The Purpose of Life, Revealed

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Last week I ran into a few online discussions about those big, big questions that often come up in late-night conversations: Why are we here? What is our purpose?

Strictly speaking, as members of the human species we do have a purpose. But we didn’t choose it, and it might not be us who stands to benefit from it. In fact, you might find our purpose quite upsetting. Maybe you don’t want to know. If you want to take the proverbial “Red Pill”, read on. While it might be alarming at first, it is also very enlightening, and could change forever how you view yourself and what you want to do with your life.

Today’s post is a particularly long one, but it does contain the meaning of life, so it may be worth your while.

To understand it we have to start with a quick biology lesson.

Everything you do, you do for you

It really seems like no matter what we do, we are always serving ourselves in some way. Every action you take is to fulfill some desire that you have, whether that desire is to eat a chocolate cake, run away from a bee, or to help your nephew with his homework. You do it because it promises to deliver something you want.

Even charity and philanthropy always seem to have some identifiable benefit to the giver: recognition, tax rebates, or even just a good feeling inside. There are always incentives for our behavior, and so it seems that we cannot escape self-interest.

That’s okay though. Self-interest doesn’t need to take the form of blatant selfishness, as we tend to call it — taking something for yourself at the expense of somebody else. But sometimes it does, in the form of theft, greed, or physical domination.

Most of us have learned that we can usually serve ourselves better by complying with society’s values than we could by violating them. Approaching life by stealing everything you need would almost certainly lead to a less desirable situation for you than working for and buying everything you need.

So you could say, that while everything we do has completely self-interested motivations behind it, acting with respect for others is generally a more skillful way of serving yourself than acting with utter disregard for others. This principle does not, in the eyes of society, excuse all behaviors, but it certainly explains most of them.

Self-Interest is a Winning Strategy

From a cold, biological standpoint, unabashed self-interest makes perfect sense, even if it’s at the expense of its neighbors, friends, or even family. The better an organism is able to feed itself, protect itself, and give itself advantages, the more likely it will be to have babies. Those babies will inherit many of its parents’ traits, particularly the self-serving ones that allowed their parents to reach the baby-making stage of their lives.

This drive to procreate — to make more creatures that carry our genes — seems to be the engine behind virtually all instinctive behavior. Naturally, we have a much stronger interest in ensuring the well-being of ourselves and our children and our mate than we do for other individuals. We do play favorites, and we’re always looking out for number one above all else. We’re no different from other animals in this regard.

However, there have always been instances in the animal kingdom that contradict this apparently inescapable self-interest.

Ant colonies seem to defy the idea of individual self-interest the most. Each ant appears to be committed to the health of its colony above all else. They toil endlessly to bring food to the colony, bearing loads that could not be budged by any individual ant. They care for each others’ young indiscriminately, and they willingly sacrifice their lives to keep enemies of the colony at bay.

Clearly, creating a diversion by jumping into the maw of an attacking spider doesn’t do a whole lot for the sacrificed ant’s health, nor does it help her have babies — soldier ants are sterile females anyway — but it does help her fellow ants drive off the enemy without many more casualties. It would seem then, that her behavior is driven by an impulse to save the colony as a whole, at the expense of herself.

To explain these types of apparently altruistic behaviors, biologists of Darwin’s era reasoned that organisms have evolved to help their species survive, not just to help themselves as individuals. This became a long-standing assumption in the field of evolutionary biology.

Eventually, a disturbing habit of lions put that theory in doubt.

Lion prides typically consist of a number of related females and their cubs. At any given time, a few non-related male lions will travel with the pride so they can mate when they have a chance. The males in a pride are periodically ousted by a younger, fitter group of males, who will, upon driving away the older lions, proceed to kill every lion cub in the pride, knowing that they were fathered by different males.

Most of these lions will kill more cubs than they’ll actually father themselves. So the new males are actually reducing the population in order to ensure that more of the survivors carry their own genes. This contradicts the idea that individuals evolve to help propagate the species, because the lion’s murderous instinct causes the species to be harmed at the expense of the individual.

So the ants seem to suggest that animals evolve toward ensuring the continuation of their species, while the lions’ cruel instinct suggests that an individual views his own genetic longevity as more important than the whole species.

What theory of evolution could possibly explain them both?

In other words, what is the purpose of the individual animal? What is our purpose as people?

Obviously we humans can each decide on our own personal purpose, but what does our biology have in mind for us? What are our instincts trying to make us do?

The answer to that question holds supreme importance as to the fate of humankind. Our instincts, more than any other force, brought us to where we are today. They led us to create civilization as we know it, with all of its political strife, religious tension, oil spills and trans-fats.

Our purpose

In a 1976 book, scientist Richard Dawkins gave us a revolutionary explanation of the purpose of life. And the implications were sobering to say the least.

We know all living things have genes — biological information that instructs their bodies how to build themselves, and determines what instincts will drive their behavior.

