Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why, Evolution? I Thought We Were Friends.

Let me say this first - I am a strong advocate of evolution. It's the only plausible explanation, for me, as to our existence on this planet. So, yes, that means I am not a deist or theist. But, that doesn't mean I don't have qualms with some things evolution has done.

Don't get me wrong, I am all for opposable thumbs, great hair and the ability to sing in thirty different languages, but sometimes the things evolution did just seem cruel. In retrospect. And I'm not talking just about the animal kingdom or the whole "testicles on the outside" thing, either - though, really, that was a slip up.

No, what I'm talking about, is the essence of sentience. Stick with me here. All mammals - and most likely all animals - share the same instinct to survive. In 1952, neurologist Paul McLean proposed that the Limbic System was where all emotional survival instincts originate - fight, flight, feed and procreate. However, around 50,000 years ago, one of these early humans became conscious of its own consciousness.

This means it gained the ability to contemplate its life, what has happened, what could be and, the focus of this article, its own death. A completely unique creature which can merge the creation of highly evolved symbolic systems with the destructive power of its most basic instinct, fear.

Ernest Becker said that;

"[T]he real world is simply too terrible to admit. It tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will someday decay and die. Culture changes all of this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe. Immortal in some ways." 

To make things clear, I am also an advocate of culture, because it does make us feel important. The things we create are unparalleled by any other creature in existence. Art, literature, films, technology, this article - all of these things are part of what makes mankind's culture so interesting; a way of immortalising itself while simultaneously bringing joy and improvement to the lives of all humans who follow.

Of course there are the negative aspects of culture and culture propagators, but that is not the focus here.

The focus here, is the fact that we - as human beings - are born with the awareness of our own deaths. While I can comprehend the evolutionary point to giving us opposable thumbs and the ability to use tools - it makes us a deadly prey while also leaving us fleshy, soft and gooey as opposed to being covered in armour and spikes. With tools and creativity, we create our own weapons and armour. I can also see the evolutionary point in being upright with two hands and two legs, it’s a simple and easy structure. What I can not find logic for is the awareness of our own demise. 

Of course, with the awareness of existence comes in tandem the awareness of the end of that existence. I guess that's the only way it can be. This sentience is what we lord over the animals with, creating beautiful and wondrous things as a result of it. We immortalize ourselves. As social psychologist Sheldon Solomon said, 

"[culture] is supposed to give us a sense of where we come from and what we're supposed to do while we're here". 

Then again, evolution, you've given an essentially still-primitive mammal, whose basic instinct is still to be afraid of everything, and made them aware that they’re going to die.

I have lain awake at nights, having shaking panic attacks, contemplating the concept that, though I am alive now, I will die. And it's not the dying that scares me - that's the easy part. It just happens. No, what's hard to come to terms with is the overarching perspective that I am used to existing, to doing things, and then to suddenly no longer be doing anything at all is terrifying.

Honestly, from an evolutionary standpoint, I can't figure out what the point was to give us awareness of our existence and death. The logical answer, then, is to not think about it and to make the best of the time that we do have, but let's face it - we're obsessed with death. It's everywhere. Films. TV. Books. Art. All of these are filled with death. Religion is used as a coping mechanism and tells us we go somewhere afterwards - forever - once we die, to make this world not seem so awful.

I don't know, evolution, your reasons are mysterious to me. But, hey, I'm scared of mother nature already - I'm not going to mess with her will.



  1. I think if we didn't have that awareness of impending death, we'd never do anything of worth - or at least we wouldn't be compelled to do it, to create, to inspire, to leave a lasting impression. It's what drives our incredible innovation, our technology, our compassion. We'd spend our time rolling around on the floor licking ourselves.

    Or at least I would, hah. I'd be the worst immortal ever. That's because I'm a simpleton however and that's neither here nor there.

    But say we didn't know of it, say it was the one blank spot in our consciousness, that we couldn't conceive of the idea that we would perish -- how fucked would that be? I'm not saying imagine we were immortal, but imagine if we were mortal and didn't know of it? Didn't know how important our time is? And people just died anyway. That would be supremely fucked, so I for one am glad for the knowledge, no matter my own insecurities and fears regarding my own inadequacy. Which are numerous, by the way.

    Just sayin'.

    1. I can't say that I disagree with you on that note. I agree that without the craving for leaving an impression or making our lives worth something that we would create things of worth or the like.

      And I'm not saying we should be immortal, nor that we SHOULDN'T have the knowledge of our own demise.

      But these are only things we can consider now, with the knowledge of death, and rationalizing it to ourselves. It does lead people to also do horribly stupid things, to wallow in fear and despair, to lead to hate.

      Two sides to every coin, right?

      When I write these, I am not saying that there are not many sides to an argument, I focus mostly on one aspect that got me thinking that one time. Or many times, in this case, where I lay awake in wretched, shaking fear of my oncoming demise.

      Also, I was looking at it from an evolutionary standpoint. Other animals do not have the same sentience and continue to propagate and exist without quandary - why was the knowledge given to us I guess is what I'm asking in some senses.

      I dunno, it's mostly a "food for thought" article.

  2. Sure, and it gave me food, and I thought I'd share. There's nothing you said that I disagree with, I just thought I'd add to the discussion.

    1. And I am very much enjoying it! I'm glad you enjoy these enough to comment on them!

  3. I might use @omarsakr's third paragraph as a springboard. I don't think there is a specific advantage to the awareness of our own deaths, because I don't think we evolved it specifically. I suspect it to be a side-effect of the development of advanced intelligence.
    I claim that in order to be able to reason at an abstract level about our own actions and their consequences, and (more abstractly) about the greater consequences of any given event, thinking about our own deaths is inevitable: it is an obvious and necessary consequence of living.

    And, of course, the utter nothingness that comes afterwards, that object of such soul-rending terror, is the equally inevitable consequence of dying.

    1. I refute your claims of the utter nothingness that comes afterward! I will be a dashing, handsome ghost who becomes (re?)romantically involved with a renowned pop star who later becomes a heroin addict...oh no, wait, that's the premise of a film mixed in with real life...nevertheless, it is what I will strive for.

  4. The same argument could be applied to fear and pain: they suck, so please explain yourself, Evolution?

    But there are clearly short term survival benefits which arise from instinctively not blundering into the barbed tentacles of the horrifying sharktopus.

    With that said, surely fear of our own mortality is just a survival instinct on a greater timescale.