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Is the Meaning of Your Life to Make Babies?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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What can — and cannot — be learned from evolution

From an evolutionary gene’s-eye perspective, the genes are immortal, and our role, the meaning of life, is to perpetuate the genes. In a few centuries, all traces of our existence as human individuals — memories of us, all our accomplishments –will likely be gone and forgotten, except for genes that survive from those of us who successfully reproduced through the generations.

But, of course, we don’t experience the world from a gene’s eye evolutionary perspective. One experiences the world as an individual person, not as a gene dispenser (fun as that may be). The joy we get from parenting comes not from some abstract generic idea of gene propagation, but from specific love and interaction with our own children — making your own baby son giggle uncontrollably when you make ridiculous animal noises, the bittersweet emotional rush you feel as you watch your daughter walk down the aisle. We care about ourselves and others as persons, not as a gene menagerie. Humans create our own meanings.

But — reproduction as the answer to life’s meaning cannot be dismissed quite so easily. Genetic evolution is the meaning of biologic life, in that it is the why and how of it, as well as the stock of future biological existence. The genes that survive — and in turn the organisms they make — are the winners in the existence game. Can we just dismiss this when considering the meaning of our own individual human lives? Sure, evolution itself does not have a specific direction or teleology, and genes themselves are not conscious, so there is not meaning in that sense. But evolution cannot just be shrugged off as something apart from us, take it or leave it. It is the biological explanation of who we are, how we got here, and the diversity of life. Over billions of years, life left the oceans, stretched limbs to cover the earth, raised wings to fly. Underlying it all are the replicating molecules that continue to copy themselves even now. We owe our existence to this process, and our future depends on it. Perhaps the meaning of your life as a biological creature is to make babies and help ensure the survival of life. In discussing the children she had with Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan put it like this: “When we come closest to each other we can create new life forms that carry on that continuity that stretches back all those billions of years, and in them are the generations of human beings who have struggled. That is magnificent.”

By making babies, we continue life’s pageant. In children, we cheat death.

Yet something seems fundamentally very wrong, or incomplete, with this idea that making babies is the meaning of life. I wouldn’t be jumping with jubilation if my teenage son announced today that he was going to be a father. Do we laud the parents of extremely large Mormon, Hasid, Catholic, and Muslim families as public exemplars of a meaningful life? Do we honor the most popular sperm donor as humankind’s greatest philanthropist?

Even if our genes get perpetuated, our genes are not us. After a few generations of genetic mixing and shuffling, there’s unlikely to be anything unique or identifying about us in our offspring. If your great-great-grandchild has your brown eyes and your blood type, but no other personality or physical traits uniquely identifiable to you, how much of “you” has really lived on? Further, if the idea is to perpetuate our genetic lineage, what if we have children, but no grandchildren?

Fundamentally, as humans, the problem with identifying the meaning of life with having children is this — to link meaningfulness only with child production seems an affront to human dignity, individual differences, and personal choice. Millions of homosexuals throughout the world do not have children biologically. Millions of heterosexual adults are unable to have children biologically. For many adults, not having children is the right choice, for themselves, the world, the economy, or for their would-be children. Socrates, Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington, Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale, John Keats, Vincent van Gogh, Vladimir Lenin, and Steven Pinker as far as we know did not have biological children. Would we deny the meaningfulness of their impact or existence? The meaning of life for childless adults — roughly 20% of the population in the U.S. and U.K. –  has nothing to do with fame, but everything to do with what makes life meaningful for everyone: experiencing pleasure, personal relationships, and engagement in positive activities and accomplishments.

From a moral perspective if you are giving of your life for an adopted child, a parent, creative production, teaching, volunteer work, or anything that helps others, adds to happiness, and makes the world a better place — then an evolutionary genetic perspective seems irrelevant. It is from such bedrocks that human meaning springs. Human meanings are worthwhile regardless of long-term, universal, final consequences, because they are meaningful now.

Also, it’s not just the seed alone that produces bountiful produce, it’s the entire garden and all it takes to nurture it. The environment is a critical part of the equation. Evolution by natural selection occurs by differential survival and reproduction of genes in a population as a consequence of interactions with the environment. There is also the danger of overpopulation, which could result in famine, disease, and environmental catastrophe, perhaps jeopardizing the future evolutionary success of the entire species. So, ironically, perhaps not having children is the best way to ensure longevity of the human genome. Unlike other animals, we can be conscious stewards of the future.

So is making babies — and having genes survive through the generations — the meaning of life? The answer is yes — from an evolutionary gene’s eye view. Making babies, and also other actions and social structures that result in the survival and reproduction of one’s gene, such as protecting one’s relatives. Differential reproduction is a process which, in conjunction with environmental interactions, has led to all life as we know it, with all its diversity and grandeur, including conscious experience itself. This is modern knowledge that is not to be taken lightly, and has impact on how we view our own meaning.

But from almost every other perspective — individual, group, moral, environmental, or concern for life as a whole — the answer to the question is no. Meaning from these perspectives — from life as it is actually experienced — is up to us. Reproduction and genetic survival may be the meaning of Life, but it is not inescapably the meaning of your life.

So, in the end, the full answer is no — we do not bestow having babies as the sole guardians of life’s meaning. But we do need to respect and grapple with the view. Differential genetic success, as a result of reproduction and environmental conditions will — for better or worse — provide the template for what humans will become in the future. It is to evolutionary genetic success that we — and all life — owe our existence, and to which the future of all life on Earth depends. Including creatures that create our own meaning. We perform our solos with passion, but we are playing in nature’s grand symphony.