Dawkins’ theory has two basic points. Here’s a simplified version:

1) Any gene that promotes its own survival will spread at the expense of other genes.

It’s simple. The way for a gene to promote its survival is to find a way have copies made of it. If the animal that carries that gene has babies, the baby will carry that gene too, and will have a chance to pass that gene on to future generations. The more offspring an animal has, the better chances its genes have of making copies of themselves.

So if that gene can give the animal a trait that makes it tougher, more aware of danger, better at finding food, better at attracting a mate, or just want to have babies really really badly, then that gene is going to spread through a population faster than genes that don’t lend their hosts a survival or reproductive advantage. Evolution has been at work a long time, eliminating genes that aren’t so good at having copies made of them, so plants and animals today carry huge numbers of genes that each aid reproduction, or predispose them in some way toward reproducing.

2) Organisms are built by genes.

This is where it gets scary. The only reason genes build organisms at all is to create a viable way of making copies of themselves. Genes reproduce by making their hosts reproduce, by giving them traits that lead to reproduction — a strong sex drive, a fear of predators, keen eyesight, an emotional attachment to their mates — any physical feature or instinctive trait that improves the host creature’s chances of reproduction is merely another way for genes to promote their own reproduction.

This leads us to a disturbing conclusion: All life forms are essentially machines created by genes to improve the gene’s chances of replicating itself. Since the dawn of life, genes have been engineering and commandeering proteins to organize themselves into creatures with built-in behaviors that lead to those genes spreading.

That’s what you are, and that’s what your dog is, and that’s what its fleas are: a highly complex, convoluted way for genetic information to make copies of itself. We are elaborate Xerox machines, manipulated by our genes into making more copies of them. Genes have been playing this same game for billions of years. We have always been pawns.

Your genes don’t care about you

“An hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” ~ Samuel Butler

At first glance it seems like what’s good for our genes is then good for us. We want to survive too. We want to eat, sleep, prosper, have children and raise them to be fit to do the same thing.

But there are many instances in which a behavior is good for the genes, and decidedly bad for the creature carrying them. Consider the hapless male praying mantis, who suffers from a questionable impulse to let his girlfriend bite off his head while the couple is still mating. Afterward, she eats his quivering, headless body to nourish herself for the delivery of offspring.

Through this intimate act of sexual cannibalism, the male mantis passes his genes on to hundreds of offspring, but he won’t be around to enjoy the role of proud father. His genes sacrifice him for their own selfish purpose, by instructing him through instinct to die right then and there, in case his mate fails to find lunch on her own.

So it is the genes that have this unswerving determination to reproduce, and we’re just being dragged along for the ride, destined to behave in whatever ways best suit our tiny designers. Our impulse to have babies is really just a manifestation of our genes’ impulse to make more copies of themselves.

Our purpose is to do the bidding of our genes, regardless of how it effects us as people.

All of what we humans suffer in life: jealousy, despair, loss, loneliness, craving, violence and hatred — are all side-effects of this age-old war between competing genes. It’s taken the form of a biological arms race: as genes have found more and more dominating constructions to build, life on earth has become more and more diverse and complex.

What began with DNA molecules surrounded by protective sheaths of protein has developed into a brilliant, confounding palette of life that includes everything from orchids to pet ferrets, to mildew, to jailed celebrities, to octopuses that can predict soccer matches. It is a cruel, absurd miracle.

The Selfish Gene

The title of Dawkins’ groundbreaking book is “The Selfish Gene,” because the gene has no regard for the welfare of its parent creature. To our genes, we are only tools. They only want us to do well if it helps them do well.

Why are the genes so selfish anyways? Why do they have his apparent lust for world domination, dragging our species to war and overpopulation in the process?

They actually don’t. Genes have no emotions, no consciousness, no intentions of their own. They are just chemicals, and those chemicals have properties, which give them behavioral tendencies. An entity doesn’t have to be alive to have behavioral tendencies — clouds, ocean waves, volcanoes and other nonliving natural phenomena have known, typical behaviors.

Dawkins meant the word “selfish” to be a metaphor for how those genes behave. His word choice is blamed for a widespread misunderstanding of his theory. Analogies do help us understand new concepts, but they can just as easily give us a false or at least oversimple picture. Geneticist Steve Jones may have put it best: “Evolution is to analogy as statues are to birdshit.”

What this means for us

Knowing now that we’re just overdeveloped byproducts of our unseen masters’ struggle for dominance, we have to consider what this means for ourselves and our species. Does it make sense, then, to follow every impulse we have, knowing that they were never meant to serve us anyway?

Most people agree that we each have to decide our own life purpose, lest we inherit one from somebody else.

It turns out that we already have. And that ‘somebody’ is not human, and it has no values.

