Purpose-Driven Life-Darwin Created Meaning

This is a fascinating and very well-written article by Brian Boyd for American Scholar and is definitely recommended reading. Please also consider the selected excerpts and the summary headings I have provided below.

Purpose-Driven Life
Evolution does not rob life of meaning, but creates meaning. It also makes possible our own capacity for creativity.

[Darwinism] seems simple, because you do not at first realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration.

—George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah (1921)

Cost of intelligence includes the obsession and preoccupation with our own deaths

“Intelligence has large benefits, but it also incurs costs. Out of the pressure to develop social intelligence, humans have grown in self-awareness, so that we can imagine ourselves as others see us in competitive and cooperative scenarios. That ability offers real benefits in anticipating others’ actions and reactions, but among its costs is the fact that we can also envisage our own death and absence from the ongoing world. For humans this has raised the question of our purpose in the face of our ultimate lifelessness, one we have answered most frequently by concluding that we continue in some form after death. To judge by grave rituals dating back at least 70,000 years, and the evidence of the fear of death and the hope of immortality in the records of early civilizations, preoccupation with death has loomed large ever since the appearance of a distinctly human culture.”

Developing brains in times of security and leisure provides competitive advantages

“New evolutionary solutions themselves often spawn new problems. When our brains allowed us to become superpredators, to dominate our environments and earn the food we needed in much less time than our waking hours, we did not solve the “problem” of spare time, as did other top predators, such as lions, tigers, or bears, by sleeping the extra hours away to conserve energy. Even at rest our large brains consume a high proportion of our energy, and since they offer us most of our advantages against other species and other individuals, we benefit not from resting them as much as possible but from developing them in times of security and leisure.”

Curiousity and the importance of focused attention

“In any species, attention diminishes with persistence or reiteration, but humans are especially curious and thus susceptible to boredom. And as the developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and colleagues have particularly stressed, attention, especially shared or commonly focused attention, has become unprecedentedly important to our species.”

On learning and challenging conventional thinking

“Children are information sponges and soak up what they need to understand, like the basics of their world or their language. They need not be taught how to speak or to play. But they do need slow formal instruction to read, write, or calculate, and they need even more training and the help of externalized information (books, diagrams, models) to master the knowledge on which science builds. If they undergo the intensive training scientists require, they will still need imagination to find new ways of testing or re-explaining received knowledge. Even for those with training, looking for potential refutations of cherished ideas is both emotionally difficult and imaginatively draining. And whereas art appeals to human preferences, science has to account for a world not built to suit human tastes or talents.”

Norms challenge us to supercede them and to recognize exceptionality when we encounter it

“As film theorist David Bordwell observes: “Norms help unambitious filmmakers attain competence, but they challenge gifted ones to excel. By understanding these norms we can better appreciate skill, daring, and emotional power on those rare occasions when we meet them.”

Religion as balm for anxiety of purposelessness of life

“Religious stories could also allay the unease that arose in us because of our awareness of false belief. The social intelligence out of which our grasp of false belief arose allowed us to imagine being dead and to foresee the world without us. It brought with it a new anxiety about the possible purposelessness of our lives, although this could be allayed to some extent by stories of spirits without bodies as a guarantor of purpose prior to human life or as a promise of continued existence afterward.”

Theory of evolution challenged sense of purpose provided by religion

“When science offered a detailed explanation of natural design without the need for a designer—the theory of evolution by natural selection—that, more than any other single idea, stripped us of a world made comfortable by a sense of purpose, apparently guaranteed by beings greater than ourselves.”

Tying it all together

“Nevertheless, if we develop Darwin’s insight, we can see the emergence of purpose, as of life itself, by small degrees, not from above, but by small increments, from below. The first purpose was the organization of matter in ways complex enough to sustain and replicate itself—the establishment, in other words, of life, or in still other terms, of problems and solutions. With life emerged the first purpose, the first problem, to preserve at least the improbable complexity already reached, and to find new ways of resisting damage and loss.

As life proliferated, variety offered new hedges against loss in the face of unpredictable circumstances, and even new ways of evolving variety, like sex. Still richer purposes emerged with emotions, intelligence, and cooperation, and most recently with creativity itself, pursued naturally, and unnaturally, through human invention, in art, and pursued unnaturally, through challenging what we have inherited, in science.

Art at its best offers us the durability that became life’s first purpose, the variety that became its second, the appeal to the intelligence and the cooperative emotions that took so much longer to evolve, and the creativity that keeps adding new possibilities, including religion and science. We do not know a purpose guaranteed from outside life, but we can add as much as we can to the creativity of life. We do not know what other purposes life may eventually generate, but creativity offers us our best chance of reaching them.”


~ by notrous on April 25, 2009.

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