One of the courses I’m taking this semester is Philosophy of Human Nature. The course is broken up into several overarching questions we spend a number of class sessions on each. At the start of each section we’re to write up our initial answer to the question and for a few of the questions we’ll also write a longer essay at the end of the section. I figure that I’ll post those opening and closing assignments here for all to see and as a safe place to keep them well beyond this semester’s closing. The first overarching question is: The fact that we’re the product of evolution—animals with DNA—suggests that humans’ purpose in life is to survive and reproduce. Does this perspective miss anything significant about human nature? If so, what? If not, how do you explain why survival and reproduction aren’t explicit goals for most people? The remainder of this post is my initial answer to this question.
The perspective that humans’ purpose in life is to survive and reproduce misses some significant aspects of what it is to be human. Many of these center around what the mind is and how it affects human behavior. Intelligence, a key measure of how useful a mind can be, is the factor that determines our ability to care not only for others but for what we see as creatures lower than ourselves on the hierarchy of life on this planet. Anything that lives has the ability to reproduce (in some way) and survival instincts. But humans, and mammals (plus birds) more broadly I think, are the primary set of creatures that have caring for their offspring as a central element of their survival, even to the point of risking themselves for their young.
Our mind is what enables us to act as we do, for the ultimate better or worse of the planet in our care (though that is itself debatable). A key purpose is survival of the species, both personal survival and reproduction, but we’re too complex to be satisfied with those goals alone. Thus our intelligence comes in as what has given us the domains of power over lesser species and given us the ability to create things, such as every electronic in existence, that aid in our experiences but aren’t required for our survival and reproduction.
Where might we be if we weren’t intelligent enough to create all the medical advances we have been through? Perhaps we’d be fine, but more than likely our population would be significantly lower. These advances may have harmed other aspects of this planet, but show how much the intelligent powers of our minds is a central aspect of human nature. Had medical practices around birth not evolved then far more children would be without parents to nurture them and protect their survival. Likewise, these children would have had less chances of surviving infancy had medical practices not evolved thanks to human intelligence.
Another aspect that defines human nature is that we are relational creatures. Pure survival could be forged individually, but we choose to maintain groupings of family and community, friendships and lifelong partnerships. Caring for our offspring comes from this deep sense of responsibility towards others. The human need for relationships of some kind with other humans is a deep component of human nature. Even those that choose to lead largely individualistic lives (like most of the Western world) maintain family ties as well as living close to others in some form of community (neighborhood, apartment building, residence hall, etc.).
For someone to say that due to evolution we have the main purpose of survival and reproduction inherently ignores the parts of human nature that define our intelligence and the importance of relationships in our lives. I don’t pretend to dispute that survival and reproduction are central goals, but I do point out that they aren’t alone. Nor, might I add, are they going to be achieved easily, but certainly not easily unless we use the aid of our intelligence and our relational nature.