I’ve only begun to ponder the implications of this point of view, but already two things are clear:

First, our instincts cannot be depended on to achieve a decent quality of life for ourselves. This isn’t a new idea but suddenly it’s taken on a renewed urgency. Instincts point us only toward a good situation for our genes, and we stand to benefit only if our own needs happen to overlap. We must constantly question our impulses, and the habits that form from them.

Second, and most worrisome, it means we have no inbuilt desire to preserve our species or our planet.

Evolution learns from successes, not failures. No gene in existence has ever guided its host species to deplete all of its resources, for example, because any such genes would not have survived. So our genes don’t know what they might run afoul of in the future; they can only go full steam ahead using what has worked already.

This means our genes cannot be expected to evolve us away from future catastrophe, only to evolve towards what works right now. From a gene’s perspective, having us seek as much power and consume as many material resources as we can only makes sense, because the gene has no foresight. It doesn’t know aggressive consumption is a faulty strategy for survival.

We, as sentient creatures, do have foresight. We can understand where our behavior is bound to take us, but our instincts will never know better. So we must constantly question our instincts and defy them when it makes sense.

True Selfishness

Fortunately for us, there are two great forces that guide our behavior. Genetics determine our instincts, but we can also learn from our experiences. We are the first species to even know genes and evolution exist. This eons-long genetic arms race has left us with a mind so sharp, we can finally see what fate has in store for us. And it isn’t rosy.

To correct our course, we have to understand the dubious purpose we’ve been given, understand what it is making us do, and reject it in favor of something that actually works for us.

If development is ever to become sustainable, if thoughtless consumerism is ever to go out of style, if our exploding population is ever to level off, it will only be because it has become a normal part of our culture for an individual to question his impulses and consciously work on overcoming them.

There is a lot of stigma surrounding “selfishness,” as if it’s intrinsically immoral, but I think that’s because we associate self-serving behavior with the familiar tyranny of living for our genes — the worship of power and ego gratification. These are low-level ways of serving oneself because they lead to more dissatisfaction and a dependency on external circumstances. We can do better than that, with a little rational thinking.

If we really were living for ourselves in the most honest sense — striving earnestly for the highest quality of life we could manage, I think most of us would end up buying less stuff, taking more responsibility for ourselves, and doing less harm to the people and environments around us. I think the most skillful way to serve yourself is to live wholesomely.

So if you’re suddenly in the market for a new purpose, maybe that’s not such a bad one.

R

Photos by miyukiutada and Horia Varlan

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{ 36 Comments }

Josh July 26, 2010 at 12:58 am

Ya I really liked your article. It is really almost impossible to eliminate selfishness from our lives because we are bred to be that way. Media tells us to be individuals, schools, everything. The internet takes us even further out of our natural communities, so we see less of where we live and how we need to be a positive effect on our own cities and communities. Hopefully though as we progress the internet will find again a way for us to understand the need around us and make it easier for us to contribute our time and money to those who need it…

Nico July 26, 2010 at 2:30 am

Hello David! This is my first message at Raptitude, and well.. I would like to say something more than hello :)

Ive always thought ‘human’ is the opposite of ‘nature’, in more than a way. We really dont fit in this reality. Evolution is as permanent as the air; no living being cant scape from it, but how it affects us? Exists natural selection for us? Or is more like.. human selection? If a human comes to this world without legs.. could still survive? could other animal survive? The advance in Medicine benefit the Doctors of the whole specie?

Ive read “The Selfish Gene”, but still cant believe it. I prefer believing in dolphins saving human lives. It always ends with beliefs.

..anyway, the purpose of the gen is to fill the gen pool (make more gens). Which is ours?

David July 26, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Hi Nico.

I have gone from thinking that humanity is unnatural to trying to make sense of it as a part of nature. That’s what has helped me come to terms with how people can do things that hurt themselves and others — because there is an explanation other than “they’re just bad people.” It didn’t really make sense to me that humans were not animals.

You’re right, it does come down to belief. We do all have to find the points of view that sit right with us.

Joy July 26, 2010 at 3:44 am

Wow..you *are* a thinker..which is good for me, because I tend to turn my mind off and live by my senses (a feeler if you will)…so you do the research and the thinking, boil it down and I learn..win win..
Before reading your article, my heart says life is Energy and my purpose is to make sure I have the best Energy possible so that when I share with others, what I share is pure and allows them to grow. I focus on tending and growing my ‘garden’ and share from the abundance in it…In theory, others would also have pure Energy so when I receive from them, it is nutrients to enable my garden to grow (that theory doesn’t always work out). But, my purpose is to share golden, so my focus is to do the work to make sure it’s golden..
As you said: “striving earnestly for the highest quality of life we could manage”…win win..:)

DiscoveredJoys July 26, 2010 at 4:22 am

Welcome to reality. For a more nuanced version of the selfish gene I recommend this article: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/07/its_more_than_genes_its_networ.php

Your basic message is still true. There is nothing in nature to suggest that there is any *purpose* in life. Nature is blind and indifferent. The unguided process of evolution is fuelled by death. This is a very dark nihilistic realisation – doesn’t mean that it isn’t factual.

