Reverence for (Some) Life

reverence for the world

Celebrating life

Here is a tug-of-war.

On one end of the rope is the common conviction that life—our life, other lives, life in general and as a whole—is a good thing. For some this conviction is passionate and spiritual, for others it is only a cliché. But in either case we lean towards life and away from the inanimate state of dust and stones. Death for us is essentially sad and rarely wished for; most people assess misery as the failure of life’s promise, not as the nature of life itself. We ally ourselves with being alive and, in the abstract, with all things that are alive.

But pulling hard at the other end of the rope are the distinctions that we make every day between lives that we value and those we value less or not at all. We favor people who are similar to us, we belittle others, and we are indifferent, sometimes fatally so, to many others. We oppose abortion but accept capital punishment, or vice-versa. We cuddle some animals, save others from extinction, eat a few, exterminate many. We value plants only when they provide us with food or a desirable environment; the life of a plant in and of itself has no status for us. When it comes to actual lives, we have favorites and losers, with life and death consequences.


Despised pests.

In this tug-of-war between reverence for all life and differentiation among lives, it’s differentiation that usually wins. This isn’t surprising: we must draw distinctions each day in order to stay alive, deciding who to align with and who to oppose, what to eat and what to cut down, spray or ignore. Most people go through most days with no interest in revering life universally. We toast our health and long life and then eat our chicken dinner. We wake up in the morning feeling glad to be alive, we write an email opposing abortion, we call the exterminator, and we pull dandelions. None of that seems contradictory.

Perhaps tug-of-war is not the best metaphor. Compartmentalization might be a better label. We seem to keep reverence and preference in separate compartments. The compartment for reverence for all living things can be, if taken strictly, impossibly demanding. If we took it literally, we would starve from trying to survive on fallen fruit and dead animals.

marraige equality

Better lives. Marriage equality, June 2013. (

What we do instead is to take such reverence out of its compartment every so often when the time seems right and to try to move society a step in its direction. We join forces to extend a better life to those of other races or ethnicities, or genders, or sexual orientation—as well as to some animals, to fetuses, to endangered plants. Reverence for all life may be an attitude usually beyond our reach, but we put it to powerful use when we are able. We may draw grim, unfair distinctions among other lives too easily, but as long as we remain a little uneasy that we do so, reverence for all life remains a cause that can be advanced.

The Brain’s Offspring

A theme of this blog has been that the purpose of life—our sense of a direction, or our craving for one—is rooted in our biological drive to survive and thrive. I’ve felt confident in that belief, but I’ve also been dancing around the complications.  The term rooted is hazy, thrive covers a great deal of ground, and sometimes I’ve added the goal reproduce for good measure.

But most of all, I’ve made one big mistake. Survival is not the ultimate goal, the strongest drive, of organisms. The ultimate goal is offspring and the strongest drive is reproduction. From the evolutionary point of view, whether an organism survives to live a long life is irrelevant; what counts is that it survive long enough to reproduce. As Richard Dawkins wrote of selfish genes, “They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside.” It is no coincidence that before the era of modern medicine, most human parents began to suffer and die from illness in their 40s and 50s, soon after their years of bearing and raising children into physical maturity.

The survivor (

The replicators survive.

And yet, although reproduction is the ultimate goal, survival is hardly a distant runner-up. They are closely linked. Survival is, to say the least, indispensable if reproduction is going to happen. And both survival and reproduction are future oriented—survival in its role as a prerequisite for having offspring and offspring as the physical continuation of the species. I think survival and reproduction blur together as two aspects of the single, miraculous process of the continuity of life. Both are laden with direction and purpose.

But back to people. What are we talking about here? Clearly our lives are not solely about surviving in order to have and raise kids, important and universal as that goal is.

It is human intelligence that complicates and enriches the picture. The brain adds power, variability, and vulnerability to the two biological tasks of surviving and reproducing. By using our brains, we build houses, wear clothes, and store food and water that make us less vulnerable to the environment. A brain with thoughts of hope and dignity can help the failing body of a castaway or a prisoner of war to survive.


The survival machines create. (

But more relevant here is that brains also create offspring of their own. The desire to do or make something that will come from us, be a part of us, and live on after us takes countless forms: works of art, worldly success, social contribution. To say that the brain’s creative visions are, like babies,  conceived, developed, and eventually born is barely a metaphor.

