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Love, Pain, And Suffering In Life

September 2, 2010

I’d like to begin this little talk with a quote from Charles Darwin,

“What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.”
– Charles Darwin, in a letter to his friend Hooker

I also would like to quote Richard Dawkins from his book The Greatest Show On Earth.  I recommend you all read it.  I’m going to bold some main points.

Nature is neither kind nor unkind. She is neither against suffering, nor for it. Nature is not interested in suffering one way or the other unless it affects the survival of DNA. It is easy to imagine a gene that, say, tranquillises gazelles when they are about to suffer a killing bite. Would such a gene be favoured by natural selection? Not unless the act of tranquillising a gazelle improved that gene’s chances of being propagated into future generations. It is hard to see why this should be so and we may therefore guess that gazelles suffer horrible pain and fear when they are pursued to the death – as most of them eventually are. The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

Parasites probably cause even more suffering than predators, and understanding their evolutionary rationale adds to, rather than mitigates, the sense of futility we experience when we contemplate it. I fulminate against it every time I get a cold (I have one now, as it happens).  Maybe it is only a minor inconvenience, but it is so pointless! At least if you are eaten by an anaconda you can feel that you have contributed to the well-being of one of the lords of life. When you are eaten by a tiger, perhaps your last thought could be, What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry? (In what distant deeps or skies, burnt the fire of thine eyes?) But a virus! A virus has pointless futility written into its very DNA – actually, RNA in the case of the common cold virus, but the principle is the same. A virus exists for the sole purpose of making more viruses. Well, the same is ultimately true of tigers and snakes, but there it doesn’t seem so futile. The tiger and the snake may be DNA-replicating machines but they are beautiful, elegant, complicated, expensive DNA-replicating machines. I’ve given money to preserve the tiger, but who would think of giving money to preserve the common cold? It’s the futility of it that gets to me, as I blow my nose yet again and gasp for breath.

Futility? What nonsense. Sentimental, human nonsense. Natural selection is all futile. It is all about the survival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication. If a variant of DNA survives through an anaconda swallowing me whole, or a variant of RNA survives by making me sneeze, then that is all we need by way of explanation. Viruses and tigers are both built by coded instructions whose ultimate message is, like a computer virus, ‘Duplicate me.’ In the case of the cold virus, the instruction is executed rather directly. A tiger’s DNA is also a ‘duplicate me’ program, but it contains an almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message. That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts. The tiger’s DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first.’ At the same time, antelope DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building an antelope first, complete with long legs and fast muscles, complete with timorous instincts and finely honed sense organs tuned to the danger from tigers.’ Suffering is a byproduct of evolution by natural selection, an inevitable consequence that may worry us in our more sympathetic moments but cannot be expected to worry a tiger – even if a tiger can be said to worry about anything at all – and certainly cannot be expected to worry its genes.

– Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show On Earth

Life and our universe were created by mindless processes, slowly grinding from lower, simpler life-forms to ever more complicated life-forms.  It isn’t something that just sprang into existence.  Everything has a reason.  Nothing is arbitrary.

Besides the forms of pain and suffering Dawkins mentions, there’s also some others I’d like to discuss.  Just a few weeks ago I saw a young man asking a young woman out to a social event.  I happened to be sitting in the row right in front them and overheard their conversation.  It was sad to see, but he was rejected.  After the event took place, reflecting on what happened, all I could think about was sexual selection, and just how painful it all can be.

The more I learn about why we do the things we do, find myself thinking, “Are you serious?  Is that why we do that?  My god, how stupid.  Just look at us.  This is ridiculous.”

If the struggles we face with disease, poverty, sickness, war, and everything else wasn’t bad enough, species on this planet (including ourselves) undergo so much needless pain and suffering due to sexual selection.  Animals battle tooth and nail for females to prove their worth.  Since these battles oftentimes end in death, a sort of arms races develops between the males, and for moose, their horns continue to grow longer and larger.  These horns soon become giant daggers, which they use to stab and mutilate one another in tiring, grueling battles, hoping to win the opportunity to mate with the females, so that their genes live on in the next generation.