The good news is that when there is no *universal purpose* you are not prohibited from picking your *own purpose*. Your choice will still be subtly limited by your unconscious thoughts and the society you live in, but at least you have some wriggle room to fit yourself into a more satisfying life.

Mary Jaksch (http://goodlifezen.com) has said “Simply make peace within and live each moment fully. That’s all.”

Works for me.

David July 26, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Great article, thank you. :)

Maik July 26, 2010 at 4:31 am

Heh, I really wondered just how long it would take for the Selfish Gene to come up in your blog. :) It’s just one of those concepts that are so utterly eye-opening, enlightening and mind expanding that you cannot help but deeply dwell on their implications on every aspect of life. Truly understanding evolution (especially the gene-centered view of it following Dawkins) for me was like finding the last piece of a huge puzzle – everything that doesn’t make sense in human or animal behavior and development suddenly isn’t just plausible but necessarily exactly working the way it is.
Sadly, a lot of people either don’t fully understand this theory or just don’t get that nothing of it has anything to do with moral decisions or values. Evolution is. Genes are. We are. That’s it. However we are the only species blessed with a deep understanding of our existence – and the ability to act against our genetic programming. But we can’t escape the reality of evolution as a concept, because even what we think and believe is guided by the same principles – “memes” like “monotheistic religion” have long complemented our genetic makeup and are probably more influential on our future than any genetic drift the human species is experiencing today. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the consequences. So much to think about, so little time. :)

David July 26, 2010 at 8:35 pm

If anything makes us special, I think that’s it: that we have some understanding of who we are and where we came from. Obviously we don’t know it all, but we know enough to give ourselves a new direction. That concept fascinates me.

Great comment, thanks Maik.

Eric | Eden Journal July 26, 2010 at 6:38 am

This is the purely scientific explanation for the purely physical purpose of life. I picture scientists hanging out in some science lounge, discussing the nature of life and coming up with theories like these. Then they cackle wildly and order another round of cocktails while scribbling down notes on their napkins.

It doesn’t account for any spriritual or soul experience, but I’m sure that was purposely left out of this post. As far as the selfishness goes, it does seem to be a built in part of human nature. As you said, even in charity we do it for ourselves. I wonder if this is overcome in a state of enlightenment, or if it’s still there as a necessary part of being human.

David July 26, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Yes, I’m sure you and other regular readers know that I don’t think there isn’t anything to life beyond these mechanical processes. Even if I hadn’t witnessed any evidence of
“more” in my own life, I would have to assume that there must be more simply because humans can’t possibly know everything about their nature.

Lisis July 26, 2010 at 7:02 am

Hmmm… interesting, D., but biology only explains half the story. You’ve made a case for the selfish genes creating vessels to propagate their existence (humans, lions, ants, any living thing). But those vessels are merely shells that transport our Spirit, our Life Essence around for a while. Our spirits are like hermit crabs, moving from one shell to another as we progress through time. (See Brian Wiess’ Many Lives, Many Masters for a simplistic illustration of this concept.)

You’ve done a great job of explaining the purpose of our *bodies* (they are here to support the survival of genes). Roger that. But what about our infinitely more complicated SOULS?

This is where science always comes up short, and religion tends to assume too much, with neither side (or both in conjunction) yielding a suitable answer.

You’ve hinted at this other side by suggesting that we have the *ability* to override our physical instincts. But, where does this ability come from? And, to what end are we choosing to rise above our primitive natures?

Once I realize my body (with its physical needs, and immature desire for instant gratification) is not relevant to the big picture, then what? It’s no fun knowing I’m just a shell.

Know what I mean, Jelly Bean? ;)

David July 26, 2010 at 10:53 pm

I think I know what you mean Jelly Bean

I don’t think it would mean you are just a shell, and I never meant to suggest that this theory makes us any less of anything. I just don’t know why we seem to need so badly to believe our meaning comes from something more romantic.

It’s clear this isn’t the whole story. But this gene-driven process certainly seems to be a vital part of the story. It does explain how *this* (I’m gesturing at the suburban landscape outside my window) could have come to be, and the apparent purpose that drives it.

It’s not meant to be a satisfying answer. ;)

By my definition of nature, nothing can possibly not be a part of nature. So there is no need for separate rules, between the earthly and the heavenly. Does that make sense? I think we tend to do that, as if we understand the nature part and all it’s doing, and now there is this other part that must be something else.

We don’t know all the rules yet, and we don’t know how they fit together. But this selfish gene process seems to be major one, and understanding the magnitude of its effect on our lives can only help us make sense of human behavior, and manage its side-effects.

