Evolutionary Biology Of Nihilism And Purpose
There are a few ways to think inductively about the experience of death, given the data we have.
- Linear Extrapolation: If I believe I’m afraid of things in proper proportion of how fearsome they are, then I can construct a regression curve to fit all my points of fear. I’m afraid of tripping while running, because knee pain is pretty bad. But crashing my car is worse, more painful, and crashing a plane is the worst of all. Everything exists on a continuum that neatly matches the quantum of pain with the quantum of fear thus moderating my response to avoid said pain. If this is truly the case, then we are justified in thinking death is the worst thing possible. After all, nothing scares us more than death, and if our fear teaches us of an object’s capacity to cause pain, then death must be truly horrendous. This is the logic we operate on by default. That isn’t to say it’s wrong, there is such a thing as a collective unconscious, we are intuitive creatures. But our intuition is badly outdated. We have an intuition for linear algebra, for twigs that look like snakes, and spiders that look like alien murderbots, all of which are mostly useless after 100,000 years of highly productive primate evolution. Well done team.
- Survivor Bias: Abraham Wald is famous for counterintuitively suggesting WW2 planes be armored in those parts where the fewest cases of damage were recorded, deducing that planes with damage to these parts never returned to record their tale. Nobody has returned to record their tale of death. There is no evidence to strongly deny the claim of physics and neurology that it would feel no different from falling into a deep dreamless sleep, the utility and serenity of which we’ve spent our entire lives hearing only good things about. Suddenly we’re asked to reverse everything we know about Sleep and instead feel a mixture of insidious dread and absolute horror when contemplating its twin sister Death.
The verdict on death has been passed by a kangaroo court. The defendant has no right of defense. The jury is packed with those who side with Life. No agenda here. It’s only fair then that in the afterlife is a kangaroo court where the jury is packed with those who sympathize with Death, and Life is the silent defendant. We call that court Nihilism. Here’s their case.
Pain is a signal. Sensors tell us when something is wrong. Once you account for pain, you realize there is no need for natural selection to bother with ‘pleasure’. Pain and the fear of it keeps me from burning myself or jumping off a cliff. Pain keeps me from petting a Tiger, taunting a school bully, and eating poison. Pain (hunger) makes me seek out food and (thirst) water and (horniness) mates. Everything natural selection needs me to do, it can get me to do through a single quantity of pain and my desire to make it go away or prevent it the next time. Pain is life’s way of going on going on. Death is totally irrelevant. What would be the competitive advantage of a species that fears death?
Children fear pain but don’t fear death. It’d take a convincing case to claim that animals aren’t the same way. If I’m a primate that lives 5 very productive years, growing up quickly, making lots of babies, and then dying once they grow up in a year, then there’s very little reason for natural selection to develop in me the tendency to avoid death. There is no competitive advantage the species gains by my avoiding death, and therefore it never gets established as a common denominator of the genome. I only need to avoid pain because that is a signal for something else that compromises my reproductive fitness. Anything that does not compromise this has no real evolutionary advantage.
Primates then did a dangerous thing. They started learning at faster and faster rates, reviving not only the phenomenon of Lamarckianism but planting the seeds for the ability to conceive the phenomenon of Lamarckianism. At this stage we broke from pure natural selection to a gene-culture co-evolution. For a nihilist, this was the birth of Death, because the fact that we’re past our efficient prime reproductive age has now been decoupled from Death. Now things that keep us alive do in fact pass on evolutionary advantages to the species, the presence of wise old creatures with experience and wisdom to impart. Tendencies to hang on are rewarded. If 1000 post-menopause women hang around, we can keep the 200 most productive, the smartest foragers, the wiliest child-rearers, and the best cooks, and let the rest die. Everybody wins. Except 200 post-menopause women.
The 800 are dead. They don’t care. The 200 are clinging on to life way past the expiry dates their bodies were designed for. Now just like FMCG expiry dates, these aren’t a precipitous drop-off to 0 but a gradual deterioration. Every year gets harder, because the sensors are going off everywhere all the time, and it’s pain that can neither be acted on nor prevented in the future. We equilibriate into a sort of nightmarish learned helplessness that manifests as dread, a creeping horror of an unknown unknowable specter, that we named Death.
Thankfully this happened over millions of years, until we reached a stage where the strongest, smartest, most prestigious members of our species could live past 50 and 60. Reproductive ability is much much slower to catch up, so with every passing generation we have a larger and larger number of post-menopausal years. Pain is not fun. It was worth it because we got to pump some hottie full of seed and die in the midst of Kenja Taimu. Now that’s all over, but the pain remains. Worse, there’s the added dread that we’ve never had before. It’s asking a lot from the joy of seeing your grandchildren follow their dreams and grow up if we expect that to overcome the gaping hole left by the evacuation of primal drives like sex, the single reason for our existence. It can’t. It’s good for the species, but terrible for the individual.
There’s only one way out. We needed to change the reason for our existence such that we won’t be flailing rudderless in the Doldrums after reproduction goes away. For that to be the case, we need to be here for something else. We can look back at our lives and attach more and more significance to everything we did, as stepping stones to the person we are today doing the looking back. Meaning. We can look ahead to where we want to end up, the thing we’re supposed to do, why we were put here on this planet. Purpose. Convince yourself of these 2 fictions and you may just forget that your singular reason for existence was reproduction, forget that your post-menopause years of daily pain and the creeping dread are absolutely pointless. So we take comfort in the ‘little things’ in life.
We created pleasure. What was once a neutral chemical signal that nudged you towards survival-friendly decisions, like eating a fruit, taking a bath, and comparing Mark to a Theradon (because he so fat, and his mother’s a real cow), we now trained our brains to reinterpret as pleasure. We learned to do this at will. Chillies are survival-friendly in the tropics, but our sensors react to them with what must objectively be termed distress, yet we’ve reinterpreted it to be highly pleasurable. And don’t get me started on Fugu.
All because we’d like to stay on for a few years more. Death must be a pretty horrific thing, for us to tolerate all this arthritis, dementia and boredom. It must be the absolute worst thing anyone will ever experience! Then the goddamned Nihilists began to show up blathering on about how emperor Death has no clothes, and is actually quite sexy. Has anyone seen this terrible face of Death themselves? We’ve only seen the reactions of the Living left behind by Death. We’ve never met Death herself.
Contrary to popular opinion, I find Rick&Morty to be the least nihilistic and most hopeful outlook on life. Where Dostoevsky feared the nihilism of godlessness, and Nietzsche brooded apocalyptically about the horror vacui of nihilism, Rick shows the rejection of god, meaning, and purpose to be the ultimate antidote to nihilism. Nihilism feeds on 3 fuels: 1) the acknowledgement of Death as a legitimate state of existence, 2) the primacy of subjective experience of pleasure and pain, and 3) the evolutionary prerogative to lead a highly positive-sum life, where all your experiences are added up to give you an overall score.
Rick knows all of these to be devoid of logic. 1) Death is meaningless given infinite dimensions. 2) He has nanobots that can manipulate every cell of his body, as if base chemical phenomena like pleasure and pain could mean anything, and 3) since there is no god and no purpose and no reason to be alive, he is infinitely free to do whatever he wants. The only nihilism I see here is a sneery nod to how us normal people with none of these luxuries don’t have the option of rejecting nihilism. That brings me to the only nihilistic part of Rick&Morty, Mr.Meseeks.
My theory is that Mr.Meseeks is the only human in the R&M universe. He lives for a singular purpose, and feels only pain while being alive. Further, that purpose has nothing to do with him. Mr.Meseeks is therefore the primordial post-menopause primate, having to stick around in this world after reproducing, for the singular purpose of being useful to the next generation in any way needed. In the beginning, this was fine, he had some time to pass on some useful skills and advice to Beth and Summer, and it was done quickly, and he was free to die. But as gene-culture coevolution got more and more weighted towards culture, the human species became disproportionately dependent on cultural learning, and we needed to keep our old helpers around longer and longer. This escalates rapidly until our toddlers are pathetic and useless, where we need not 1 but 20 Meseeks to stick around for decades trying to do the simplest possible thing, like taking 2 strokes off Jerry’s golf game. All this time they are experiencing pure torture. Until it all becomes too much and they turn to nihilism. Better never to have existed at all, kill Jerry, annihilate the human race, such that no Meseeks can ever be summoned into life.
The only thing keeping us from absolute nihilistic despair is our inability to get a grasp on what our ‘greater purpose’ is. I pity those who would go and seek it out, believing they are running away from nihilism rather than towards it.