Friday, June 8, 2012

Evolution reduces the meaning of life to survival and reproduction... Is that bad?

Everyone's heard it from someone who's transmitting the nuts and bolts of evolution and selection:

"This isn't delicious or anything."
"Evolution only cares about survival and reproduction."

"Evolution is a game about whose genes get into the next generation."

"When it comes to evolution, survival and reproduction are all that matter."

Statements like these are often used to describe how evolutionary change in populations, generation after generation, occurs in large part because of differential survival and reproduction of the individuals which pass on genetic material generation after generation. In other words, it's how one gene pool can lead to a different gene pool, and so on, and so on, and so on. 

Newcomers to evolution, or hearsayers who haven't had much instruction or quality exposure, are so often deflated or offended by this notion that our existence is solely defined by survival and reproduction. This is all part of evolution's persistent PR problem, contributing to the public's reluctance to learn it, let alone accept it, and to the obstacles teachers face in the classroom.

But is evolutionary theory really that heartless? Does reducing life down to survival and reproduction really zap the meaning out of it?  Let's consider them separately. 

You could say survival doesn't offer much meaning...

But eating and drinking are required for survival. Who doesn't derive much pleasure and fulfillment from eating and drinking and the experiences that surround them? And then there's competing, playing, dancing, and staying fit, which are huge sources of positive energy and high-spiritedness for many people who, if chased by a crocodile, might just get away, or flip it around and get dinner and some new shoes out of the situation. In a croc-free world, active people are enhancing and prolonging their well-being. Also, people rarely survive all by their lonesome--friendships are sources of such wonderful inspiration, collaboration, satisfaction, connectedness, love, and laughter. 
With my buddy, listening to music, drinking beer, after running a trail race.
You could say reproduction doesn't offer much meaning...

But, love is! Sex is! The relationships we have with our romantic partners (whether or not they produce offspring) can provide life's most meaningful meaningfulness.
With my mate, on our wedding day.
Mothering and fathering, as I've heard and observed, are the epitome of happiness, fulfillment, love, and lifeisworthliving-ness for those who've done it. People seem to generally like their siblings, so much in fact that they pity those of us without any! Being a kid can be such a hoot that some of us never want to grow up. And being a kid with loving caregivers is piling the love on even higher.
Reproduction really worked out great for me. 
Survival and reproduction don't seem so devoid of meaning when you stop and think about what they are, what they entail.

In fact, they're so chock full of meaning that many of us already prize the fundamentals of evolution. Talk about where evolution-less perspectives beautifully converge with evolutionary ones! Evolutionary theory just happens to wrap it all up in a nice tidy two-word package for us to unpack and repack according to fancy... e.g. pizza, pints, port, pups, parks, play, Penguins, paleo, Proconsul, puns, pals, parents, Pink Floyd.

Nobody should feel stripped of their humanity or their hope when they learn about evolution. So many sources of love, beauty, joy, awe, and meaning are gifts of nature. Many would say they all are. And it's enough. And it's good.


occamseraser said...

...not to mention pool, Pongo and pot!

Can I get an "amen"?
Thanks, Holly, for some wonderful reminders. Life is good; survival and reproduction too. Tx for the fun start to my Friday morning.


Ken Weiss said...

Yes, and one way or another, shouldn't we make every day a Friday? Of course, depending on the realities, if we make every day a Friday, the day after our last, we may fry! (unless we become vampires)

Holly Dunsworth said...

Oh yes (but pool with water, for me) and don't forget Pan!

Amen, awomen, amonkey.

(Always love to hear from you oc.)

Hollis said...

a hearty "right on" to all! Blessed are those species that have love and play in their genes.


edward hessler said...

Thanks for writing this. I love the way (reminder) you join heart and so-called heartlessness. And those photographs! I like all of them but the one of the two of you dancing: your face and your mate's posture and glance deserve silence and appreciation. One of those graceful moments that life serves up.


Holly Dunsworth said...