We know there is more to it. But we can’t be sure that this “everything else” isn’t caused by this same process too, that it isn’t biological. And it if was, would that diminish its significance? I suspect most people would say no but would think yes, because they’ve fallen in love with a the idea that human consciousness is beyond nature, Which means there is something *better* than this (again gesturing out the window).

If it’s not natural, then it’s supernatural. I think that duality is a big hangup for human beings. How many of us could truly bear the thought that life just a beautiful accident? If it is an accident, it’s an accident that has become aware of itself, and that’s incredible.

Bear with me for a second. Say we are indeed nothing but the monkeys in the typewriter room for a billion years who came up with King Lear. That means we are an inevitability of time and space. So with enough time and enough space, the contents of that space will eventually become aware of itself. There will be a definite point, in that vast stretch of time, when this self-awareness is bound to happen. Imagine our luck… it’s happening right here and right now.

Yu July 27, 2010 at 12:17 am

I think humans tend to have a hard time accepting the idea that their existence is a mere coincidence. I’ve struggled a long time with the idea too. I can’t say I think our existence here is meaningless, but I too feel like the reason for our existence is purely accidental.
On a side note, I’ve come to a point where I don’t really distinguish between whats “artificial” and “natural” anymore. It seems to me like we give the things around us meaning, including ourselves. The reason we tend to discriminate between what is natural and manmade is the reason we give it, because natural things don’t have an immediate purpose for us. But if you look at a computer or a house, you can’t help but conjure up thoughts on how to use them or why they are there.
On that note, I don’t think natural, or nature really has any sort of meaning to us, because everything is.

But I’m inclined to say that even though our existence is purely accidental, the meaning we create for ourselves is no less important than the accidental nature of our existence. After all, as you probably know already, everything is in your mind, and because of that it doesn’t seem like what we create is any different from what seems to already be there.

Lisis July 27, 2010 at 7:23 am

Here’s the thing, though: no matter *how* this situation came to be (beautiful accident, selfish genes, intelligent design, whatever), we are here now. We are alive and aware of it.

Now what?

What is the purpose of my life… now? This is not the same as “where did we come from?” or “how did we get here?” The search for purpose, meaning, raison d’etre, etc. is what has led so many to create art, join causes, fight wars, launch revolutions, seduce lovers, rise against the establishment, feed starving babies, make millions, donate millions, steal millions, invent airplanes, jump out of airplanes, make giant rubber band balls…

“What is the purpose of life?” is more like, “What difference does it make if I wake up tomorrow, or not?” or, “Does it matter if I choose to be the next Mother Teresa or the next Hitler?” Am I supposed to achieve and be productive (as society implies), or sit and contemplate nature (like the Enlightened ones do)?

Then comes the awareness that it really makes *no difference at all* how we choose to bide our time while these selfish genes replicate until our bodies can no longer support them. And the challenge becomes: living a life that has no purpose whatsoever.

Anyway, I don’t actually expect an answer… since never in the history of time has a reasonable answer been found. I’m just saying, it bugs me that there is no answer outside of fables and fantasies and untestable scientific hypotheses. Distraction seems to be the best way to medicate away that awareness.

Maik July 27, 2010 at 7:53 am

I personally believe it’s a misconception that meaning or purpose in life can be “found”. It’s not there to be found. Meaning is not found but *made* – outside of our consciousness those words themselves do not even have any meaning at all. “Meaning” and “purpose” are concepts our mind made up in response to our ability to understand our environment in terms of abstractions and intends, and to massively change it towards certain imagined goals. Whatever you imagine your purpose in life to be, it is. That’s the only answer. There is no external deeper truth or some hidden agenda buried withing the mysteries of the universe.

David July 28, 2010 at 11:03 pm

I see what you’re getting at.

This post is meant to describe nature’s apparent purpose for us. I know we each have to choose our own if we don’t want to be stuck with one given to us by somebody else (even if it’s mother nature.)

The selfish gene idea means that all of the unfulfilling things we feel like we’re supposed to do are actually only the effects of our genes playing out their game. Many people trust that any strong, persistent desire is one that’s important to satisfy. Basically I’m describing what will steer our lives if we don’t do it ourselves. I don’t think I’d know what to do when I didn’t understand what my feelings are trying to make me do, or why. Otherwise, each desire would appear important and I wouldn’t know which aren’t really serving me.

Why would you think it makes no difference how you spend your time?

mojobone September 1, 2010 at 4:58 am

I might have said that our souls are infinitely less complex than our bodies. Your mileage may vary. ;-)

Michael September 1, 2010 at 8:20 am

Funny thing, with the Headless Way topic I’ve been reading on, I begin to find that there are more differences in what we human beings look like than there are in what we are inside. Perhaps the body is much more complex than the soul.

Lisis July 26, 2010 at 7:40 am

One more thing… I’m not entirely convinced by this conclusion in the lions vs. ants debate:

“This contradicts the idea that individuals evolve to help propagate the species, because the lion’s murderous instinct *causes the species to be harmed* at the expense of the individual.”