Image: CDC

Lawrence Rifkin About the Author: Lawrence Rifkin is a physician and a writer. Links to his writings on science, meaning, humanism, and medicine are at lawrencerifkin.wordpress.com. Follow on Twitter @LSRifkin.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 45 Comments

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  1. 1. HalSwyers 8:52 am 03/24/2013

    I have had this debate before, so I am sure others have as well. Reductio ad absurdum proof is found by the simple realization that without a means of species propagation, e.g. without any means to continue life, then you really can’t have any derived discussions about some other deeper meaning. Proponents of some deeper meaning need to prove an anthropic argument that shows that there is some reason that would compel the universe to exist other than for its own sake.

    The concept that is closest to physical argument is that we exist because as part of “that which is worth preserving” or “that which is most important”. Here we can at least begin identifying an informational quantity and quality which can be translated to a physical concept. Preservation of information becomes a key physically defined concept that can be related analogously to human activity.

    For instance, we can identify what might motivate a person to give their life. In many cases it is related to preserving one’s family and other’s, or perhaps preserving opportunity for one’s family and others. At the basest level one might think this is strictly a response to preserve the ability to reproduce, but what of the situations where there is no possibility of reproduction? What would be the motive for giving one’s life? This leads one to suspect that humans are either delusional, or have some other motive in making those sorts of decisions.

    The best thought is that there are things that can not be well defined outside human understanding. If we argue that those things have some existence that must rely upon a human existence to be preserved as information, then there is a potential bridge between physical concepts of information preservation and otherwise meaningless existence. These ideas are of course speculative at best at the moment, but certainly are worth thinking about.

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  2. 2. GhostDrink 9:56 am 03/24/2013

    is the “meaning” of a car to burn gas?

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  3. 3. chuanqizhao 10:56 am 03/24/2013

    very good

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  4. 4. cborjal 11:46 am 03/24/2013

    What is the meaning of something that has a beginning and an end? That’s how this universe works as we know it. But do we really know it as present knowledge tell us? We only know that we are here now and nothing else, the physics of it is all speculation or mathematical or beyond our understanding. The concept of self preservation is not unique to humans every living thing in this planet has that inherent trait. But sadly self preservation alone will not save us from our inevitable end. When our sun goes we all go, theoretically. Even the concept of that philosophical meaning to existence as uniquely human is not clearly defined, other species with emotional attachment are capable of the same feeling. So going back to the question of “meaning”, who are we as a species can claim uniqueness? It’s all in our mind, it’s all in the ego, it’s all in our imagination. We even create our own God for self preservation. That alone is uniquely human!

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  5. 5. danielwesley 6:10 pm 03/24/2013

    the ‘maybe’ fact that George Washington or Vincent van Gogh or any other individual had no bio-kids is irrelevant because, most of their friends and neighbors had a boat-load of them, and more to the point, so did i.
    three cheers for procreation, the renewal of life and the continuance of civilization.

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  6. 6. Alex M. 6:26 pm 03/24/2013

    “But from almost every other perspective — individual, group, moral, environmental, or concern for life as a whole — the answer to the question is no.”

    The only one of those that one would be able to rationally analyze would be the environmental impact. And even that could be argued, intelligent people reproducing would lead to more intelligent people around to solve these environmental problems. Is there a moral imperative to reproduce? Maybe and maybe not, it depends on who you ask. The Hasids would have s different answer than the hippies.

    What of an “individual?” The simplest answer is that it is for that individual to decide for himself. The group? Likewise, some groups, such as the Germans, want more children.

    The way we as individuals look at the world is highly based on genes. We can not escape from biological processes simply because our ideology says that other things, having fun or helping people, are more important. Individual psychology will always be influenced by Darwinian imperatives. You do not, of course, think of your love for your children as a selfish matter of propagating you genes, but that is nevertheless the reason WHY you feel the way you feel. When answering psychological questions, therefore, recognizing this truth is paramount to developing an accurate, science-based, picture. I find though, that many people do not desire an accurate picture, they desire a picture based on their religion or political ideology, which is a substitute religion for many Americans.

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  7. 7. PBERG 6:37 pm 03/24/2013

    I see this attitude important amoung youg feminists. They hve been told all their life that having a career is more important than having children. They have been told getting a husband is not very important, and requires no effort from them. Thus, they can’t find a man. When they are fourty and childless, many are miserable. Women didn’t evolve to work ten-hour days for the man and have casual sex on the side. But feminists tell them it is the right thing to do, because of their ideology.

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  8. 8. Michael Dowd 8:18 pm 03/24/2013

    The meaning of your life is your legacy.

    One’s legacy can be genetic, memetic, aesthetic, relational, and more. But IMHO few things consistently give more joy and meaning to life than being ever-mindful of one’s mortality and ever-committed to leaving a sweet legacy.

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  9. 9. whatsinaname 8:46 pm 03/24/2013

    Only we are arrogant enough to assign a grand purpose to our individual lives. First of all, evolution is not the purpose of biological life, it is the process by which biological life perpetuates itself. Secondly, the purpose or meaning is not to make babies, but to ensure that the species survives. Baby-making is our way of ensuring the perpetuation of our individual ‘dynasties’. As the article says, we only think we are cheating death. And if your great great great grand kid doesn’t even know your name, there’s your legacy down the toilet.

    The species is perpetuated by protecting the young, not just our own, but all the young of the species. Adopting children is as good a way of ensuring the well-being of the species as having one’s own babies. The problem with humans is that unfortunately the sense of self/awareness that evolution gave us has also made us too selfish as far as the welfare of the species goes.

