One can make different interpretations of the Darwinian theory of evolution, and several of these interpretations continue to preoccupy and divide even the specialists in present evolutionary debates. Notwithstanding, three key consequences from Darwin’s theory are generally agreed by most who subscribe to it; they are that:
- Human beings do not possess any fundamentally different nature from that of other living forms; any difference is a matter of degrees of evolution. To quote Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man, “Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”
- Various forms of life constantly struggle and compete to live; some win and some lose in the process. “[…] one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings – namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” Charles Darwin, On the Origins of Species.
- Suffering is a fact of life; it is even one of the modus operandi of Nature – after a few documentaries on any wildlife channel, this reality becomes evident rather quickly. “[…] the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.” Charles & Francis Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin.
These ideas in themselves are far from being original to Darwin; he has however the merit of grounding them in scientific theory. That we are all of the same nature has been part of pantheistic religions, such as Hinduism and Taoism, for millennia; that the fittest (in fact, in Darwinian theory it is not necessarily the fittest but, rather, the most adaptive) survives was a subject of Empedocles following the philosophical development of Strife by Heraclitus in Greek Antiquity; and that there is great suffering in the world, or that even life is suffering (or more accurately ‘unsatisfactoriness’) is a pillar of Buddhism with Dukkha.
Being as they are, these three precepts could be taken as eternal and indubitable facts of life; only, part of human civilisation, through greater awareness, is forcing its own, different mark on Earth. Despite a long history of violence and, in many cases, cultural and ethnical exterminations, and despite many human groups today remaining violent and only responding to power, coercion, and fear of death, there is a distinct trend developing in human society: a growing number of us are taking greater ethical measurements from the first of the abovementioned precepts – that we are all not that different – and increasingly rejecting the other two precepts. Many humans in the world today are working against the universality of generalised struggle, violence, and suffering in life, be it within our own species or extending to other species.
This may seem wrong to say at first, when we continuously read about violence and wars in the news; when we hear constant rhetoric about humans abusing and subjecting Nature for their own selfish pleasures; when we know that many species are on the verge of extinction; and when we realise that we farm and kill billions of animals annually for food and clothing. Only, we are not all as evil and cutthroat as the news might indicate. In fact, if we were so, there would be no ‘real’ Nature left in the world today, as we have the technological capability to fully wipe it out. There would also be many more wars than there is, given that we number in the billions on the planet. In judging human nature and its impact on our planet, we often omit the fact of our large number in billions of people walking this earth, which makes the selfish actions of few percentage points substantial in absolute terms; we also tend to forget about the millions of relief and charitable organisations working in the world today, not to mention daily acts of kindness; and we do not account for the billions of people and millions of animals we protect, give to, defend, or make part of our families. When it comes to damages to Nature, for example, our most dangerous action typically stems from lack of awareness about the consequences of our behaviour, magnified by our large numbers and our greater technological footprint, more so than premeditated aggressive will against other forms of life in the name of gene dominance.
Through greater awareness and capacity for ethical judgment, humans could be in the midst of a revolution against classical evolution and many of its selfish and painful ways; we are exerting greater empathy and sympathy from the realisation that we are all fundamentally not that different, and we have the technology to do so. By accepting the first precept, we cannot but become open to forms of compassion, acceptance of other’s personhood, or, at the very least, a certain degree of respect. As such, human differences appear circumstantial and often the result of chance; and by becoming aware of the reality of suffering of all living beings, we come to feel that we are all in it together. We come to care, even when we choose to reject anthropomorphism. Moreover, through the drive for universal ‘pursuit of happiness’, we strive for evermore technology in order to alleviate suffering and dissatisfaction – constant and eternal happiness being a utopia notwithstanding.
In our days, we do not throw away the sickly and the weak in the name of better genes, and we feel more pain when we are made aware of animal suffering and abuse, where classical evolution tells us not to care in the name of our ‘better’ survival. When we see someone in pain, we do not shrug and say this is life, but we look for the technology at our disposal to try to remedy the pain. We do not have to, but we do so nonetheless. We care, and we care even more when we realise that other living beings, human and otherwise, are not fundamentally that different. We have more technology and awareness today to fight this fight, but we are also exposed to greater threats that make this fight more consequential. In response to those who argue that there must be some general indirect utility behind our compassionate actions within the human community and outside it, I genuinely doubt that we always do so strictly from the point of view of maximisation of some general utility, intentional or otherwise. We are social and affective beings, and it is often enough for us to realise that what is around us is not of an alien nature; that the animal condition is not stranger to ours; and that we are all small in the grand scheme of things, to extend this sociability and affection beyond a small group of individuals. Other mammals have also been witnessed to act in similarly compassionate ways within their species and outside it. And the more we become conscious that what is around us is not that different from us, the more difficult it becomes for us to dismiss the other one as a mere threat to our existence, a competing gene, a tool, or food.