What if the way ants “propagate the species” is by sacrificing individuals in favor of large numbers for the colony, since the quantity of ants matters more than the quality of each individual given the nature of their work and lifestyle? While maybe lions “propagate the species” by sacrificing many inferior specimens in favor of fewer, better (stronger, smarter, faster, etc.) lions to keep the pack alive? Having tons of wimpy, idiotic lions is more of a liability to the pack in a dangerous world of scarce resources.

I’m just saying… if we just stick to biology, evolutionary theory, and logic, the lion behavior only contradicts the propagation of species theory if we assume all species are better off with quantity vs. quality of individuals. Right?

David August 1, 2010 at 2:23 pm

I’m just saying… if we just stick to biology, evolutionary theory, and logic, the lion behavior only contradicts the propagation of species theory if we assume all species are better off with quantity vs. quality of individuals. Right?

Quality is at least as much a factor as quantity, of course. That’s why we don’t have litters of fifteen babies, and why it takes eighteen years to raise a child to independence.

But it doesn’t seem that the behavior of the lions has anything to do with quality control. According to the biologists, the only criteria the lions have for killing the cubs is whether they are the new male’s descendants. In terms of the survivability of a species, I can’t think of a more reliable indicator than rate of population growth, and these killings must affect that bottom line.

I know we can’t entirely be functions of evolutionary theory (or any science for that matter) simply because our knowledge of the universe can’t possibly be complete.

But I think the case with the lion’s culling makes a powerful suggestion that animals do not live for the welfare of their species, as once thought.

And it is only one example. Human behavior is another compelling one — when you read your newspaper, does it look like people are behaving with the interests of their species foremost in their minds?

Trish Scott July 26, 2010 at 10:18 am

Brilliant David!

My less thought out rendition is this;

All the world is a stage. As actors on this stage many have settled into their costume to the extent that the costume has taken over the parts entirely. Fine actors though, know that it is what comes from the actor that is important and that the costume really isn’t necessary at all.

Jay Schryer July 26, 2010 at 10:21 am

Perhaps life evolved consciousness so that our short-sighted, selfish genes could be reigned in.

Meg July 27, 2010 at 7:28 am

Nice to read a good “thinking” post! Re some of the comments which say that biology does not account for the spirit or soul: there is scientific evidence that those who are spiritual have differently-functioning brains than those who are not. To me this suggests that it’s all biological or genetic anyway. But that’s not necessarily a “spiritual” downer, because we cannot assume that our current understanding of matter is the defining one. We use the terminology and scientific methods we have at the moment to explain how evolution works; in time we may have the methods and terminology for a material explanation of what we currently understand as the spiritual.

Alexander R. Lorenz July 27, 2010 at 11:37 am

What you say about the lion pride, the males, killing off more young then they father. Ants are on a much smaller scale, they have evolved differently anyway, but they have for the best of the colony. Lions are on a bigger scale, the worst thing a species can do for itself, on that scale of consumption, and listen up humans, is overpopulate itself. Where would they find food, water, shelter, if lions roamed the land in prides of 50 and counting? These loins are looking out for there species in a sense of longevity and survival of the fittest, a true prideful species. Mind you I haven’t finish reading yet

Alexander R. Lorenz July 27, 2010 at 11:57 am

(After reading “Your Genes Don’t Care About You.”)
-And people think genes aren’t doing this same thing on other planets, in other galaxies, I wish our space program was a lot better right about now..

Anomanderis July 28, 2010 at 2:02 pm

I first came in contact with this theme from a couple of TED videos (links below)

http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_pollan_gives_a_plant_s_eye_view.html – on how plants use humans, not the other way around

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/susan_blackmore_on_memes_and_temes.html – memes

Intriguing stuff

Erin S. July 28, 2010 at 4:02 pm

What do we know about life? It is fleeting. Our cells divide 50 times and it is game over.

The meaning of life is we must make the most of each precious moment. Is the world a better place because we were here? If we left our genes to continue to reproduce, apparently so. Yet those (Newton, Dante, etc) who have gone before us in the past 500 years have left us “The Age of Reason”, which is where this post stems from. There is reason and science behind everything. Sometimes I think the Age of Reason has left us a little depressed. I am a child of the Atomic Age, that leaves us a little sad also.

Keep pondering and sharing. We love it.

Michael July 29, 2010 at 10:15 pm

After reading yet another outstanding post here on Raptitude, I felt the need to reply with a reflection on the subject.

Your ideas make perfect sense to me, although I had never before wondered about them. A fresh point-of-view this one is… Perhaps the genes did not want me delving into such thoughts?

This gene-propelled instinct of ours quite fits our current social reality, I’d say. But more-so, it does seem to explain why most people steer away from the act of thinking. It is counter-productive, of course, to the genes’ cunning plan.