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  10. 10. Redone 9:03 pm 03/24/2013

    Please define “meaning.” Your fundamental question is if the meaning of life is to have babies. How can you ask a question like this without defining meaning? It really does matter! Here is why: You say that “from a gene’s-eye perspective the meaning of life is to make more genes.” Ugh. So a gene has a “meaning” of life? Huh? Does it also have a homeostasis of life? How about a perception of life? How about an opinion of life? The problem is that all of these questions require a gene to have emergent properties that it simply does not have! You don’t have emergent properties in the pieces; they emerge from a specific ordering OF the pieces. They are real but also not reducible to their component parts; they cannot be found by studying individual pieces. I can’t produce or study homeostasis from a single protein BECAUSE IT DOESN’T HAVE IT; not even a fraction of it (unlike mass at this scale which it would have fractionally)! Likewise a gene DOESN’T have meaning, perception, a viewpoint, or any other anthropomorphic stuff we casually attribute to it (just as a rock doesn’t have these things). From a gene’s eye perspective is a categorically wrong concept equivalent to asking how a protein will REACT to heat (it is affected by heat but it doesn’t “react”; although an organism or cell may react to heat because that potential emerges from the structure of the cell/organism). Look at the problems that arise from these categorical errors: You say that “humans create our own meanings.” Do genes as well? (No?) Why not? Because they can’t make decisions. So you recognize that decision making is emergent but not “meaning”. This makes no sense.

    That which persists… persists. And it turns out that some things persist by producing molecular copies of themselves. The informational structure (for lack of a better term) of prions, genes, viruses, and self-replicating robots (in the future) all exhibit this phenomenon. But it is important to not confuse self-replication with “meaning”. We wouldn’t talk about the “meaning” of a prion, would we? So why talk about the meaning of life from a gene’s perspective?

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  11. 11. igorkrupitsky 11:01 pm 03/24/2013

    Socrates had three sons: Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus.

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  12. 12. Stantheman 11:16 pm 03/24/2013

    Why do we make babies? Orgasm. Why do men find women attractive (and vice versa)? They want orgasms. Having orgasms is the “meaning of life.”

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  13. 13. Redone 11:39 pm 03/24/2013

    Try reading the article again; this time with your clothes on. Then maybe you can post something that makes sense.

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  14. 14. geojellyroll 11:44 pm 03/24/2013

    Meaning? Biology is chemistry and physics. Quantum particles have meanings?

    Biology is just a construct we humans overlay to make sense of physical processes. A quark in our body is not different from a quark elsewhere in the Universe. It has to act when other variables are present.

    The ‘meaning’ can be whatever you want it to because it is not a scientific question and thus no scientific answer.

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  15. 15. K.D. Koratsky 11:59 pm 03/24/2013

    Dear Mr. Rifkin,I beg to differ.

    You appear to adhere to the same postmodernist fantasy as most other academics today; one that holds we humans have gained the capacity to transcend the laws which are have come about via evolutionary by way of natural selection—laws which have practical implications that are all-encompassing.

    One area where you go awry surrounds the realities of kinship selection. Here, all who share genes combine to do what is functional and adaptive in greater gene pool perpetuation–which explains why grandparents and homosexuals exist and behave as they do, as well as all others, whether related or otherwise. The individual investments of all contribute in a finely tuned, naturally selected-for fashion that can vary considerably based on the circumstances in play. All they while, both gene proliferation and culturally perpetuated reputation, for individuals and families, will play roles in the perpetuation of lines overall. To date, the Khan family may be the best example of a successful effort in this regard, as some 12 percent of males who currently live in territory once controlled by Chingis and his immediate kin have DNA that extends from him or his immediate kin. And of course, his reputation remains far more widespread than this.

    It is along this same line that non-kin interactions must necessarily come back to maximize benefits and minimize costs for the bloodlines individuals are attempting to perpetuate. It is just that mutualism and reciprocity must exist for interaction to be viable with non-kin, whereas kinship provides an inherent basis for cooperation–all of which must be win-win if it is to be favored by natural selection for all involved. For those who participate in lose-win arrangements will invariably set themselves on a path for the fossil record, even it takes a future time of scarcity for the outcome to become manifest.

    Your statements also generally reflect the fact that we humans tend to be limited in our scope of perception and consideration. Our emotions and feelings are merely advanced instincts that compel us to do what is best for our bloodlines over a very small window of contribution evolutionarily speaking. These advanced instincts work in conjunction with our advanced intellects to allow onsite, real-time behavioral modification that genes alone cannot supply.

    The problem here is that, human existence has been increasingly changing such that our instincts and have lagged further and further behind, particularly over the last 6,000 years, or so–as part of a biocultural coevolutionary paradigm in which both elements work together for common cause. That is, while most moderns tend to view human intellect, technology, and culture generally as means for escaping evolution by way of natural selection and the history on earth it has dictated; to defy the timeless and universal laws defined by natural selection will merely mean driving a bloodline to extinction to the extent that such defiance occurs. In contrast, when human brainpower is used in ways that further gain the favor of natural selection, humans can do much to stay a step ahead of it, allowing them to select for their own survival to some degree–a degree which has yet to be determined for the species as a whole, of course.

    Hence, while most now construe that we humans can define what ideas and goals are important, moral, meaningful, and so on, as we try to construct the (utopian) existence of our choosing, it will ultimately be natural selection that decides all of this in reverse, as those who operate in the most functional and adaptive ways will be selected for, along with whatever ideas and goals got them to behave in ways most aligned with evolutionary imperatives.

