Meaning of Life: Humans and Other Animals

Meaning of Life: Humans and Other Animals July 12, 2020

We humans often think we have to have some ultimate meaning or purpose: this is one of the draws or perks, supposedly, of religions that usually include some kind of eternal afterlife. Atheists, in the main, are fine with the absence of ultimate meaning or purpose and are content, possibly even happier, to find their own purpose or meaning in the here and now, and in their legacies.

I was looking out of the window today and watching two Cabbage White butterflies fluttering about in their jolting aerial dance that they go through in their almost random-looking ritual of sex selection. Of course, it is not random, but tried and tested over generations, embedded by the machinations of evolution.

I had a sudden realisation; no, not a realisation in and of itself, but a recognition of an exemplification. These butterflies had no consciousness, one would surmise, no self-awareness, no access to meaning or purpose. Here they were, fluttering about in their deterministic dance, situation-action machines responding automatically to stimuli. And why? Reproduction and the sustenance of their genes. Evolution has created this massive diversity of life that swims, flies, crawls, grows, takes root, sways and slithers around us (and whatever verbs suffice for amoebas and viruses). And, almost universally, it does this with no understanding as to why it does this. In most cases, it will have no meaningful consciousness at all. But it does this ritual regardless.

We love to think of ourselves as different, to subscribe to human exceptionalism. But we are no different. This podcast extra from the awesome Reasonable Doubts team is well worth a listen to show you how so many of our behaviours are understood simply in terms of sex selection and genes:

“Reasonable Doubts Podcast: RD Extra: Getting Into Someone’s Genes”

It seems to be bizarre that so many religious people feel the need to attach such highfalutin visions of meaning and purpose to God’s creation and yet accept that this only applies to a minuscule proportion of it. They are happy that almost the entire history and geography and biomass of life on Earth has robotically gone about its business of surviving and reproducing for millions of years and yet there is no thinking less of these (vastly more numerous) living things for not having meaning in the sense that humans do. It’s a human exceptionalism that I think is full of double standards and delusions of grandeur.

We still go through life broadly behaving in a way that has its ends in either survival or sex selection (status etc.) and thus reproduction. We are butterflies flitting through life, often waiting for our paths to cross with another butterfly and reproducing. We add an awful lot more to this, of course, but much of it is window dressing. We construct all sorts of narratives concerning meaning and purpose, some may be religious, others may be of a different nature (perhaps writing sonnets about love and the fate of star-crossed lovers) and it becomes very important to us. But, essentially, we are butterflies flitting about, carrying out our biological programming. Some may see this as reductionist and nihilistic. But butterflies can be incredibly beautiful; and nature, in all of its manifestations, and in our full understanding of it, can be awe-inspiring.

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