But sexual selection doesn’t always lead to such brutal conflicts.  Sometimes it leads species to, well, act silly.  Many birds for example, to impress females,  perform elaborate dances on forest floors, or sing songs at the top of their voices to prove that they’re healthy and the best candidate to mate with.

Everything comes down to gene survival.  We as humans are no different.  When that young man introduced himself to that young woman, he immediately was faced with the task of proving his worth.  We don’t battle it out locking horns, or sing songs, or perform mating dances, but we still have elaborate mating rituals to prove our worth.

From what I can see, the most common selection criteria females humans use on men are rooted in our evolutionary baggage.  Take body weight for example.  Most women prefer men with a tight stomach, big chest, big biceps, and overall muscular figure.  If they’re not into that, they at least would like their man to be healthy and trim, without all the fat.

This is because men in the past had to hunt and provide for their females.  If they were fat and slow, they were less likely to be a good provider for them and the children, who would starve to death if they didn’t get enough food.  That selection criteria made perfect sense back then, but it’s nothing but evolutionary baggage now.

Health is another indicator.  Most of us avoid marrying a very unhealthy person.  I saw a disabled man the other day walking with a cane.  He was near blind and required a lot of help to get around.  He’s not going to be all that popular with the ladies, I can tell you that.   Once again, it comes down to not being able to provide as a hunter.

Other selection criteria are far more baffling.  When a species comes to point where they have no predators, and are not struggling to survive, one sex within that species begins to use other criteria for mate selection other than just the ability to provide food and primary survival needs.  You start to see fitness judged on how much energy an animal can be WASTE and the still be ok.

Styling your hair is a way of showing that you can waste lots of time and energy combing and primping, and yet still find time to gather food and do everything else you need to do.  We don’t gather food any longer, and this makes no sense in a modern context, but once again, we still have our evolutionary baggage.

The world is filled with silly, wasteful enterprises.  Take the male peacocks with their huge colorful tails.  They shine them for all to see, and the females are to look at them and unconsciously say, “Wow.  Look at how colorful his tail is.  That must put him in a lot of danger from predators, but he’s able to survive nonetheless.  He must be really healthy, fast, and strong.”

When I saw that poor young man get rejected, I don’t think he knew what hit him.  He didn’t come across to me as an exactly brilliant individual, so he’s probably never thought about the  “why” of it all.   I couldn’t help but think about how that girl had all kinds of irrational selection criterion going on, and there he was, completely unaware of all of them, hoping to get a date.  For whatever reason, she rejected him.  It could’ve been a lot different reasons.  I can’t really say.

Years ago I confessed to a girl and she rejected me.  She told me I wasn’t this and wasn’t that, and didn’t agree with my views on life, or the lifestyle I’ve chosen.  I didn’t get mad at her or anything.  She’s a great girl, and I still think the world of her, even though we haven’t talked in quite a while.

Really, it’s no different than those birds in these videos.  Here comes to female and I’m supposed to puff out my feathers and dance around in circles.  If all the stars align, the moon turns dark red in an eclipse, earthquakes and volcanoes erupt, and angels dance on her bedpost, somehow things work out how they’re supposed to and she returns my feelings properly.  The earthquake rumble wakes her up in the middle of the night and as the angelic choir sings she somehow realizes how much I mean to her and that I’m not that bad of a guy.  One of these days I’ll pull the lever of the slot machine and get all 7’s.

As for this other young man, I was rooting for him.  Overhearing it, I was like, “Go man, go!”  Then she was like, “Welll….i Dunnooo…”  Then I thought, “Awwww, why can’t the guy get the girl like in the movies!”  It’s my guess that she wasn’t interested in him because she was out of his league.  She was a very attractive woman, and he was, I guess you could say average?  I’m certainly no expert on that sort of thing, but that’s what I’d guess.  I’ve really lost touch with all those ways of thought.  Who knows.  Maybe she was really thinking, “Oh my god!  I can’t believe he’s wearing sneakers like THOSE.  Geez.  Like I’d EVER date a guy like him!  And ok, and ok.”

Sexual attraction in humans is probably the dumbest thing I can think of.  The fact that perfectly healthy women are born, with no defects to them, yet are generally considered far less attractive than other women is such a mystery.  I wonder all the time why I find one woman beautiful and another woman not so.