    K.D. Koratsky, Author of Living with Evolution or Dying Without It: A Guide to Understanding Humanity’s Past, Present, and Future

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  16. 16. Redone 12:28 am 03/25/2013

    Geojellyroll: I agree that meaning is being thrown around way too loosely in this article and being unreasonably applied to molecules (genes). Why aren’t other people also bothered by this? Is the readership on this post really that weak?

    Although I disagree with the rest of your post… Think about this, a ground up human is different in many ways than a “regular” human. Not in terms of the number of atoms/quarks/mass/leptons/charges/etc. It is different in terms of what it can do (yell, run, reproduce, feel, maintain homeostasis, carry out metabolic processes, etc.). Biology is not “just a construct.” It is the study of these properties that emerge from particular arrangements of atom/subatomic pieces. Homeostasis is as “real” as mass; it is just more emergent (less fundamental). Likewise, I can’t study the way that energy is transferred throughout my computer if I grind it up first and study it afterwards. I don’t think it is useful to call all emergent properties “constructs” if that is what you would call them. I wouldn’t call heat transfer in my operating computer a construct; so why call biology or what it studies a construct?

    Furthermore, I would argue that “meaning” is not currently much of a scientific question but that it WILL be once we get deeper into understanding the brain. It exists; it is real. It emerges from particular neurological structures. Which is not something a single molecule (like a gene) has. The operation of windows or any other OS can be scientifically studied so why would we think that the brain is somehow “off limits.” That which is real can be scientifically studied. Even if it is emergent. Our access to studying emergent properties has continued to grow and will continue to grow.

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  17. 17. Redone 12:57 am 03/25/2013

    15. K.D. Koratsky – I’m not sure I follow you… You say:

    “You appear to adhere to the same postmodernist fantasy as most other academics today; one that holds we humans have gained the capacity to transcend the laws which are have come about via evolutionary by way of natural selection—laws which have practical implications that are all-encompassing.”

    But wouldn’t you consider the intentional changing of any DNA by intentional human actions as an action that “transcends natural selection”? I’m thinking of selective breeding or even more specific genetic engineering.

    Or how about the fact that my vision is so bad that I would have certainly died (many times) without contact lenses/glasses. Having genes that code for poor vision is irrelevant to survival and propagation in my society/population so isn’t this another example of humanity “transcending natural selection.” If the genes you are born with cease to have an effect on your reproductive success, haven’t you transcended natural selection? If not, what ever would it mean to “transcend natural selection?”

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  18. 18. RoedyGr 1:05 am 03/25/2013

    From the selfish gene’s point of view, your purpose is to spread your genes to replace those of others. Therefore it is irrational of Christians to try to force gays, atheists etc. to have more babies.

    I suppose though, by gene-based reasoning, it would be rational for those groups to kill or involuntarily sterilise Christians. Thank goodness we are not rational.

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  19. 19. Redone 1:32 am 03/25/2013

    18. RoedyGr: How do you know the point of view of a gene? You ever talked to one? Oh, you haven’t. I see. But you are pretty sure that the gene’s point of view is that the entirety of your body has the explicit purpose to spread more genes. Why? Because that is what it DOES? Please explain…

    “Thank goodness we are not rational.” What? I think you mean thank goodness we don’t structure our morality around the desires of genes. And of course we don’t, because genes don’t have desires or a point of view or anything like that. The fact that we don’t do those stupid things is a testament TO our rationality.

    I really can’t wait until someone writes an article about atom-based reasoning and an atom-based perspective on the meaning of life. Or the meaning of life from the perspective of a boulder. Seriously, this is so insane…

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  20. 20. K.D. Koratsky 1:27 pm 03/25/2013

    Redone, Thanks for the query.

    You said:

    15. K.D. Koratsky – I’m not sure I follow you… You say:

    “You appear to adhere to the same postmodernist fantasy as most other academics today; one that holds we humans have gained the capacity to transcend the laws which are have come about via evolutionary by way of natural selection—laws which have practical implications that are all-encompassing.”

    But wouldn’t you consider the intentional changing of any DNA by intentional human actions as an action that “transcends natural selection”? I’m thinking of selective breeding or even more specific genetic engineering.

    Or how about the fact that my vision is so bad that I would have certainly died (many times) without contact lenses/glasses. Having genes that code for poor vision is irrelevant to survival and propagation in my society/population so isn’t this another example of humanity “transcending natural selection.” If the genes you are born with cease to have an effect on your reproductive success, haven’t you transcended natural selection? If not, what ever would it mean to “transcend natural selection?”

    K.D. responds:

    With regard to selective breeding, and the like, humans are indeed creating artificial selection in a variety of organisms to provide usefulness and fulfill desires. And every alteration requires that humans fill the gaps in raw survivability that will inevitably arise.

    For example, the average current dog breed now as a brain 20 percent smaller than its wolf ancestor, pound for pound. Dogs no longer need this brain power when humans provide their food, shelter, and mating opportunities. If the human supplement is eliminated, the average dumbed-down domestic would not fare well back “in the wild.” In short, one way or another, the ability to overcome threats and successfully reproduce must exist for any species to stand the test of time, or else there must be outside supplements that make up for weaknesses.

    The subject of vision is one of my favorites when explaining how human technologies help humans stay a step ahead of natural selection by going even faster in the direction natural selection dictates (defined in my book as a selection vector universal, or SVU).