So, for now, I’m seeing human survival and reproduction as life’s twin purposes, both of them forward-directed, both building on drives inherited from other species, and, thanks to our brains, both of them opportunities for variation and inventiveness. I like it that this view builds on the biology of other species; high sounding statements of human purpose that are disconnected from the rest of life—our purpose is to seek peace, love one another, etc.—narrow us. And I like the fact that, while genes may be selfish, these processes of surviving and reproducing are fundamentally life-affirming.


“The reckless, the degraded, and the vicious”: Was Darwin a Bigot?

If you’ve generally felt positive about whatever you know about evolution and natural selection and Charles Darwin himself, you might want to sit down and take a deep breath before reading this passage:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

I did a mental double-take when I first read this passage in the fifth chapter of The Descent of Man, published in 1871. The scientist who so impresses me with his vision of the common struggles of all species, humans included, sounds like nothing short of a racist here. The comparison to animals reinforces the impression. The final two sentences seem horribly emphatic. The Social Darwinist movement that grew from Darwin’s ideas, a movement that fostered American sterilization of the mentally deficient and the Nazi genocide, seems to have taken its cue directly from the great scientist himself. Lots has been written to defend Darwin here; his contemptuous attitude was characteristic of his class at that time, and so forth. But still.

North Carolina, 1950. Board approval for the sterilization of a "feebleminded" woman.  (

1950, North Carolina. Board approval for the sterilization of a “feebleminded” woman. What would Darwin say?

But if we look more closely at the chapter where the passage appears, we might feel, if not comfortable with it, at least less revolted. The second and third sentences—about medicine, asylums and other social efforts to help the poor and ill—are part of Darwin’s argument throughout the chapter that human sociability, inherited from animals, is the foundation of our most civilized achievements, including human closeness, compassion, and morality. A few sentences after the passage above, Darwin writes, “If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent [possible, uncertain] benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.” Even though, he is saying, it might appear to be desirable for civilized people at times to abandon their scruples and ignore those who suffer, in reality we would be losing more–our morals–than we would gain by reducing the numbers of the poor and sick.

Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, "If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind."

Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.”

In fact, when most people think about a better society in the future, that vision of “progress” doesn’t consist of “eliminating”—Darwin uses the word often—people who are judged inferior. Rather, it consists of a greater and happier morality that includes “the approbation [praise] of our fellow-men—the strengthening of our sympathies by habit—[positive] example and imitation…and religious feelings.” Sounds good to me.

This point certainly has relevance today. Think of the debates over whether government should actively help the poor or whether, on the other hand, it should assist as little as possible and let the poor sink or swim. Darwin’s position would probably be that even at the risk of encouraging some dependence on government, in the long run our society will benefit the most—will “advance” the most–by acting compassionately.

Still, there is a problem. Among all species, Darwin argued, evolution favors those who have the greatest number of surviving offspring. It’s a matter of hard numbers. Among the people who live in “civilized societies,” as he called them, those who are poor and “reckless” marry earlier and collectively have more children than members of the higher, “virtuous” classes who are careful of their resources, marry later and have smaller families. So, why haven’t the children of the poor taken over society?

Because, Darwin wrote, natural selection is not the only force at work. It is “checked”—modified—in many ways. The offspring of the poor are fewer than one might expect for several reasons. Married people live longer than the unmarried (this remains true today), and the many poor men who do not marry at all die younger than most. The poor die younger also from migrating to cities where living conditions foster early death. And although many of the poor have large families, the very poor have very few children.

The point that can be conveniently overlooked in the chapter is Darwin’s cautiousness about the impact of natural selection on humans. Other writers, when it has suited them, have portrayed that process as a rigid, inexorable one. Darwin, to the contrary, wrote, “Development of all kinds depends on many concurrent favourable circumstances. Natural selection acts only tentatively.”

To conclude, I can’t help thinking that if Darwin were alive today, he might have some unexpected company as he warned that the proliferation of the poor, the violent, the hopelessly sick would be harmful to a society. Progressive people and organizations who work to improve conditions for such groups would argue that, yes, of course, high rates of poverty and violence are “highly injurious” to humanity, in that any nation with high rates of poverty and violence is a degraded, dismal and difficult place for all those living within it. Today we view such an issue through the post-World War II lens of human rights; Darwin, however, saw it through the bourgeois, refined sensibilities of the Victorian era.  If we adjust for the time warp, both extremes of Darwin’s view have value today: that some people are at disadvantages in any given society and it’s better for everyone if they are few in number rather than many, and that the empathy that prompts others to care about them is not a soft-hearted amenity but a requirement for human survival.