struggles with suicidal thoughts, coupled with his psychological training, combine to form a fascinating scientific journey.

Is suicide a form of mental illness, an evolved altruistic calculation or an adaptive feature of our evolutionary past? Why do we have a taboo around the subject? What role does religion play in preventing or exacerbating suicidal tendencies? And how does media coverage of suicide affect us?

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