    While in the past only those with the best vision would be selected for over time, as predators and rivals would systematically take out those (especially males in the case of humankind) with poorer vision (a general rule for vision-dependent species); modern glasses, contacts, surgeries, etc., have largely mitigated the threat to those born with poor vision, especially in advanced nations. Indeed, not only have humans devised means to satisfy the 20-20 standard for the masses, regardless of their starting points in most cases, we now have microscopes, telescopes, night-vision goggles, etc., to take the vision capacity far beyond what was naturally selected for hitherto.

    But note that we humans have not eliminated the need for superior vision as necessary to overcome threats to existence, we have enhanced such function and advancement via intellect and technological development–keeping us one or more steps ahead of natural selection in this regard.

    On the one hand, these artificial supplements to human vision can allow us to see the asteroids coming that would take humans the way of the dinosaurs if given the chance, allowing this major threat to be successfully dealt with, in theory, assuming the ideas we have to divert one do not fail us.

    While on the other hand, when all centralized structure and cooperative networks for humankind break down with the next supervolcanic eruption or major ice age, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain eyesight via artificial means, and natural vision will once again become important and will become naturally selected for directly.

    Also of note here is that, just as has been the case for dogs with generationally shrinking brains, the artificial vision aids for humans have created atrophy and devolution for natural human eyesight, as there has be decreasing selection pressure for it to be maintained genetically. Hence, if all artificial means were suddenly stripped away, the vision acuity baseline would be shockingly low on average, leading to a very rapid selection trend that re-stabilized around the pre-eye-glass-technology level.

    It is easy to mistake that human intellect, technology and culture overall have increasingly allowed humankind to rise above or go beyond the clutches of natural selection. But it is critical to keep in mind that human evolution is a matter of biocultural coevolution, such that the two components work together to overcome the threats to human existence that are in most ways still very potent. All while there are some looming threats, such as the death of our solar system, that we may never be able to deal with successfully, even if we were to advance technologically as quickly as possible.

    All one must do is imagine what will occur when, once again, the next supervolcanic eruption, ice age cycle, or any number of other threats gets underway. The result will quickly be the standard package of widespread food scarcity and malnutrition, leading to rampant disease, combat, and infection. Just consider the Little Ice Age that led to the death of 1/3 of Europe less than one millennium ago. In short, all will get back to the basics, as the universality and timelessness of natural selection becomes glaring once again.

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  21. 21. Bill_Crofut 3:53 pm 03/25/2013

    Re: “Fundamentally, as humans, the problem with identifying the meaning of life with having children is this — to link meaningfulness only with child production seems an affront to human dignity, individual differences, and personal choice.”

    The natural law alone should preclude any perceived affront to human dignity.

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  22. 22. vagnry 3:57 pm 03/25/2013

    My motto is “Life’s too short not to make detours”, but even so, I don’t take a detour I think leads me nowhere.

    This is such a detour, so my comment on the subject is just this:

    When I was in my late twenties, I suddenly, out of the blue, wanted to have children, had two sons, that took care of that.

    Now, in my midsixties, without grandchildren, I am getting grandfather broody, I have no say at all in the matter, but I hope this urge will be sated too.

    Was/is this the meaning of my life, I don’t think so, but I do wonder why especially the first urge appeared?

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  23. 23. greenhome123 4:42 pm 03/25/2013

    I think i’m going to donate some sperm :-) Also, I totally agree that the environment is an important part of the equation. For instance, if one doesn’t have any children, but spends entire life improving environment for future generations, then that could have just as big or bigger impact on future humans than by simply having children and passing genes on. Also, I believe education to be a big part of the equation as well. And, overpopulation should be included, as having children in an overpopulated world may allow you to pass on genes to offspring, but at the expense of extinction a few generations down the road.

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  24. 24. TonyTrenton 4:44 pm 03/25/2013

    I abhor the idea of being responsible for bringing more suffering into the world because of my selfish whims.

    Parents are responsible for all the suffering their children go through in life because it was their choice to bring them into the world in the first place.

    Choices have inherent responsibilities.

    Today women have the ultimate responsibility because of their ability to choose.

    Getting pregnant is a selfish defiant act. Not a right but an enormous responsibility!!!

    The world is already over populated with the top predator.
    It is totally immoral to make the situation worse because of a woman’s selfish desires.

    Western women have the choice and therefore the responsibility and control not to be selfish.

    How many will take the responsibility seriously and not be selfish ?

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  25. 25. danielwesley 5:29 pm 03/25/2013

    i think most of the people who wrote comments on this blog entry are certifiably crazy; you are like the wierdo’s who roam the halls of the math department. time to take a non-academic vacation people.

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  26. 26. GreenMind 8:25 pm 03/25/2013

    Redone, you said, “But wouldn’t you consider the intentional changing of any DNA by intentional human actions as an action that “transcends natural selection”? I’m thinking of selective breeding or even more specific genetic engineering.”

    I agree with K.D. Koratsky. When you start changing DNA intentionally, you do not transcend natural selection, you merely jump to the next level of the game. You are still bound by the law that says those that survive better and reproduce better will leave more descendents in the next generation. The only change is that now there is a human mind choosing or designing the sequences of DNA to bequeath to the next generation, instead of a random process that recombines and mutates the DNA randomly.

    In fact, natural selection may intensify. For one thing, human minds cannot anticipate all the unintended interactions between different genes, and so may make very bad choices at the molecular level that evolution will immediately start to correct. For another thing, what humans decide they want in their children may have no relationship to survival. Somehow in our evolution the capacity for religion has become advantageous for survival. Studies have shown that religious people are healthier, happier, and have more children. So if you decide you want children without the capacity for religion, you may be harming their survival in the name of some kind of aesthetic taste.

