As we observe any living organisms, primitive or complex, plants or animals, we find out that ultimately they all share the same fundamental goal, the same underlying reason for most of their activity: to survive and replicate.
All that lives wants to survive in the first place. Whether it is protecting itself, getting nutrition or space for living, it strives to survive. Even though not all the activities of living organisms are because of survival, organisms quickly drop other activities should survival be threatened. The long years of evolution from individuals who wanted to survive are encoded deep in us and our instincts. Some other organisms might have evolved in the past that had different purpose of life, but pure logic reveals that if survival was not their top priority in life, they died when times were tough and went extinct. We all are descendants of living organisms that lived to survive and our purpose of life is no different.
By definition, everything that lives is also mortal and therefore all the living organisms try to reproduce in order to maintain new “copies” of self after own death. To promote adaptability that enhances survival, nature evolved to mix the genes of two parents and introduce a bit of random changes so we are not the exact copy of our parents, but we are very similar. It is rational that survival without reproduction makes little sense because any organism behaving in this way would soon become extinct. Not trying to survive and reproduce is simply not an evolutionary stable strategy and the reason we are now here is because all our ancestors struggled to and managed to both survive and reproduce.
All that lives tries to survive and reproduce, even though the weight of these two factors naturally changes during one’s lifespan. In a life-threatening situation a youngster will fight for own survival with the greatest strength. On the other hand, an older adult may even choose to sacrifice himself in order to protect own children. This is reasonable, because youngsters are those who have the responsibility to survive and maintain the species, whereas elders already fulfilled their purpose by having their children. Having children that do not survive equals having no children at all. Therefore it is natural for elders to put the survival of their offspring ahead of their own.
The more sophisticated organisms (such as higher animals) not only survive and reproduce, but also protect their offspring so that it can reproduce and the perpetuity of their life is maintained. We all want to make a difference, leave a legacy, but what would that be good for if there were no next generations to appreciate it? If our children could not survive, our survival and reproduction would make no difference and thus our life would make no difference – it would be meaningless. Only if our children1 can survive, our own life has purpose.
As our life is meaningless if survival of our children is not ensured, so is survival of our children meaningless if their children die. Our life is therefore meaningless if we cannot ensure the sustainability of mankind2.
Amongst living organisms, only people have the powerful ability of abstraction and thus can extend the concern about survival of descendants beyond own lifespan and plan ahead to ensure sustainability, yet our civilization is currently acting exactly in the opposite direction and threatens our own survival. Long-term sustainability is the most important, yet underestimated element of survival, that we should focus on.
Darwin and his followers discovered that at the beginning there was a genome that wanted to survive and it started building increasingly sophisticated shells around itself that would help the survival. This certainly holds true for simpler organisms that have no other way of passing information than through genes. More complex animals not only pass on their genes, but also teach their children. We humans have the unique power to form physical and abstract creations that live beyond our lifespan and therefore pass on non-genetic information, known as memes. Just remember Cheops (Khufu), the pharaoh whose fame survived for millennia thanks to his creation of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Or think of Plato who left behind ideas that survived until today. Even though these men physically died thousands of years ago, their thinking is what characterized them more than their body. Our physical body (the hardware) is represented in our genes and survives by having children. Our thoughts (the software) are captured as memes and survive for example by teaching others or by writing a book.
The very basic instincts fight for our own survival at every moment. In the mid-term, we also quite naturally build family and have children, to keep our bloodline alive and we pass on our culture and ideas. In the long-term, we should care for the sustainability of mankind, its culture and knowledge. That is the pure, natural purpose of our life. The short and mid-term components are easy for us, because they are embedded in our instincts. However we need to use our brain to realize what is really important in the long run and ensure our sustainability.
- By our children I mean broadly the next generation of humans, not necessarily our own genetic descendants, because all of us humans share about 99.9% of DNA in common, whether tall or short, black or white. Your child will have 50% of your genes and 50% of your spouse genes. Similarly, your grandchildren will have 25% of your genes. Grand-grand children only 12.5%. In just a couple of generations the proportion of your genes in your descendants will be just marginal and it is likely that there will be other “stranger” with a gene-set more similar to yours than your direct descendants. In the long term, by having own children you only marginally increase the frequency of your genes in the gene-pool. For that reason a life can naturally have perfect meaning even without having own children – as long help the next generations to survive. ↩
- We can assume it is reasonable to limit our long-term thinking to millions of years into the future in order not to enter discussions whether anything makes sense at all should the universe once collapse. In fact, we still need to gain better understanding of universe to really justify such theories. ↩