Book Review - The Worm at the Core

ICSA Today Vol. 12, No. 1, 2021, pg. 26-28

Book Review: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

By Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski

Reviewed by Joe Szimhart

Penguin Books, 2016. ISBN-10 : 9780141981628; ISBN-13: 978-0141981628; $21.49 (paperback; $14.49, Kindle).

The title, The Worm at the Core…, refers to the awareness of death among the first humans, and how that awareness continues to impact our existential selves as humans. Death and sex (which leads to life and death) are themes in many foundation myths of world religions, none more so than in a Mesopotamian myth adapted into the Jewish scriptural canon. The authors briefly explore the meaning of this seminal story/myth (pp. 213–215). Repurposing Mesopotamian tree-cult lore to indicate a monotheistic perspective, Genesis in the Jewish Pentateuch presents the story of Eve, who disobeys God after heeding the advice of a talking serpent. She eats of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17), then shares the fruit with her spouse, Adam. Feeling the transcendent effect of the fruit, Adam and Eve suddenly knew that they were naked and covered their pubic areas with leaves. They suddenly knew that sex and death were ominous facts of life that they would have to manage by making judgments. They no longer acted on mere instinct, eating and breeding as did the other animals. Eden’s singular landlord, their Lord and creator, kicked them out of the paradisal garden lest they continue to eat of the “tree of life” and live forever like “us” (the creation gods, or Elohim, in Genesis 3:22) who created them.

The myth as metaphor from the book’s perspective revealed that humankind cannot turn back the evolutionary clock: As humans, we are doomed to live with an awareness of death, time, and a need to constantly make judgements; thus, we create symbolic structures to repress or contain the terror of death. My expansion on this metaphor is that Genesis indicates that humankind made a wrong judgment (sinned for the first time) by disobeying God; but this symbolic fact needs be unpacked for proper interpretation. The reality is that, with our larger brains and keener sense of judgment, we could no longer live like the other animals that have no desire for cults, cosmetics, clothing, temples, theaters, museums, or soccer games. Humans create strategies to avoid death anxieties through immortality projects (sacrifices to gods, holy-grail quests, and cryogenics), illusions (sports and entertainment), and religions (divine revelations, pathways to eternal life). The authors indicate that science and myth have converged to reveal a true event in human evolution—A unique, apelike creature emerged to thrive and suffer with two realities: the natural one and the symbolic one. With the emergence of the larger brain came the ability of protohumans to create cults, rituals, and an abstract language that reflect an awareness of death unlike any other creature formed on planet Earth.

The book covers scientific and psychological history about how we deal with death, but mostly how we avoid death, and how that avoidance impacts our religions, way of life, and end-of-life rituals. We hope for eternal life, and we hang on to nonprovable promises from gurus and prophets. We react to information, whether true or false, to better survive as a self and an identified self. Challenges to our identities as part of a culture by another culture (or cult) can increase anxieties and fears of elimination. We dispense with the other over differences in identity. In some cases, who we think we are can be more important than that we are. Martyrs for causes, even spurious causes, are legion throughout human cultures. Dying for a cause can get us into heaven, and betraying a cause can get us into hell, whether literally or by legacy.

At the time of the book’s publication, the authors were professors of psychology: Sheldon Solomon at Skidmore College, Jeff Greenberg at the University of Arizona, and Tom Pyszczynski at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. They were not always this keen on the importance of death. After collaborating since the early 1970s, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski stumbled upon the work of Ernest Becker (1924–1974) in the early 1980s. They were especially impressed with Becker’s seminal study, The Denial of Death (1973), which had a tremendous impact in its day (President Bill Clinton listed this book among his top 20 books, and Woody Allen highlighted it in his 1977 film, Annie Hall). Becker won a Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death posthumously in 1974. The book had waned in public interest by the time the authors of The Worm at the Core… rediscovered it. However, they found in Becker’s work key insights into their two themes of study: “First, we human beings are driven to protect our self-esteem. Second, we humans strongly desire to assert the superiority of our own group over other groups” (pp. vii–ix). Becker’s books served the three authors “like a Rosetta Stone” wherein “Becker explained how the fear of death guides human behavior … Suddenly, we had a way to understand why we so desperately crave self-esteem, and why we fear, loathe, and sometimes seek to obliterate people who are different from ourselves.” (p. ix).

With this new foundation, the authors designed experiments to study human behavior and states of mind when individuals are confronted with knowledge of death or impending doom. How will knowledge of death affect self-esteem and loyalty to a group? How will knowledge of death or threat of identity annihilation change behavior toward a different or rival group? The results of these social experiments are both subtle and shocking.

My takeaway from this fine book is not only learning again how easily humans are manipulated for good and for ill, but also how primal the struggle with knowledge of death informs everything we do and can do. For example, the authors show “how some compensate for a loss of meaning and self-esteem by adopting an entirely new worldview” (p. 53). 

For cultic studies, I think the book addresses the primal impulse behind why people form and are attracted to cults, and how people are manipulated to believe in extremist ideas. This is a chronic problem for human beings who cannot avoid developing strategies to deal with death, even scientific ones for those who accept man as a natural creature who ceases to exist as an aware entity at the time of death.

The authors do not dismiss the value of illusion in human affairs. With Becker, they agree that mankind needs a symbolic reality (necessary illusions) to thrive—That is what we are. How we manage it and to what degree we impose our symbolic worlds on others are the relevant questions. The authors offer a remedy called existential therapy and turn to an “Epicurean cure” (p. 216) with a nod to Lucretius, who wrote On the Nature of Things nearly two thousand years ago. For the authors, Lucretius, as poet and Roman philosopher who expanded on the Greek philosophy of Epicurus, remains utterly relevant to our modern era. The authors also offer Albert Camus, who wrote in his Notebooks: “Come to terms with death. Thereafter anything is possible” (p. 218). One way we come to terms with death is through biosocial transcendence through our genetic adaptations and our social legacies. The authors cite Charles Lindberg, who had tremendous anxiety over dying until, on a visit to Africa, he realized that literal death must occur for continuity of life: “Only by dying, can we continue living,” he said (p. 221). 

Finally, the authors say that we must accept that we live between a “rock and a hard place” (p. 224), wherein the rock is that black-and-white area in which absolute beliefs about afterlife exist in a myriad of -isms. The hard place is the reality that we cannot be certain, that all worldviews are flawed, and as such we struggle to be tolerant of what others consider good and evil. We in the hard place accept that, as necessary illusions, belief systems and values are also malleable, and thus adaptable to change in the human struggle for a better social existence.

There is a lot more to this book, which is a result of more than five hundred studies to test many hypotheses proposed to examine terror-management theory. The authors found overwhelming evidence confirming Becker’s central claim that, without constructing necessary illusions to cope with death, we humans would collapse in total despair. Many of these experiments are mentioned in the book. It is worth a read.

About the Reviewer

Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his 2-year devotion to a New Age sect. He worked professionally as an intervention specialist from 1986 through 1998. He continues to assist people with cult-related problems including consultations via phone and Internet. In 2016 he received an ICSA Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas. Since 1998, he has worked for an emergency psychiatric hospital as a crisis caseworker. He maintains an art studio and exhibits professionally. His novel, Mushroom Satori: The cult diary was published in 2013.