    You also say, “Or how about the fact that my vision is so bad that I would have certainly died (many times) without contact lenses/glasses. Having genes that code for poor vision is irrelevant to survival and propagation in my society/population so isn’t this another example of humanity “transcending natural selection.” If the genes you are born with cease to have an effect on your reproductive success, haven’t you transcended natural selection? If not, what ever would it mean to “transcend natural selection?”

    That is no different in principle from fish that live in caves. If their eyes are no longer useful, they will degenerate and the fish will become blind, but evolution did not stop just because of that. Other traits will become crucially important in getting food.

    Likewise with humans. Many people do not leave children, for many reasons, and if the differences between them are heritable then evolution will continue. If people like those on this thread choose to be childless because of how selfish it would be to have children, and if that thought is tied to any kind of genetics, then the next generation will be more selfish. That is evolution.

    In addition we have social evolution operating simultaneously. Even if the thought of being selfish is not tied to genetics at all, the social environment is passed down from generation to generation. If the unselfish people do not leave children, the social environment of the next generation is more selfish.

    IMO, the reduction of the old-fashioned kind of evolution not only does not allow us to transcend evolution, but allows the operation of countless new selective pressures in evolution. Evolution will speed up tremendously in unpredictable ways.

    Link to this
  27. 27. GreenMind 8:48 pm 03/25/2013

    It seems to me that meaning is often an internal state of mind. Sometimes it comes from what we do, such as helping people who are suffering, or creating beautiful music.

    However, I think that the idea of an “ultimate” meaning may be something that cannot be found within the same system. That is, “the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” cannot be answered INSIDE the universe, because from inside the universe the universe itself has no purpose or meaning. However, from OUTSIDE the universe it may indeed have a meaning, such as being a treasured item in a child’s collection of marbles.

    If this makes sense than the universe does have a meaning if it exists within a larger context such as a higher dimensional reality, or if it is a computer simulation, or if it is a dream. Otherwise, we make do with our personal, private meanings, like the transcendent feeling we may get from watching a sunset, raising a child, or writing or listening to music.

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  28. 28. endo_alley 10:18 pm 03/25/2013

    Procreation has nothing to do with meaning. It is the end result of instinctual behaviours. Searching for meaning is another completely different(perhaps instintual)behaviour. The fact that after successfully procreating we may say “This has given my life meaning” should not confuse the two. If further down the line the satisfied parents realize that their offspring has committed some horible or monstrously evil act, do they still derive meaning from having given life to this child? Possibly not. Is the person who is searching for meaning in life necessarily drawn to procreate? Also possibly not. These are two sets which often share a common middle.

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  29. 29. TonyTrenton 10:29 pm 03/25/2013

    DNA is obviously a program. The genius of the creator of this program was to make the inherent built in desire to survive.

    The real question is. Is the creator from a type 3 or 4 civilization.

    Baring in mind we are a just emerging a type ’0′

    Oh!, and for the religious. That means the creator isn’t very personable. Or may I say. As personable as we are to a bacterium.

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  30. 30. Geopelia 12:23 am 03/26/2013

    Google “Lebensborn children” for an experiment in breeding a superior human type.

    Their descendants would now be the third generation.
    I wonder how they are getting along. Probably their origins have been kept secret from them, being a Nazi experiment.

    But a study of those who do know might be of interest.

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  31. 31. SachiNewDelhi 1:09 am 03/26/2013

    We badly need people in poor nations of the world to realize that there’s more to life than reproduction!

    It’s a practical necessity. The world’s resources are being stretched threadbare!

    People might argue that the Malthusian argument has been proven to be “wrong” more than once.

    Well, there are MILLIONS if not billions of people who are living in wretched conditions the world over. And producing more babies who will live in similar misery.

    Science & technology has so far kept up progressing steadily and often in unexpected/unpredictable leaps and bounds thus avoiding any large scale human disasters.

    But the progress often happens in the West where people seem to have escaped the vicious cycle of endless reproduction.

    There are probably a billion people who “live well” on a planet with more than seven billion people.

    Do we want to build a world where more and more numbers are added to the total population while less and less live well?

    How many people will live well when the total population of the planet crosses eight billion? And how billions will have a good quality of life when the global population exceeds ten billion?

    @sachi_bbsr

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  32. 32. Darwin1858 2:51 am 03/26/2013

    Darwin came to his conclusions about the survival of the fittest from the point of view of populations reaching a limit with respect to population size in competition either with the rest of the population or other species for resources, removal of waste etc. Under these conditions a large section of the population would die before reaching reproductive age in miserable conditions that we would not consider humane.

    Mankind continues to expand its total population at an enormous rate endangering other species existence in its search for food and other resources. Having more children under these circumstances is not a ‘raison d’être’. Reaching an equilibrium without having to submit to population limitation by hunger, plague and war is perhaps the noble aim, which may involve a sensible (self imposed) limitation to procreation and a better understanding of our dependency on the rest of the species that live in harmony with us and on which we are completely dependent for our own existence.

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  33. 33. rshoff 12:14 pm 03/26/2013

    The ‘meaning’ of life? Perhaps not, but the reason we exist is not without the purpose of propagation. Without it, we ourselves would not exist as individuals, neither would the human race.

    Those that do not propagate also contribute in areas the propagators (parents) may fail. We contribute to the success of the tribe at large and can even help nurture others offspring. The tribe must succeed in order for individuals to seize upon the opportunity to propagate.