Since the dawn of time, high thinkers and philosophers may have felt odd and out-of-place, what with all the ideas and thoughts that spring to their minds at the speed of light. That queer feeling of not quite belonging to the common – it is both a plague and a wonder. The feeling of being in a certain borderline area beyond normality, beyond what our sight and senses show, not quite within the unreal but still not perfectly real; it is a common consequence of such activities.

But this makes me wonder too; for civilisation has advanced, indeed, and even though the consciousness of the majority has still not grown and even those who have developed a higher reasoning process still maintain some of these instinctive multiplication behaviours, we can safely say that we are thinking, both of the external and the internal, much more than we were in elder days.

If this higher thought were to propagate into a grand part of humanity, it would fuel just what we need to escape this blind fate that genes cling to so much. You see, instinct and reasoning are not quite compatible, but our body cannot function properly without the latter. In fact, if we were to stop thinking altogether, I very much doubt instinct alone could keep us alive and, simultaneously, continue the genes’ work. Not in this day and age.

Despite the inescapable unconscious influence we suffer from, our mind can be, if we build it so, mostly immune to it. It is a matter of broadening our thought into the whole, settling ourselves in the abstract and analysing every single action we take, thought we create, feeling we perceive… everything!

By other words, what I am trying to convey is that if thought evolves continuously, we will soon achieve a state where our consciousness is mostly detached from our physicality; however, our body, in need of our consciousness and powerless against it, will not fight it. The genes will lose their battle and our highly-developed and liberated thinking minds will take over. Instincts will become obsolete!

Though we are largely conditioned and controlled by our gene-constructed instinct, our mind is an utterly powerful creation that genes possibly did not fully expect. We are at a turning point – if we choose to remain mentally undeveloped, our instincts will win, but if we begin to build up our consciousness, it will soon overpower and overwhelm any unconscious grip that may hold to us.

By constructing ourselves into the best possible and by making full use of reason and reasoned emotion, we may well abolish the genes’ will and the behaviours they have instilled in us. We may well liberate ourselves from machines into independent beings. That our mind is the only independent entity we have and semi at times? Oh, but the body will blindly follow it, for they are two of a whole.

All we have that is human is our consciousness, but all else may be turned human by our will.

Chris Ward July 30, 2010 at 8:52 am

I too have conversations and debates via ventrilo with my close online friends. We have shared quite a few regarding this topic and this truly explains most of the points I’ve tried to make.
Thank you.

Terry Fan August 1, 2010 at 1:45 am

Very interesting post, well-written and thought-provoking. Ha ha, also kind of depressing, but as you said it’s remarkable that we’re even able to have a glimpse into the dark mechanics of our own evolution, that’s pretty incredible when you think about it.

Although I don’t think this knowledge will make one bit of difference when it comes to our future survival as a species, all I have to do is look around me to realize that. Yes, there are flashes of insight here and there by certain individuals, but humanity as a whole acts blindly, just as the genes do.

Bob August 6, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Well written, but the beginning premise is questionable: that as humans we obviously have a purpose. I submit that the universe itself, much less we infinitesimal specks, has no “purpose,” it just is.

Dostoevsky put it well: my life too full of meaning for me to worry about the Meaning of Life.

jdl August 31, 2010 at 9:25 pm

If we could just end this obsession with spiritualism and watchful spacemen who take notes on all our actions then we could argue over more interesting things. I’ve gotten to the point that when someone tells me they believe in a god that I lose all interest in whatever they have to say. There is no god(s), there is no one out there, we have a billion years give or take a few million to find a new home before this one loses its atmosphere, we are at the beginnings of a Garden of Eden ( yes I know biblical reference) on this planet and future human beings will have a life experience that is spectacular in comparison to the incredible times we have lived through. Life gets better and better and not because of god’s plan. We have only one big hurdle to get over and that is the mind lock religion enforces on children who subsequently grow up to be ‘believers’. Jesus Christ wasn’t even a real person. He is fictional- there are no records of his existence, no reference to him except in religious text written and rewritten by those with a vested self interest in his allure.

And it drives me insane to hear people talk about becoming the best possible human being. Could anyone enlighten me here and give an agreed upon definition of what ever that is. People throw ridiculous comments like that out into the dialog as if everyone knows exactly what they mean. Idiot-speak. The best possible to me means get as much as you can, as soon as you can, for as long as you can, have as much sex as possible, fart loudly when the moment arrives, make someone else do the heavy lifting and don’t spoil everyone else’s fun if you come down with some incurable disease. It ends badly for all of us so stop you’re whining and die already. My absolute idol on this planet is Paris Hilton. She got a free ride and she’s enjoying every minute of it. You want a role model, she’s the girl. I can here the chorus gasping out loud. Think Mother Theresa is the one. If you thought lions are cruel ( really can lions be cruel?) read her history of sadomasochism and then send in a donation. To those who think, life is a comedy. To those who feel, life is a tragedy. Enough.