As best I know, here are some factors that contribute to our sexual attraction: Breasts are attractive because we’ve came to use them as an indicator of age, as large breasts sag when the woman gets older, so large breasts in a young woman is very attractive to males.  Blond hair shows youth, which is why blondes are the most popular.  A curvy figure shows off hips, and the proper proportion of hips to waist is a good indicator to how easily a child could be delivered.  Other than that, it seems attraction is pretty much all about the proportions the woman is born with.  For example, the distance between the eyes, how far down the nose is on the face, the chin, cheek bones, and that sort of thing.  There’s some sort of algorithm the male mind runs a woman thorough and judges her attraction.

Most men of our species find the same women beautiful, and the same women ugly.  The same applies to most women.  It’s not universal, but there’s a strong tendency.  The vast majority of women find Brad Pitt and George Clooney handsome, and if given the chance would probably get with them.  Men are similar.  If most men had the chance to get with a woman like Jessica Alba or Shakira, they would very likely take up the opportunity.

This is sort of thing happens all over the animal kingdom.  Take the Saxony bird of paradise.  You’ll notice that even though the top of this tree is filled with males, pretty much every female chooses to mate with the best looking male.  Other males barely get to mate at all.

I think evolution utilizes this to filter out ‘bad models’  Nest building birds will judge how well a male can build a nest before they’ll mate with them.  If they can’t build a good nest, they never are able to find a mate.  This is so the dumb birds, whose brains are no good, are not continued on.  Only those clever birds who can build the nest are allowed to mate.

Humans and birds have a lot in common.  Since this Australian bowerbird has no predators, the male goes to elaborate lengths to construct a flashy home, which he then uses to entice females to mate with him.

Some biologists and psychologists believe that we evolved our abilities to recognize art, music, and humor within our brains due to sexual selection criteria.  These things developed in the same way that colorful feathers developed in the birds in these videos.  Just like male peacocks, we strut around by being talented musicians, display our great sense of humor, our quick wit, or utilize a large useless vocabulary, with the main purpose being simply to show off how smart we are.

In a way you could say these are the very things that make life colorful.  Then again, you could equally argue that the reason we FIND such things colorful is because our brains have evolved to find them so.  You could equally well have evolved to find something else colorful and entertaining.

When looking at all of this from a broad perspective, I find it all a bit depressing.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who haven’t yet found the “love of their life”.  How many families have I seen broken up because of these silly mating rituals and the constant struggle to balance out the reward chemicals in their heads.  “It used to be so fun, but now… it’s just not the same…”

Feelings seem to come and go and are all over the place.  People struggle to make sense of our needless mating rituals and are in so much misery.

Then again, these mating games are what many live for.  How many movies are made about love stories and romance?  To them, that’s what life is all about.  I guess I can’t blame them.  That’s how the brain is structured to release reward chemicals.  Regardless of all the pain it causes them and others, it does sometimes give them a big rush.

I wonder how much pain and misery women endure trying to keep themselves beautiful.  How many hours do they have to spend in front of the mirror making sure their hair is perfect, their make-up just right, and their clothing stylish and perfect for their particular figure.  They fight to keep their weight down.  They augment their breasts.   There’s just no end to it.  It’s all to win the affections of a male and beat other females in this silly game.

Then it’s an uphill battle.  They’re only young and pretty for a few years, then it very quickly fades.  In their late teens they’re perfect.  In their 20s they’re still great.  In their 30s the aging is starting to show, but they still look good.  At 40, you can see they’re getting older, but if they try hard enough, they can still be a “MILF”, as they’re called.  At 50, the makeup and other products can’t hide the aging.  They’ve lost it.  Beyond that, they’re an old woman.

That leaves like a 20~25 year window?  That’s nothing.  I can’t speak for you all, but time flies.  Why waste half of your life in front of a mirror playing a game you can’t possibly win?

It always hurts my feelings to see a beautiful woman having to fend herself off from all the guys approaching her, while 3/4 of the other women in the room are barely noticed.  It’s just stupid.  Instead of playing this stupid game, I think  that all you ladies would be better off spending time developing your mind.  That’s really what a man should admire.

