Life Be Not Proud (Pensée)

To be biological is to be terminable. The word life itself casts the shadow feared of man. Why must all living things die? For the simple reason that the forces which bring living things into existence: reproduction of heritable traits, combined with mutations, plus non-random selection (i.e. evolution) does not care about our life expectancy. Indeed, it should be obvious that the labour required by society (and young persons in particular) at extenuating the lives of older persons is evidence that in the presence of selfish genes, old age is not sustainable. Any disease that impacts you after your reproductive years will have no impact on your reproductive fitness, by definition.[1] In short, we can only expect natural selection to grant us immortality in the same way we can ask gravity for things to fall upwards.

I think it is a fair and legitimate question to ask ourselves how much time we should consider contemplating the subject. I believe the risks are asymmetric. That is to say that not pondering it seems a fairly legitimate strategy, unless it impacts you in preparing your estate, whereas too much thinking about it almost certainly leads to melancholy of the type seen at Elsinore. One of my closest friends does not feel it worth considering, and her opinion is always held for me in high esteem. What are some advantages of pondering the undiscovered country? To paraphrase the great Dr. Johnson, the prospect of a hanging almost certainly concentrates the mind. Therefore the thought of shuffling off this mortal coil can be a stimulant to make us achieve greater and better things. Tired of falling into the Lethe pleasures of a Netflix binge? Reminding oneself that your next destination is a country from whose bourn no traveler returns ought to get you up and off the couch.

The problem with the idea of life and death is that while our intuitive sense tells us that the former is always better than the latter that certainly isn’t true on deeper reflection. I would gladly give me life to save say 3 billion persons and be venerated posthumously as a hero. Nor would I want to live a life of agonizing pain. Because life has no cosmic significance, it means it has an infinite number of possibilities. Just as the number of species is infinite, the number of meanings we can generate is too. That is to say, when nothing matters, anything can. Money and life have no intrinsic value. But, once we understand that anything can be rendered tender by our collective will, anything can considered a meaningful life by our social thoughts. To ask why any life should be valued is to ask why any currency should let me buy apples. There is no satisfying answer, only a technical one. It is a coordination problem that becomes a self-reinforcing equilibrium once a critical threshold has been achieved.

This I think is an important and an interesting point that must be stressed. Our species’ destiny is not providential as the falling of a sparrow, it is as important as the falling of a rock. The fact that we even understand this, in a way a rock does not, is pretty cool. Although I guess even this last thought is merely a technical one.


  1. This is not totally true as kin selection effects can still lead to non-selfish genes being replicated (such a grandmotherly care). But clearly the developmental (as in embryonic) costs to creating long living creatures has evidently always overpowered this effect at some point. I say at some point, as the relative life expectancy in the animal kingdom differ extremely. 

Written on May 15, 2016