Cheers edward!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Cheers Hollis!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say evolution reduces the meaning of life to reproduction and survival, no more than gravity reduces it to sticking to heavy objects.
The problem with evolution is that it is still thought of in terms of origin myths, and people have the stupid tendency to look for Answers in it. The difference between MYTH and FACT is that myth often conveys a moral lecture. Myths tell us not only how we came to be, but also how we *should* be.
Facts do not convey moral meaning. As scary as it may sound, there is no MEANING behind evolution, there is no GOAL, no GREAT PLAN. Not even survival and reproduction. It's all chance, and chance the products of which will not be evident nor possible to determine until much much later. And since evolution is about populations rather than individuals, your measly contribution will always be overlooked.

All of this does not make evolution evil or bad, it just makes it a faceless natural force just like the aforementioned gravity or magnetism or what have you.
For all the rest you've got this amazing adaptation that allows you to make up stories and imbue the world (and even evolution) with meaning and create joy for yourself by embellishing the lot that evolution dealt you.

In short, NO, evolution does not reduce the meaning of life to survival and reproduction, because EVOLUTION IS NOT CONCERNED WITH MEANING.

Ken Weiss said...

Certainly that's right, evolution is chemistry, not concerned with 'meaning' which is itself a human concept and concern. But given that, people clearly want to find meaning--especially, or even mostly, I think, because it may help escape the spectre of death.

So while evolution is not concerned about meaning, what people asking this kind of question mean, I think, is whether we can find 'meaning' in evolution.

One could, of course, argue that as a chemical reaction of inordinate complexity, what evolution is about (not as a result of intent any more than gravity is), is capturing and dispersing energy, generating entropy.

But that won't be very satisfying to people who want something more. Or, some would ask how is it that such a purely chemical process leads us even to _ask_ about meaning? If evolution isn't concerned with meaning, what is it that leads us, as animals, even to think about it that way?

That's a question about human perception and cognition, not about evolution. But Holly's wonderful post says that such things are beside the point: we _do_ and can find meaning in life, whatever 'meaning' means.

Holly Dunsworth said...

"Anonymous" your n=1 is not the whole story. This is a real and prevalent obstacle to evolution learning and acceptance and if you had read it more carefully you'd see there's no where that I write that evolution is concerned with meaning. And there's no where I even imply it. I don't even like the term evolutionary "force" because it flirts to much with agency and direction. We can certainly get meaning from evolution/nature, though, and that's the spirit I echoed. Your comments are pretty insensitive considering the spirit of the post. INTERNET CULTURE SUCKS SO HARD SOMETIMES.

Anne Buchanan said...

I agree with you, Holly. We have a brain that has evolved to let us imbue our lives with meaning. And it's beautiful. I like to think of it as Darwinian or evolutionary existentialism -- do with this ability what you will.

Ken Weiss said...

At its heart, the issue is the implication of understanding that this is a mechanical molecular world, in which this life got here without any purpose and is all there is.

Objectors of evolution essentially argue that therefore one must find the meaning of life in what happens _after_ life.

But what you showed, Holly, clearly and very warmly, is that one can find meaning _in_ life. There's nothing naive or contrary to evolution in that.

trashbird1240 said...

Hello Holly,

Thanks so much for writing this. Let me see if I can understand and analyze what you're saying here: evolution "reduces" life to survival and reproduction. When people hear that they are disappointed because they hear their lives similarly "reduced." You deftly observe that their lives are, in fact, full of meaning and that both things can be true. The "trick" people need to pull is that both statements can be true. Saying that "evolution reduces life to..." is saying what's important in studying evolution, not necessarily what's important in living your life. However, there are people who want others to get the full meaning of their lives out of science.

Consider scientists (and I've known many) who say that only one of the above can be true, and they know which one it is, and they don't care if people are disappointed. That's more than a "PR problem." People encouraging other people to view themselves as "mere" machines subject to blind force is a dominant cultural myth, and one promoted as Fact and Truth. This leads a lot of people to treat their own bodies (and the rest of themselves) really badly, and to try and coerce other people, just like those blind forces that are the Truth. There are other myths that lead to the same problems, like "I'm fine because I'm going to heaven," but I don't have any part in accidentally promoting that one.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I agree about your point about meaning. Forcing people to find meaning in life the way that you do, or expecting them to find meaning in what you find meaningful, is ridiculous and selfish and unimaginative and inhumane.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Hate leaving the comment thread on "inhumane" so.... thanks so much trashbird1240 for your thoughtful comment, thanks for being an enlightening tweep, and happy evolution to you and yours!

Anonymous said...

It has been long that I dont read such a good text!!