Respecting a living being does not preclude you from defending yourself from it if threatened or in the case of animals not under the threat of extinction killing it for food on need basis; it does however preclude you from disposing of it unnecessarily and recklessly without the slightest awareness; it does also preclude you from exerting on it unwarranted pain and remaining agnostic towards, or even enjoying, its pain. There is a general trend today towards rejecting blind servitude and commoditisation of other living beings – it is a key reason for why brutal practices in the food industry are often kept hidden from a public eye increasingly unaccepting of its practices. Only, we all do so imperfectly; we generally care less about people with whom we do not associate; we might give money to a charity but pass by a person in distress with indifference; we tend to care more about charismatic animals than others; and we still largely disagree about the criteria to use for defining legal and moral personhood, such as subjectivity, consciousness, or emotional reciprocity. Nevertheless, we are bringing our own morality into Nature. We have a choice, and, whether we want it or not, we are continuously making this choice. Thinking that we can leave Nature to be and just watch it develop in isolation is simplistic; we cannot but interact with our environment, under all its forms, as all things interact. By the fact of breathing we interact with our environment. We can look to minimise the effects of our living and our technology, but we cannot look to eliminate them. I argue that we should not look to remove ourselves entirely from the equation even if we can; and I say so while being a conservationist at heart.
Our stand against ruthless evolutionary ways is far from certain. Our technological capabilities are quite meaningful today and our numbers are great in comparison with other animals. Both these facts make the battle a highly unpredictable one; it is enough for a minority to steer in the wrong direction and put technological capabilities to the wrong use for precipitous developments to ensue. But even if we ultimately lose the battle of bringing a balanced morality in our approach to Nature – one that is different from selfish, cutthroat, and unstable domination – it is a cause worth fighting for in the name of collective identity. In the long run, the whole universe will change including the existence (or not) of our own species; we therefore have a choice in the matter regardless of conjectural long-term outcome.
The classical model of evolutionary theory goes something like this: each form of life only cares, directly and indirectly, about the preservation and the propagation of its own genes (or DNA). Each gene cares about itself and strives to conquer as much as possible of the living world. And in this race between various DNAs, the ones which endure the longest with changes in environmental conditions, the ones which compete better, and the ones which mutate more effectively under extreme environmental changes are those which are likely to persevere the longest, albeit in an evolved manner, in the phenomenon of Life in general. Darwin, who was a highly sensitive and tormented recluse, and who reportedly turned physically ill when watching or hearing people in pain, was astounded by the prominence of suffering and strife in life; evolutionary competition seemed to him to be the reasonable explanation. Only, this classical interpretation of evolutionary theory (the “selfish gene” theory) might turn out to be the wrong interpretation. Instead of selfish DNA, there is actually the possibility of selfish RNA (it is a possibility and not a proven fact). In a paper published earlier this year (cf. The ribosome as a missing link in the evolution of life, Journal of Theoretical Biology, February 2015, Volume 367), Meredith and Robert Root-Bernstein have argued that all life forms could simply be perceived as different homes for ribosomes. rRNA or Ribosomal RNA might actually turn out to be of greater importance than DNA, and it might have preceded DNA in the evolutionary genesis, rendering the latter a mere stored assembly instruction. To quote from the article, “Ribosomal RNA, in short, is not just a structural scaffold for proteins, but the vestigial remnant of a primordial genome that may have encoded a self-organizing, self-replicating, auto-catalytic intermediary between macromolecules and cellular life.” Superior DNAs might have indeed prevailed in life forms out of evolutionary circumstances, but DNA propagation may not actually be the primary objective of Life; replication of ribosomes could be more important for Life, and that means seeking all ways of replication. And I may be going too far with my conjecture by saying that we could even envisage the ‘selfish’ RNA leaving more room for compassion and refusal of suffering as a mode of being than the selfish DNA.
“Much love much trial, but what an utter desert is life without love.” Charles Darwin.