Evolutionary biology and the meaning of life

An interesting aspect of evolutionary biology is that it’s related to many of philosophy’s key issues, issues and questions with which philosophers deal since philosophy’s Hellenic dawn. One of these questions, which we could easily rank as the most fundamental of all, is about the meaning of life. This brief post is just an outline of the opinion that I have, but that still I would like to share, about the relationship between evolutionary biology and the meaning of life.

A logical problem arises when one puts the question “what is the meaning of life?”. The problem is fairly obvious, but yet goes unnoticed for many: when one puts the question this way, “what is the meaning of life”, one assumes that life has a meaning, something that, because of the ignorance expressed in the question itself, cannot be known for sure. To establish what the meaning of life is, it is necessary that we know beforehand that life has a meaning, whatever it is. I don’t want here address the psychological reasons that make mankind feels a insuppressible need to determine a meaning to life, or the demands related to this supposed meaning. There are many volumes written on this subject, which by the way is far from exhausted.

For me, it's impossible to think about

For me, it’s impossible to think about “the meaning of life” without remembering Monty Python.

The area which we specialize in, the methods and aspects of what we study or of the work we do often shape the way we see the world. As an astronaut tends to be a methodical person or a historian tends to be a libertarian. Something similar happens regarding evolutionary biology. Before proceeding, I must say that I don’t mean to establish as a fact that the student, when acquiring more knowledge of evolutionary biology, will necessarily have this or that vision of the world.

However, when one studies evolutionary biology, when one understands the chance related to variation in a population and the mathematics of the selection process itself (which to many seems tautologic), it is almost impossible to keep looking, at least explicitly and consciously, for the meaning of life. That happens because it becomes clear to the student the problem I just described: the question suggests that there is a meaning to life, but … what if this supposed meaning does not exist?

The more we study evolutionary biology, the more we realize that the evolutionary process is a contingency. I might even say here that life itself is a contingency, but I’d rather not engage in such a polemic: let’s just stay with the evolutionary process, for now. For contingency, I am referring to the philosophical concept of the term. Simply put, according Houaiss (my favourite lexicographer), contingent is that which “occurs in any way, circumstantial, unnecessarily, as might have happened differently or simply not happening at all”. The very selection process, though certainly not a process governed by the laws of chance, is itself a contingent process. If evolution is a contingent process, life (despite clearly a manifest and real phenomenon at least in one planet in the universe) probably do not have any meaning.

A word of caution: the impossibility of determining if life has or does not have a meaning cannot philosophically imply that life is meaningless! However, since neither the presence nor the absence of meaning can be determined, questions like “what is the meaning of life” should be left for another moment, because firstly one should try to determine whether or not there is such a meaning. As a student of the evolutionary process, my impression is that there is no meaning.

People usually do not like to hear this, and as I said earlier, there are known psychological reasons for this discomfort, quite well described and studied. What bother me, however, are the completely fallacious conclusions that people often do when I say that I see no meaning for life. One of them is that I cannot love life if I don’t see its meaning. I honestly have not met any other person who loves life more than I do. In my house, I don’t kill any animal, not even roaches(which are only insects) or scorpions (I put them on the front yard), even the rats or mice that my dogs eventually catch – to play with – I patiently take of their mouths, clean the thick layers of drool and put them out there. See the beauty in the living world does not mean having to define a meaning for life, and I see beauty everywhere I look. I do not litter in the street, I recycle my trash and I do composting of organic waste at home. This objection (one has to see the meaning of life to love life) seems to me completely wrong.

Another fairly common conclusion that people make is that those who do not see a meaning of life cannot develop ethical or moral behaviours. What we have here is a non sequitur fallacy, very common also in relation to atheists, “if he does not believe in God, he must be a bad, evil person”. There is no relationship (causal) between the belief in a meaning of life and the establishment and development of moral and ethical rules for living in society, just as there is none between believing in God and establishing these moral behaviours. In fact, the belief in a meaning of life and the establishment of moral rules both have a common origin, that is, both are formed by the same human psychological component. I consider myself a reasonably good man, I obey (most of) the laws, I stop at red lights and I’m not a queue jumper. Just because I don’t see a meaning for life it will not make me a murderer, a wasteful moron or someone with no respect for the environment.

Typically, the “meaning of life” is intimately associated with a belief in a life after death, or to avoid the oxymoron, a post-mortem existence. And here, again, the materialism that naturally develops when one deepens his understanding in evolutionary biology and in sciences bothers quite a huge portion of the people: if consciousness is, for me, a natural property of the neural network that forms my nervous system, once the body dies the neural network disappears and, with it, the consciousness. “How dare you think that, after we die, it is all black, an eternal darkness?”. But wait a minute, it’s not even “black” or “dark”: black is a color, or a sensation, and therefore it depends on the nervous system or a mind to exist. There is no black, nor white, nor any color. There is no more consciousness or mind, and so there is no more anything. This possibility is extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant for most people, who refuse to accept it even as a possibility. But a fact or one hypothesis cannot be discarded just because it is uncomfortable or unpleasant. Science is the search for truth, even if that truth is cruel and disappointing.

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