Biology & Culture
I recently caught snippets of a debate between author of the “Selfish Gene” Dr. Richard Dawkins and evolutionary theorist Bret Weinstein. They covered a wide range of topics spanning interpretations of Darwin’s theory, memes, extended phenotypes, the role of religion in human evolution, and how our genes ultimately shape our view of the world. When asked about a biological explanation for suicide, Weinstein quotes:
“Let’s say you have two populations, both of them correctly realize that in five hundred years both of them are very unlikely to be there – maybe one or the other but not both. Were that the case, then any fitness that was realized in the present day would be more or less meaningless if you happen to be in the population that blinked out two hundred years from now. So, you would find a rational investment in behaviors that discounted individual fitness and would instead prioritize lineage fitness. In other words, you would see extraordinary levels of self-sacrifice in the interest of ensuring that the population would continue to exist…”
“The basic idea is: in extraordinary circumstances, for example, a piece of land that isn’t getting any bigger, is fully inhabited, and has competing lineages that cannot seem to peaceably live together, suicidal self-sacrifice might be considered rational.”
“If we look at cases where people commit suicide in our own culture, very frequently they are beset by the sense that they are beyond worthless, that they have no value, that their existence is simply taking up resources.”
As someone who is intimately familiar with the experience of major depressive episodes, the characterization of feeling like I am not producing anything of value is more accurate than any description I’ve heard thus far. It couldn’t have come from anywhere other than a biologist, either. Here’s why: the field of psychology, and arguably the public’s opinion on depression, suicide and mental illness in general is oversaturated with the presumption that people with those conditions simply require more love and attention. Depression and suicidal ideation are, dare I say, by definition, an impairment of one’s ability to make fair self-appraisals. It's not about everyone else's opinion. It’s also not enough to say that there are people and specialists in the world that are “there” for them because these same people, the same everyone who makes up the larger social strata has contributed to the development of norms and values that, when buttressed against an individual’s constrained vision of their own self-worth, begin to look more like disappointed judges leering from a behind a thin veil of compassion.
All the moving parts of the modern world must stay in motion. If the motion of moving parts increases, our participation must then increase along with it. As we wipe the crust from our eyes in the morning, there is still yet no other philosophical case to be made other than to maintain or improve the existence of our species (unless, of course, you decide to hit the snooze button). We can dress it up in whatever mental foliage we’d like but the fact remains; we’ve been thrown into a very peculiar game. Our ability to recognize that as a matter of cosmic significance remains to be seen. If God Himself was as self-evident and physically present as you and I, we would still have to put our shoes on in the morning, deal with traffic, then eventually have to contend with our mortality.
But if we’re going to play the game and decide to root our dedication to its participation in something meaningful, we still have to decide what that something is. That something may come from inside or outside. It could be superficial or it could be profound. Either way, whatever justifies getting out of bed in the morning is going to be a mosaic of genetic and environmental influences.
Any ideal becomes the judge with which you compare yourself. If there is something better to manifest beyond the present moment then one must concede that whatever (or whoever) is present is no longer sufficient or desirable. Our brains make decisions like this all the time both consciously and unconsciously. We have to implement a binary screening tool for everything we encounter. Do or don’t. Choose this instead of that. By choosing one thing, we eliminate an entire set of possibilities while enabling another. The same is true for whether or not to commit suicide. Some might say it’s the only real question. What if the heuristic (rule of thumb) we use to stave off the temptation of suicide stops working or falls short more often than not? What are we comparing ourselves against? Which rules are we following? What does it mean in 2018 to conduct oneself like a “good citizen”? Is a good citizen the same thing as a good person? Who decides what any of those things mean?
Shifting perspectives is our only tool for leverage if we are to address these kinds of questions and come out the end a little more optimistic. Let’s pretend for a moment that to be a good person one’s value must be proportionate to their net value of money or wealth. Where along the timeline of a person’s life does a person measure themselves? Is who they are that day only valuable in terms of what money was not spent or lost? Is their value as an individual going to be rated in terms of the surplus or profit that year? What if someone spends twenty years in a slow but reliably steady rate of rising income but fails to own their own home by 35?
Reality would dictate that we address our value at any point along this spectrum of time and resources. We may hit one milestone while simultaneously failing to measure up in several other categories or seasons of the year. The point is not that money is a bad ideal (even though it is). The point is: if we don’t spend enough time defining for ourselves what we are worth in a realistic way, we are always going to be falling short compared to whatever vague and contradictory ideals we’ve adopted.
Some would say I’m a loving father and husband. Others would say I’m verbose and offensive. These things can all be true depending on what point of the timeline you or I choose to look. Humans encapsulate a wide range of potential. We have to decide whether being a good person is a person that exists across all time and space, or if it’s something we can only manage some of the time. Have you ever met someone who made terrible mistakes but would still regard as a “good person”?
Perhaps it’s granted to us at birth and stays with us until proven otherwise. We see that idea in the U.S. Constitution – presumption of innocence, inalienable rights, etc. Unfortunately, we cannot sustain ourselves by the Bill of Rights alone. We could spend the rest of our lives attempting to triangulate around the truth of our value.
It should be clear by now that finding one’s north star is something to be taken seriously and thoughtfully. Remember that there is so much potential inside every beating heart. Let’s assume for a moment that we can objectively measure my worth as a person. If it turns out that I am not worth much, it still doesn’t undermine my potential worth moving into the future. If I decide the next day to rearrange the way I live my life, I’ve at least done something to prevent the status-quo.
Being a conscious creature means bearing the burden of knowing what could be and organizing our behavior in response to it – as was aptly noted by Weinstein – lest we also suffer the psychological consequences of failing to do so. Humanistic Psychologist Carl Rogers believed that most cases of anxiety/depression stemmed from the incongruencies between what people believed about themselves versus what they actually do. For example, if you post on social media that you’re a health nut who runs 20 miles and eats kale everyday but really never does those things, it’s likely to weigh heavily on your conscience.
Positive self-affirmations only work if they correlate with real personal achievements. :/
There is no good summary for this topic. If this article resonates with you, try remaining open to asking questions like the questions I’ve asked here. Where am I? Where am I going? Who am I? Who could I be? What do I value? Where do my values come from?
© 2018 Jessie Watson