David August 31, 2010 at 9:52 pm

I’m all for hedonism, I just think some approaches are more skillful than others. Most people eventually figure out that chasing material pleasures at every turn and following every impulse you have are both poor ways of maximizing pleasure in life.

Do you really think nobody has a better quality of life than Paris Hilton? Drinking and doing blow gets old after a while, even if you have all the money in the world.

By the tone of your post it sounds like your hedonism skills aren’t so great. You’re ranting at random people on the internet.

Michael September 1, 2010 at 12:33 am

Okay, first of all… chill, mate. :D This is a shrine of thought, we’re not exactly forcing any beliefs upon anyone, so if you don’t agree with what’s being said, that’s great – that’s why it’s called “discussing”. We don’t agree with everything either, mind you.

Secondly, you can be spiritual without being religious. You can have your own lifestyle and/or personal god or whatever. It’s like a personal totem. If people need it, then who are we to tell them they’re wrong?

Even though religions could be right, as we can’t prove either way, I think you might be confused about us. I doubt anyone here is a mind-locked person; in fact this entire website is in part teaching you how to use your own head.

By the best human being possible, well, I suppose your mileage may vary, but for me it’s all about becoming mature, rational and balanced human beings, living functionally, dealing efficiently with problems and just overall live better. Everyone is entitled to their own definition, of course. Yours is a bit too hedonistic for my taste but I’m not you, so that’s irrelevant. I won’t comment on Paris Hilton, though, because I can’t see how she could be an idol to anyone, but every person is a person.

Now, why did you feel the need to come here and call us idiots for our thoughts? Do we affect you in any way? Your comment reads as if you were scolding some fanatic religious zealot when that’s far from what we are. I doubt Paris Hilton is worried about us, so perhaps you shouldn’t either? Cheers, friend.

jdl September 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Yes you do affect me. First you vote for people who touch every aspect of my life. So how you think and the way you make decisions impacts my existence in a variety of ways. If you believe in magic and elect people who think divine voices speak to them then we have irrational decision makers contending that god told them to stop stem cell research, or shoot a million Iraqis or throw acid in the face of school girls or most outrageously tell a woman she cannot make decisions about her own body or tell two men that they are not equal citizens.

I didn’t call you an idiot. I stated you were participating in idiot speak which means to me that the community is immersed in group think, playing paddy cakes with each other and no one is pushing the boundaries. I’m presuming this collective is young (young at heart?) and if so the lack of aggressiveness is discouraging. Fragility is not an attractive quality in any species, least of all in a truly prescient one. The world is a fiercely competitive place and yes the genes drive the game. The search for answers outside of science and evidence cripples the intellect and when you get stupid your stupid decisions affect me. Look, I don’t play nice and this isn’t the group for me and I’m okay with that. Don’t waste your shrine on a comment back, the bad person is gone forever and everyone can go back to their nap.

One final quote apropos of nothing except that it registers with me– “Man is the only species that hesitates to cause pain–”. This is our difference after 14 billion years of evolution.

A shrine of thought? Are you serious? Cheers little buddy and I’ll say hi to Paris for you.

Michael September 3, 2010 at 3:36 am

I very much doubt we are having any success at voting for people; all leaders I know are very much different from the kind of people around these parts… and mind you, I’m from Europe, but I still stand by my point. I wouldn’t have voted for anyone in the US, nor in my country for that matter. And yes, I do agree with you. Leaders must be rational, but see, they can have their own spirituality, as long as they don’t let it interfere with their job – which is where they most often err.

I see. But then what do you suggest we speak of? We do speak of Science, silly, I’m a very scientific person myself. But that doesn’t mean I have to shun everything else off. That’s why there’s something called harmony. Not necessarily New Age, mind you, I’m just saying harmony as in equillibrium between ways of thinking, between Science and everything else. There doesn’t have to be a war. And mankind is becoming less agressive, and thankfully so. I’m tired of living in such a stressful world where we cannot live in peace over war and worries and sickness and famine. I want to live in a proper, decent world. If that means growing up, then by all means I will, and if everyone else does – which they surely will, given time – then all will be well.

That’s not our way. We don’t want you to leave simply because you don’t agree with us. If everyone were in consensus here then this place would have absolutely no point. Surely we have much to learn from others who do not share our views. You’re not a bad person, you’re someone different, and with that comes evolution.

Oh, but man is disgusting. I’m not surprised that’s about as much evolution we’ve gotten since our dawn. But unless we become something else, we can’t just give up. If everyone gives up, then we’ll stale. And yes, I am serious, why would I not be? It’s not exactly a forum, but it is proper enough. Oh, do so, thanks. And while you’re at it, ask her if she’s happy – but I mean _really_ happy. Like the happiest she could ever want to be. Take care! :)

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