Recently we have received counter-arguments to our own humanistic theses using the premise that human nature is programmed or dominated by the need to survive. We agree that survival of the species is a fundamental moral necessity for humanity, but we see the association between survival instincts and human nature far too often used in developing justifications for morally questionable behavioural patterns or for defending ideological or dogmatic standpoints. For this reason, we now want to examine the biological knowledge we currently have concerning the relationship between evolution and survival or what we call the myth of survival.
First of all, let’s look at it logically. If the purpose of evolution were survival there would never have needed to be any development beyond the single-cell Bacteria or Archaea. These organisms are far older and far more resilient as a species than any of other more complex, Eukaryotic life forms like us. This world is teeming with bacteria, and there are probably more of them in a drop of water than the population of all of humanity. So what has evolving from a bacteria to do with survival?
Likewise if we look at reality from a subatomic viewpoint, particles and the atoms they make are virtually eternal and indestructible. The atoms in our bodies have been around for billions of years, since the early stages of the Universe, so it is doubtful that they are particularly concerned about “survival”.
But, if we are not programmed for survival, what are we programmed for?
The most fundamental leaps in evolution occurred at the cellular level: from single to multicellular types. Again, not for reasons of survival. But why? Complexity? Diversity? Does complexity or diversity offer any real benefits? Certainly not in terms of simple survival.
The transition from a one cell organism to one with two cells required numerous evolutionary steps, but the next evolutionary process was far more dramatic.
Now, in order to find reasons for why evolution takes place we would do well to consider how it takes place, for in the how we might find some clues that will explain the why. The how is embedded in cellular development, and so, perhaps, is the why. Or, in the words of biologists themselves: “Evolutionary mechanisms and cellular mechanisms are intertwined; each is necessary for the other and the study of one enriches the study of the other.” This quote is from the Preface of Gerhart and Kirschner’s “Cells, Embryos and Evolution”, published in 1997. The book is dedicated to the investigation into how cellular development has taken place in the creation of diversity. The first creatures with a high degree of intercellular cooperation were the metazoan animals. According to Gerhart and Kirschner, the secret of that leap contains a paradox. The gain was achieved via a loss. The morphological change came about when an organism shed its external cell wall.
Most unicellular organisms are invested with a durable outer coating to protect themselves from the environment. However, this protective shield also isolates the cell from its own kind. By shedding that exterior wall, therefore, the unicellular animal is not acting according to any survival techniques. Quite the opposite, it is making itself more vulnerable. What it is doing though, is opening itself up to the possibilities of interaction and communication with its environment. It is the first step towards being-in-the-world and everything that that implies: “By divesting itself of this outer wall, individual cells could begin exchanging living material – and information – with one another.”[i] In a biological sense, the information age was born – over a billion years ago.
And so, after millions of years of survival, the multicellular creature decides to throw off its armour and start to exchange information with the world. Of course “decide” is the wrong term. Decision implies an intellectual process. The primordial metazoan did no more decide to do anything than we decide that we are hungry or decide that we need to pee. The need for communication came out of a natural “command”. Can we say from a “desire”? If we consider it a need we must ask: a need for what? What kind of need could be so important that it puts the primordial need for survival at risk? And the shedding of the protective coating must have been a risky venture. If the alternative is true: that there never was a need for survival as such, or at least not in the primary sense, then this would make the evolution unto information exchange the prime mover. The unicellular organism was just a first stage process, only really necessary until the organism had learnt how to progress to the next level.
Please don’t misinterpret us. The question of why evolution took place is a complex one that is better answered by biologists, palaeontologists and geologists than by us. We know that the primordial planet was a hostile environment vastly different in its atmospheric and tectonic conditions to the Earth we know today. Dramatic atmospheric and climate changes caused mass extinctions and stimulated incredible explosions of diversity in animal life. And yes, evolutionary leaps did take place when species were facing an adapt (change) or perish situation. But what we are arguing is that survival was not the logical prime mover of evolution, rather that the stimulus came from a need for communication.
This “communication” could also be its final cause: because communication is an ongoing process of constant exchange. Embedded in it is a necessity for qualitative growth in learning, and it is synonymous with “becoming”. As a final cause communication would be imbued with deep purposiveness. Arguably, the most generous form of communication is love, but that term has already been too greatly abused by religious dogma. So let us stay with communication as the real object of our human purposiveness.
[i] See Ward, P., RARE EARTH, p. 101