Purpose in life

Set into one of the inside walls of a restaurant in the medieval part of Annecy, there is a very large aquarium. It divides the main part of the restaurant from an overspill area. The last time we were there, the aquarium had lots of different fish in it, some big and some small. But it was the little fish which fascinated me. Sitting where we were, they appeared to swim between the left shoulder of a man at one table and the right shoulder of a lady sitting at another. It seemed that every time I looked at the aquarium, the little fish, perhaps 15 of them, passed in a shoal from one person's shoulder to the other, instinctively trying to resemble a big fish and so ward off the dangers of the seas. If only they realised that the rules of the ocean are reversed in a restaurant. In a restaurant, of course, it is more dangerous to be a big fish, for it is they which we normally eat and not the minnows. If only I could find some way to convey this knowledge to them, they could breathe a collective bubble of relief, get their deck chairs out and enjoy watching us perform instead.

As a nation we have had to learn some new things as a result of the changed situation brought about by the pandemic. The mathematical concept of exponential increase is one. Although perhaps not fully understanding the maths, I suspect that most people now have quite a good practical grasp of what it means for our chances of liberty. Whether that will carry over to our perception of other things, such as climate change, remains to be seen. As a society, we also now have a better grasp of mutation, one of the key factors behind evolution. I’m not entirely sure that people make the connection between mutation and evolution in the animal and plant kingdoms, but for those who want to be informed, we can now have a better knowledge of how evolution works than Darwin had. After all, it was only in 1953 that the, now famous, double helix was finally unravelled by James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins – oh, and let’s not forget Rosalind Franklin who actually provided the x-ray images of the crystal of DNA which Watson, Crick and Wilkins then interpreted and so got their Nobel prize.

We’ve even started to go beyond DNA with a better understanding of the role of RNA, and especially the aptly-named messenger RNA (mRNA) - the type of RNA which carries the instructions from the DNA inside the cell nucleus out to the ribosomes, the body’s protein-making factories in the cytoplasm. And now, for the first time, we can have vaccines, consisting of mRNA, which directly induce the production of the antibodies against the virus. Remarkably, they can be used to stimulate the production of antibodies against other diseases as well, like cancer.

Of course, at the centre of Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution, is his concept of the survival of the fittest. Organisms which are slightly different to others of their kind – because of mutation - and so better adapted to their surroundings, will be more likely to survive and reproduce. It's as simple as that. That such a simple concept was as revolutionary is surprising now. Darwin though amassed a tremendous amount of evidence during his years of voyage on the Beagle and for many years after that. For the first time it showed the vast number of subtle variations which existed within the same species and which spread in a continuum towards other species.

Up until then, it had been accepted that there was little variation within species. For our forbears, there were clear differences between species, all of which were fixed because, by definition, different species couldn’t reproduce with each other. A triumph of logic over reality. This was despite the obvious evidence from plant and dog breeding which showed that major changes in a species could be brought about quite easily and quickly, so moving new mutant groups away from the former species’ genetic standard and, ultimately, forming a new species.

But there was something else. The pre-Darwinian world was supposed to have meaning, to have purpose. Darwin's world had no need of purpose. By definition, evolution was not aiming at any particular goal: things happened simply because of natural selection acting on chance variations. But this seemed to most people to be completely unnatural. Recent experiments on young children reveal the idea of a purposeful world to be their normal state of mind. According to the researchers, children as young as three attribute purpose to things. When 7 and 8-year-old children were asked questions about inanimate objects and animals, it was found that most believed they were created for a specific purpose. Pointy rocks were there for animals to scratch themselves on. Birds existed "to make nice music", while rivers exist so boats had something to float on. "It was extraordinary to hear children saying that things like mountains and clouds were 'for' a purpose and appearing highly resistant to any counter-suggestion," said the researchers.

Of course whether this ‘normal' state of mind is innate or comes from upbringing is difficult to unravel. But a purposive way of looking at things is natural for adults as well. Even now, when we listen to politicians talking about the virus, they talk as if it were plotting our downfall. I suppose that they want to portray themselves as fighting a super-intelligent foe, so excusing themselves if they get things wrong.

But we seem always to have wished to see purpose in our lives. We appear to find it very difficult to accept that often what befalls us in life is derived from chance rather than someone-else’s deliberate actions or some supernatural mind working against us. This wish to see purpose in seemingly random events is exemplified by our reactions to most natural disasters. The politicians instinctively blame the policies of their opponents. But in times past and, even now, we also have quite astonishing pronouncements from religious leaders: they blame devastation and deaths on the godlessness or sexual immorality of the people affected by them. But these pronouncements also illustrate the quite logical consequence of such a belief in ‘purpose'. It means that where reason has failed to produce explanations other than chance, our strong belief in an underlying purpose makes us willing to believe that we have a reasonable prospect of controlling our ‘destiny' by non-rational means. We can do this by becoming more moral people, we can pray, we can head the warnings of our horoscopes or take ‘natural remedies’.

And it seems that in hard times, when human beings feel that they are losing the sort of control they normally have over their lives, they do indeed rely more on superstition, spiritual solace and conspiracy theories. Studies show that people in risky professions - deep-sea fishermen for example - perform a greater number of superstitious rituals than those with desk jobs. Those living in high-risk areas of the Middle East are far more likely to carry a lucky charm or do the equivalent of avoiding walking under ladders than others. A study after the financial crash showed a 50% increase in the growth rate of evangelical churches in the US with the downturn of each economic cycle, although it then subsided with improved financial conditions.

I wonder if this is also why a significant number of people have adopted conspiracy theories to explain Covid.  It may well be, in part, explicable by a desire to take back a form of control, or at least its nearest equivalent, explanatory power, over an otherwise purposeless aspect of our world – whether by denying that the virus exists, by saying that it’s been inflicted on us by Bill Gates and the deep state or by taking remedies which have no proven value. So then, whilst Darwin showed us a new way of looking at life, many people, probably most of us, have a real problem facing up to the consequences. Perhaps in another few hundred years time we shall, as a species, have evolved the ability to live with reality based on science? Maybe. Perhaps by then pigs might finally have acquired the ability to fly.

Paul Buckingham

21 February 2021

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy