I’m An Evolutionary Biologist, And This Is What Science Has To Say About The Meaning Of Life

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What do you think we are here for? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Suzanne Sadedin, evolutionary biologist, on Quora:

As an evolutionary biologist I find zeal for the cause of why we are here laudable. Stop worrying about meaning and go make babies.

Actually, that was sarcasm. Here’s what I really think.

Evolution is just something that happens. It’s not a value, it’s a process. It makes all sorts of idiotic, horrible, painful stuff. It’s like capitalism: nice when it gives you 143,428 varieties of shampoo, not nice when they all give you cancer.

Almost every living organism is a bacterium. Complex animals like mammals are just weird stuff that happens at the far tail of certain distributions. And human-level sentience has only happened once on Earth in 4 billion years. We’re a tiny blip in evolutionary history, and there’s no reason to think we’ll last. Never forget: evolution is the reason everyone you love is going to die, most of them slowly and painfully, many as victims of simple, non-sentient organisms that represent almost the entire output of the evolutionary process.

Evolution clearly doesn’t care for you, even in the vague metaphorical sense in which evolution might be said to care for some things. So I see no reason why you should care for it.

We’re turbulence in the great river of entropy. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s nobody out there judging our performance, no cosmic score-card. We happened to evolve brains that sometimes tell us to worry about meaning and purpose. The same way we evolved brains that sometimes tell us to worry about pain, mortality, disappointing and hurting people, and whether these clothes make our butts look big. Do these things matter? Not to the universe. It will chug along regardless. Do they matter to us? There’s nobody here but us to decide.

You’re a sentient blob of chemical cycles that, remarkably, happens to have the potential to look up at the stars and figure out what they’re doing. To care for other blobs, to teach and nurture them. To drive fast along curvy cliffs by the sea, play the guitar, program computers and grow raspberries. Do those things matter? Something in your chemical cycles might provide an answer, if you listen carefully. It won’t be any more correct than any other answer, or no answer, but you will doubtless find it more satisfying than anything I can say. And if not, well, that’s how your chemical cycles work, and that’s part of the universe too.

The chemical cycles of this blob, for some reason, are currently outputting a claim that it’s nice to appreciate this momentary sentience, the miracle of being matter that for a little while can sit up, look around, sense stuff, imagine stuff, and rearrange matter. It’s good to appreciate the other sentient blobs wandering around doing these things. It’s good to be part of a beautiful pattern that’s enormous beyond comprehension, to work to cherish and amplify certain parts of this pattern. But you’re a different blob. Who knows what your chemical cycles will claim? Maybe you do?

I think we’re here to be human. To build things and smash things and be kind and cruel. To tell lies and be honest and argue with each other and ourselves, to eat and dream and love each other and hurt each other. To feel sorry and wonder what we’re here for. To be overwhelmed with wonder at the grand drama of sky, earth and sea. To make beautiful things and share them and feel proud. To lose things — people, parts of ourselves — and cry. To make little paper ships and send them sailing to the sea, make little space ships and send them sailing past Jupiter. To give up everything for love. To strive for perfection. To fail and get drunk and behave badly and be forgiven and forgive.

But that’s just my chemistry talking. Yours might say something else entirely.

This question originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

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