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.
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.
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.
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