To understand life, and to destroy it. Which will prevail?
Well, to destroy life isn’t entirely a drive. It’s a side effect, a byproduct of our drive to expand our own life, to aggrandize ourselves, to make more of us, to get bigger, stronger, live longer. As the Olympics have it, Citius, Altius, Fortius. This is the drive that powers all life. It’s very strong, and very wily, but not very bright. That is, it’s instrumental; it lights up a tunnel of vision to immediate advantage, and that with hyperreal clarity, but to everything outside that laser beam the life force is myopic and blinkered. The long term, the feedback loop, the butterfly effect, all are far outside its ken. The law of unintended consequences is the consequence.
So we destroy life, amazing life, in our greed to feed and gratify and multiply our life, which in the last analysis is rather dull and one-note: we want sex, and status, and possessions, to reproduce ourselves, and not to die. There’s nothing terribly unique about this: any life form can do it, and does. Life forms are generally constrained only by the limits of the carrying capacity of their environment (the food supply) and the checks of predation and parasitism, and by the ritualized limits that have evolved to paradoxically protect life forms from the excesses of their own life force by constraining them, from gene silencing and apoptosis to estrus to social hierarchy.
If we are uniquely destructive it’s because, collectively and individually, we’ve conquered or rejected so many of those imposed constraints. And because we have the devil’s gift, imagination, which empowers us to outwit environmental limitations (at least for a while, a long while) and also adds half-conscious envy and spite to our more innocent forms of self-interest. We don’t only kill to eat, or to protect ourselves, or to enlarge our territory; we kill to appropriate the magnificence of life forms we envy — to adorn our females with egret feathers, to ingest the power and male potency of the tiger. These may be degraded forms of what once passed for worship when we were the minority animal and humbly thanked our beautiful, powerful big siblings for magnanimously sharing their surplus meat, might, and magic with us.
The awareness that we are going to die often only spurs these pursuits on and makes them more frantic: only in the throes of acquisition or orgasm or intoxication can we forget death, an escape that has to be endlessly repeated; or else we believe deep down that the next billion or the next scientific discovery is the one that’s going to make us immortal. But the awareness of death is also a pivot. It can become a turning point. If we realize that however much we may reduce disease, prolong life, and ameliorate suffering, we are not ever going to (and shouldn’t) defeat death, then the blind striving we share with all the rest of life becomes, for us, just a little bit pointless. Then what is the point?
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I started to write this because, as usual, I was copyediting science. I happened, in particular, to be reading about the zeal with which archaeologists pore over bone fragments and debate just when and why the first hominids became bipedal. What does it matter? And I became fascinated, not for the first time, by this hunger to know, because it’s excessive, obsessive. It cannot be entirely instrumental. Sure, archaeologists care about their reputations, and very young scientists set their sights on the Nobel. And of course much, maybe most, science (and certainly most science funding) is driven by instrumentality — by goals ranging from survival (defeating disease and hunger) to domination (what we call “defense”) to the profit motive, or some mixture of all three. But to know, to find out, to understand — what we are, what life is, what kind of astounding cosmos kindled it — still seems like a burning drive all its own. It’s a startling diversion of life force ninety degrees away from “more of the same,” off the grid, out of this world, out of the “Will to Power” world in which our power will always be either pitifully limited or annihilating, into the world of thought which (thanks to the material mastery of science) can see to the beginning of the universe.
We will always have mixed motives, and that’s as it should be: the drive to live powers the drive to know. But the latter seems like the only larger purpose for “a human incarnation,” as the Buddhists put it, the best reason to live longer, and the only real consolation for death.