    In no area of human ‘achievement’ can we escape the species centric reality that everything we do is for ourselves. We mean nothing to ‘life’, the ‘Universe’, or even a hypothesized deity. We are merely struggling to explain ourselves as more important than we are.

    Now the question, is life necessary to the universe? Is it an inconsequential result (side effect) of another process the universe employs? Is it a joke (full circle back to the hypothesized deity)?

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  34. 34. messerly 3:40 pm 03/27/2013

    This is a most beautiful expression of profound philosophical reflection. I reconstruct Dr. Rifin’s argument thus:

    1) from the gene’s perspective our purpose is to perpetuate the genes;
    2) from our perspective the meaning we create is what matters to us;
    3) genetic evolution is still important because from it meaning emerged;
    4) but this does not imply that the creation of specific gene combinations is life’s meaning;
    5) we give life meaning by making the world a better place—by creating meaning;
    6) the meaning created is intrinsically worthwhile, whatever the fate of us or the universe;
    7) Thus we should be grateful for the cosmic evolution from which meaning emerged.

    Dr. Rifkin is the intellectual heir of Teilhard de Chardin and Julian Huxley, extolling the beauty of a universe becoming conscious of itself, and the joy we can find in that process.

    I agree with each of the seven main points. I wish we could add an eighth point though–that life would be even more meaningful if we and the universe do not die.

    John G. Messerly, PhD

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  35. 35. K.D. Koratsky 1:46 am 03/28/2013

    messerly,

    A beautiful expression of profound philosophical reflection? Perhaps.

    But it is not merely from the gene’s perspective that our purpose is to perpetuate our genes. It is from natural selection’s perspective that our purpose is to perpetuate our genes. For genes are the currency of biotic survival–a mechanism that renders an indefinite dynamic chemical existence (as opposed to the static existence of elements, inorganic molecules, etc.) possible by giving rise to an organismic structure that extracts the required energy from the environment (to overcome the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) while overcoming all other threats to existence as well (i.e., in addition to energy depletion).

    Hence, the meanings we humans create will also tend to matter to natural selection–for the meanings we create tend to alter the decisions made and the behaviors that result from them.

    The main tenets of the field of evolutionary psychology nicely sum up where we should be assigning meaning to best gain the favor of natural selection: these being kinship selection, the pursuit of status, and functional cooperative dynamics with regard to mutualism and reciprocity–as all of our emotions and feelings extend from these tenets.

    All considered, if making the world a better place means making the world a place that better facilitates our genes survival than Number 5 can be considered correct.

    In contrast, to assign meaning in ways that take away from survivability (which includes individual survival and successful reproduction)–the only quality the natural selection is capable of judging–is to select against one’s line’s survivability.

    So while it is true that it is possible for varied meanings to lead to the same place in terms of maximal functionality and adaptability for individuals or groups attempting to perpetuate their lines, this is not a likely outcome. It is far more likely that even the slightest variation in meaning that motivates in individual or group to act one way or another will have selection ramifications to one degree or another.

    In short, meaning cannot possibly be intrinsically worthwhile from the evolutionary perspective. But meaning itself certainly is meaningful, because if we humans assign it in the proper places we can greatly enhance our chances of extending our lines longer than would otherwise be the case–perhaps longer than the life of our solar system, perhaps longer than the life of our galaxy, perhaps even long than the life of our universe.

    This is where assigning meaning and having faith (that we might just make it) means we will have done the best we could, even if it turns out it was futile from the start.

    K.D. Koratsky, Author of Living With Evolution or Dying Without It: A Guide to Understanding Humanity’s Past, Present, and Future.

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  36. 36. N a g n o s t i c 3:18 am 03/28/2013

    “After a few generations of genetic mixing and shuffling, there’s unlikely to be anything unique or identifying about us in our offspring.”

    Tell it to the Hapsburgs.

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  37. 37. K.D. Koratsky 3:39 am 03/28/2013

    Tell that to the Khans. Twelve percent of males who hail from the territories once occupied by the Mongols have DNA traceable to Chingis or his immediate Kin–.5 percent of males worldwide trace back to them.

    Moreover, 98.6 percent of our DNA is shared with chimps, and we still have significant relatedness with quite-ancient bacteria. Indeed, every creature alive today has a lineage that traces back at least 3.6 billion years.

    Meanwhile, if what you said were true the entire basis for evolution theory would vanish.

    Good luck with that one!

    Link to this
  38. 38. Vee En 4:15 am 03/28/2013

    It can be no one’s case that having children is the only thing that can give meaning to life. But we treat too lightly this miraculous power that we share with almost all living beings: in our case the power to produce another human being. The article seems to confine itself to merely producing offspring. This we share even with the reptiles, which reproduce and then abandon their offspring. What gives real meaning is the joy, and the responsibility, that comes with bringing up another human being – one’s own child – with all the incredible potential to inherit, and develop further, our magnificent achievements. Basically, creative activity – in the arts in science, in sports – gives special meaning to life.
    Mr Rifkin says “Fundamentally, as humans, the problem with identifying the meaning of life with having children is this — to link meaningfulness only with child production seems an affront to human dignity, individual differences, and personal choice. Millions of homosexuals throughout the world do not have children biologically. Millions of heterosexual adults are unable to have children biologically.” But who in his senses would link meaningfulness only with child production?
    Those who, by choice or otherwise, do not have children find meaning in other activities. The important thing is to find meaning in life.
    However,parenting has a special place, and carries special responsibilities.