The only reason us men are attracted to your youthful look as opposed to your more aged look is because your fertility drops with age, and back in stone age times, if we were to mate with a women, we wanted to make sure you properly have the child.  Evolution slowly built us that way.  That’s it.  That’s pretty much the main reason this whole battle you’re fighting exists.  Seeing it from the big picture, you’re just wasting the short life you have on this planet.

It’s amazing when you come to understand all this though.  Our studies in neuroscience are now leading us to understand how reward chemicals work in our brains and when they’re released.  I think, in time, we’ll change this whole system using science, modifying our genetics and brains, and none of this pain and suffering will exist anymore.

As for this whole process, I wonder what all we’ll keep and what we’ll scrap.  I’d be curious to know.

One possible alternate world would be to grow our babies in the laboratory, and eradicate the distinction between male and female.  Not too terribly far in the future, our science will reach a point where we no longer need separate sexes.  There’s more expedient methods to share DNA, and create diversity, than by males and females sharing their DNA when giving birth to children.

People may ask, “What would a life without love be like?”  That’s the wrong question to ask.  Ask yourself instead, “If all it is is reward chemicals in my head, why not just alter how my brain works, and give myself that same rush and love of life all the time, instead of having to go through a long pointless mating ritual, which leads to so much pain and suffering.”  You only care about love because your brain tells you to care about love.  If we modified your brain, you’d care about something else instead.

As I said before, I think we’re leaving the era of biological evolution by natural selection, and we’re entering a world where we control all life development and cultural evolution.

I really want to understand all of this more.  I want to study more into how sexual selection eventually led to music, art, and humor.  It really is truly fascinating.  Our world is beyond strange.  The more you understand it, you just look at it and say, “Man that’s odd.”

Speaking of science and improving ourselves, I’ve also been considering the food we eat.  I think with time we won’t eat food.  We’ll learn how and why consciousness enters matter in different forms, and we’ll build our own bodies which are far better constructed.  We won’t eat food and won’t need to destroy other life forms to maintain our own existence.

Even if we only partially modified our bodies, think of how wonderful that would be.  Imagine injecting little nano-bots into your bloodsteam which eat the plaque which builds up in your arteries, always keeping your heart and blood flow healthy.  Imagine if other nano-bots chomped away at your excess fat, keeping your figure trim and healthy.  Other nano-bots could notify your body of various vitamin and nutritional deficiencies, and a system could send a signal to your brain notifying you of the problem.

The future has amazing possibilities.  In a way, nature is somewhat kind to us.  I expect that as the human species develops we’ll extend our lifespan, probably living for millions, or even hundreds of millions of years.  We may well become practically immortal.  The thing is, we wouldn’t want to be immortal now.  I know I wouldn’t – not if things had to stay the way they are now.

But the thing is, when we learn how to control reality, we also learn to control our lifespans.  The two go together.  Isn’t that amazing?  Once we learn to control reality, we in turn learn how to extend our lifespan.  The two happen at the same time.  We’ve slightly improved our world over the past few hundred years, and we’ve also managed to extend our lifespans to a similar degree.  Once we really improve things, we’ll vastly extend our lifespans.  That’s neat.  It’s like nature doesn’t force us to endure a miserable existence for a very long time.

Some people’s lives are good.  Life can be good.  I’m not saying all life is misery.  I just think there’s too much misery around this place for my taste.  There’s a whole lot of beauty to this world, but it’s not evenly distributed.  Some people seem to have it all, while others end up with a pretty sucky life.

The era of pain and suffering on Earth is, I believe, only a temporary stage in the development of life.  We’ll take over this universe and change it completely.  The whole predator/prey/natural selection/evolution model was simply to get the ball rolling until conscious sentient beings develop which can take over and change that universe into whatever they wish.  That’s my current view on things these days.

I want to understand our brain entirely.  The more I learn about it, I just see the deep mysteries of the world unfolding.  So many things I used to wonder about are finally becoming clear to me.  I’m seeing that time and space aren’t what I think they are.  I’m seeing why I laugh, why I have emotions, why I’m attracted to beautiful women, and the purposes all of these things served in our pasts.

Well I better call it a night.  I have a lot of work to do tonight, so night everyone.

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