The Other I

May 29, 2012

Two sides of survival

One of the most interesting puzzles for me in science arises out of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

But first, let me begin by making it clear that I’ve never been aghast to have learned that we Homo sapiens have evolved from earlier primates and before that from fish and before that, etc.  I’m not sure why people find this either demeaning or unworthy of God.  I think it’s truly marvellous.  There is this great, incredible, amazing universe and as far as we can tell, we are at this point the most exalted thing that has arisen out of it.  I’m not saying I’m of the conviction that it was created just for us, though I suppose that’s possible.  But we do, at this point, seem to be at the top of the pinnacle.

It connects us to everything.  We are part of everything.  We belong here.  We’re not strangers somehow exiled in a foreign country speaking a foreign language.

So I really love Darwin’s theory of evolution.  I love what it says about us and our place in the world and who we are.

But it does create a conundrum for me.  If we are part of the process of what the universe is and is becoming, then to understand ourselves we need to understand this process and to embrace it.

Science in general  and the theory of evolution in particular tells us that this process is one of non-stop becoming.  The universe and every living thing in it is driven by an impulse to survive, to endure, somehow, even to become more.

But here’s my conundrum.  To survive all living things do two things:  they prey on and consume each other, and they cooperate with each other.  We can see this among one-celled bacteria who consume each other, but also join together to create more complex organisms for living.   We see it in everything in the animal kingdom, and we see it in ourselves.  One does not need to turn on the television for the latest bombing, war, torture, or murder for examples of our drive to eliminate enemies of our survival at whatever cost.  It is impossible to do something as simple as walk into a supermarket without seeing evidence of all the killing that goes on to support even the most pacific human life.

At the same time, cooperative, supportive behavior among and between various life forms is just as deep and pervasive.  Viruses might invade another organism and eventually kill it.  On the other hand, even our own guts are filled with essential bacteria whose life support we could not live without.  We see dolphins helping humans, dogs helping elephants, giraffes helping hippopotamus,  we see what we call heroism and kindness and altruism and generosity in the human condition daily.

We often tend to think that competitive survival behaviors are selfish and destructive, and that altruistic selfless concern for others is always essentially a higher form of relating to the world.

But that isn’t so.  Even the holiest among us must kill in order to eat.  And even the most selfless will become a burden on society if they are unable to stand up for themselves when necessary.

To survive we need both.  What is moral is a balance between self-reliance and concern.

But that’s enough for today.  I’ll save a discussion about how this idea underlies my current views of morality for another post.

PS:  Don’t ask about the watering system.  Sufficient to say that sometimes a few babbling paragraphs of philosophical angst are a downright relief.

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