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  39. 39. rshoff 12:08 pm 03/28/2013

    K.D. Korastsky – Wow. You’ve made many points that fill in gaps for me.

    I wanted to make comments to build on yours, but you’re very advanced in your thinking so that would be pointless. Guess I’ll read the book!

    Questions though related to randomness within the equation of selection. Would you say that genetic outliers are important because those very outliers may be the drivers to the next evolution of an attribute. Eyesight for example. Perhaps poor eyesight (outlier) was important to drive the search for better optics, which then led to the ability to look beyond 20/20 into the cosmos. That ability, as you said, may save us from the fate of the dinosaurs. (?). But poor eyesight was an outlier that led to the failure (assumed) of many of our ancestors.

    Perhaps the next super volcano won’t break down cooperative structures so much as present a positive stress that causes further evolution? What about global warming? What are some evolutionary outcomes may come from that? And can it come from our current genetic outliers? Which outliers? Some of the less than desirable attributes we carry today may save the world, and therefore life’s genetic code, someday.

    Your comments reflect a straightforward completeness that resonates and excites me to read more.

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  40. 40. rshoff 12:12 pm 03/28/2013

    K.D. Korasky’s comment: “Hence, the meanings we humans create will also tend to matter to natural selection–for the meanings we create tend to alter the decisions made and the behaviors that result from them.”

    Answers my question as to why everything we do that is considered ‘worthwhile’ is really only behaviors that support humanity, and therefore, reproduction. They are not behaviors that can be translated to what’s ‘worthwhile’ to anything but ourselves (humanity).

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  41. 41. K.D. Koratsky 2:25 pm 03/28/2013

    rshoff,

    Thanks for your kind words,

    Randomness has in fact been selected for, taking the shape of a normal distribution (bell curve) as does other natural variation. The solution is very elegant because the range of future environmental variation will to the same. Hence, reproduction includes mostly those with relatively little variation (in the heart of the bell curve), to match what is most like to occur in surroundings. And then the extremes of the bell curve reflect just-in-case contingencies. The area in between all correlated accordingly. All of this allows a species to plan for the worst, hope for the best, and maximize the number of successful offspring on average.

    Adaptation does not come without cost, though the cost will be minimized throughout nature while energy is a most precious commodity for the living, especially during tough times. For less-advanced species the bell-curve shot-gun effect does well. If the next generation’s environmental challenges are similar to their parents, the bulk in the heart of the curve will survive, writing off the outliers as part of doing reproductive business. With radical environmental changes, a species may be lucky if just a few outliers survive, with all others perishing.

    For increasingly advanced species, according to what I define as selection vector universals in my book, there has been a shift from adapting through high numbers with broad variation to producing individuals that are capable of adapting through behavioral modification based on what in particular is encountered–the basis for intelligence, of course.

    selection vector universals occur when more of a characteristic tends to be better under most or all circumstances. In short, Gould was wrong when he declared there is no directionality in the evolution of species on earth.

    It is true that cataclysmic events create times of accelerated advancement overall with regard to greater evolutionary dynamics, just as good times tend to produce plateaus with minimal evolutionary development–though natural selection never sleeps.

    But it would be better if humans could select for their own maximal function and adaptability to gain the greatest benefit with minimal cost. The problem is that there are very few willing to accept that the practical implications of evolution theory (the basic premise of my book)should forever be the main focus of human existence when it come to policy making.

    Instead, the current good times suggest to most that we humans now have the power to make the world whatever we want it to be. A rude awakening is on the horizon, to be sure.

    K.D. Koratsky

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  42. 42. MichelleJS 9:36 am 03/29/2013

    I was very interested when I saw this headline because this was conclusion I came to in my teens during my “what is the meaning of life?” phase. For me it didn’t boil down to anything metaphysical. I think even the term “meaning” isn’t quite right because I don’t see life as “purposeful” or “directional”. Evolution is happening, but it’s not evolution towards any particular goal. To my mind I am the expression of information that is millions of years old, like a sophisticated (and buggy) computer program. My function is to execute for a few decades and see that the genes I carry are passed on. The point that “what makes me me” gets diluted in my descendents is irrelevant. None of us is our children, even after one generation. Our only chance of immortality is in the genes that we send into the future.

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  43. 43. rshoff 4:19 pm 03/29/2013

    @Michelle – I agree with your sentiment. I’m not sure it’s all for not though.

    You mentioned that “Evolution is happening, but it’s not evolution towards any particular goal.”

    I would add that ‘…it’s not evolution toward any particular HUMAN goal.’

    It may require physics to define the purpose of ‘life’ in the universe around us. To that end, I’m not sure that it’s all for not. But maybe it is. Either way, I’m very sure that human life is insignificant in this game with exception to how the attributes of humanity may contribute to the success of the undefined force in physics that most of us call ‘life’.

    Maybe instead of seeking out the meaning of life from spiritual leaders or the biological sciences community, we should be looking to the physicists for answers. It may very well be ’42′….

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  44. 44. Ardiglione 8:56 am 03/31/2013

    Yet there is another aspect, also related to the trasmission of information, that is not “genetic”.
    It is the acquisition and trasmission of “knowledge” that implies self-consciouness and may assume a meaning for every human beeing, relating each of us to a group by means of so powerful links that may highlight the whole mankind and survive time and space, just like genes…

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  45. 45. geodude 1:24 pm 04/4/2013

    Meaning? Even the concept of assigning meaning is absurd. It just is.

    Enjoy your life. Try being for a change.

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