A theme of this blog has been that the purpose of life—our sense of a direction, or our craving for one—is rooted in our biological drive to survive and thrive. I’ve felt confident in that belief, but I’ve also been dancing around its complications. The term rooted is hazy, thrive covers a great deal of ground, and sometimes I’ve added the goal reproduce for good measure.
But most of all, I’ve made one big—and embarrassing— mistake. Survival is not the ultimate goal, the strongest drive, of organisms. The ultimate goal is offspring and the strongest drive is reproduction, not survival. From the evolutionary point of view, whether an organism survives to live a long life is irrelevant; what counts is that it survive long enough to reproduce. As Richard Dawkins wrote of selfish genes, “They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside.” It is no coincidence that before the era of modern medicine, most human parents began to suffer and die from illness in their 40s and 50s, soon after their children would have attained physical maturity.
And yet, although reproduction is the ultimate goal, survival is hardly a distant runner-up. Obviously they are closely linked. Survival is certainly indispensable if reproduction is going to happen. Moreover, the drives to survive and to reproduce share a basic characteristic: they are both future oriented, both about the continuation of members of the species. When I think of them this way, as the left foot and the right foot of life itself walking forward, the two blur together into the single process of being alive that is laden with purpose and direction.
But back to people. When we talk about the primacy of the drive to reproduce, what are we saying about how we spend our lives? For although raising children fulfills the lives of many parents, for many other adults fulfillment takes other forms as well.
It is human intelligence that complicates and enriches the picture. The brain adds power, variability, and vulnerability to the two biological tasks of surviving and reproducing. For not only do our brains help us survive in countless ways, but they also create offspring of their own. The desire to do or make something that will come from us, impact others, and perhaps live on after us takes countless forms: works of art, worldly success, social contributions, and more. To say that the brain’s visions are, like babies, conceived, developed, and eventually born is barely a metaphor.
So I’m seeing human survival and reproduction as life’s twin purposes, both of them forward-directed, both building on drives inherited from other species, and, thanks to our brains, both of them opportunities for inventiveness. I like it that this view builds on the biology of other species; it doesn’t disconnect human purpose from other living things. And I like the fact that, while genes may be selfish, these processes of surviving and reproducing are fundamentally life-affirming.