The primary focus of this essay is on adaptationism and the theory of evolution, which, of course, challenges fundamental religious beliefs. In fact, perhaps as a substitute for religion, some have adopted a distortion of Darwinism to explain the “purpose” of life: one depiction of human existence is that we’re actually survival machines programmed to perpetuate our genes, according to “selfish gene” pursuits. From this POV, the purpose of life is survival for the sake of continued reproduction- each life then is a carrier, a brief repository of gene pool elements.
Because of this belief, some Darwinists seek to find adaptationist explanations for all aspects of the human physique and behavior. They do so because they believe that all traits must make rational, “selfish gene” sense somehow because that’s their whole point; because natural selection wouldn’t allow it otherwise.
Some people even have a bizarre “faith” in evolution as if life can always be counted on to devise a way somehow (even miraculously) to survive, i.e., “life will find a way”. The SF writer, Robert A. Heinlein, a Social Darwinist, once wrote, “there will always be survivors”; he meant only “survival of the fittest”, of course, with the implication that the “non-fit” don’t “deserve” to live. Nazism (blatant power fantasy) was an outgrowth of Social Darwinism with the implication that “natural order” dictates that human society should be patterned on this; that the “unfit”, “weak and inferior” should be actively “weeded” out by society.
However, it’s a fallacy to infer morality from natural law. After all, the law of gravity doesn’t mean human society should strive to promote falling down.
This essay has been another attempt to dispel these simplistic notions. Natural selection alone doesn’t explain all aspects of ourselves: mere statistics (of distribution and variation) alone prevents that as previously explained. Adaptationism is a major factor, of course, but not all traits are the result of direct adaptations- and this is increasingly true with greater complexity. Where does one draw the line between direct adaptation, random drift and peripheral serendipity (unintended consequences)?
Again, it can’t be emphasized enough that technically, genes have no purpose- nor are they “trying to survive” or enhance their reproductive success or do anything for that matter.
It’s just that the gene pool will obviously TEND to consist of genes that have happened to have done so- by default; i.e., the other genes that happened not to have done so will obviously not be around in as great numbers, if at all. Life will continue to perpetuate in the ways that it’s possible to do so within the laws of nature. The so-called ingenious ways that species “devised” to survive were often the only feasible options left (no miracle was involved)- by default- given the current environment and the previous genetic lineage and the preexistence of requisite traits. But remember, most species- perhaps, all species- go extinct eventually.
Evolution is a constant “work in progress”; just because a particular species has existed for millions of years doesn’t mean that a kind of “perfection” or optimization has been achieved. Sometimes, a species can exist for millennia IN SPITE of “bad” adaptations. And past reproductive success doesn’t predict future success- just look at the dinosaurs. So there’s no preordained “destiny” to evolution. Evolutionary biology provides a context for understanding HOW current behavior modes may’ve developed and why they persist. However, it doesn’t directly explain WHY we are as we are.
Saying that men seek power and status for sex and are violent to fight over women; and that women seek high status males; or that genes seek to maximize reproductive fitness is a useful model (stereotype)- a teleological explanation- but it’s certainly not the “meaning of life”.
The primary focus of natural selection has always been on the “winners” (life); but I think evolution can be extended to encompass non-life as well. In semiconductor physics, electrical current can be defined either as negative charge moving, say, in one direction or as positive charge moving in the opposite direction. Likewise, instead of saying that evolution is all about reproductive fitness, one could just as well say it’s about death and extinction- the other side of the coin. Hell, death is the .