As children, many of us would play with insects, often in a way we might consider cruel as adults. Yet it was an object of fascination whenever a fly would struggle onwards and devote all of its tiny being to survival, even if it was missing legs or wings. This is not to say we ever supposed that a fly felt pain or sensations of urgency in the same way as humans. However, we did discover that any random housefly possesses a pure drive to live. One might be hard pressed to find a human who clings to life with the undivided intensity of a fly.
In bacteria even we see the same drive to survive and reproduce. Every living thing strives for the same objective: to produce copies of itself until it has overrun the universe.
When this objective is achieved, then what? That’s it. No life form has a plan beyond extending itself whether human or microbe. Certainly, the ultimate unopposed life form would doom itself to total extinction. As we see in any smaller environment, a life form that grows without constraints soon destroys itself.
Since bacteria and insects are so driven and efficient, why would more complex forms of life ever come into existence?
Why when a bacillus or a fly struggles relentlessly, unhesitatingly to live would there ever arise a creature capable of doubting itself or committing suicide?
What does the force of life get in return for putting more eggs in one basket, countless eggs to assemble even relatively simpler multi-cellular organisms?
Energy conservation would seem to be part of the answer.
Just as buying in bulk reduces the expenditure per unit of a corporate body, the same principle applies to the design of a biological body.
Big organisms are more energy efficient than smaller ones.
One might compare a thick log to a cloud of fine sawdust.
What happens to each when combustion occurs?
Greater exposed surface area means greater net energy needs and faster energy use. It doesn’t take much energy to get started, though.
Less surface area needs a greater inertia to get started but needs less energy to sustain itself while lasting far longer.
It seems to make sense that life would have to start out at the simplest possible form and would then develop into progressively more complex forms to conserve energy.
When life becomes big enough, there’s a lot of lot of living energy at stake in every single specimen of an organism. Leaving things completely to chance is not necessarily the best approach any more.
A more complex life form made of millions of cells becomes more like a bank.
Plants for the most part seem to have placed all their bets on passively holding one position.
Animals on the other hand are living things that have generally adopted a more aggressive and interactive approach to their environment.
For animals, it seems the bank often did best when managed by a banker.
What started out as simple emergent algorithms to facilitate survival seems to have led to central nervous systems in some animals.
Brains are able to do more than react based on the probabilities of survival. They provide the possibility of situational reactions to the environment, a much more precise approach than the general heuristics defining the strategies of other living things.
Thus a complex animal with a brain might have very few offspring relative to trees or jellyfish but the precision of nuanced conditional behaviors ensures that the survival rates will be many, many times higher than those of life forms without complex central nervous systems.
Survival calculators seem to have become more complex until we start to see the emergence of the phenomenon we call consciousness.
Becoming self aware marks a critical point.
For most creatures, it seems to be in their best interest that their brain has no self awareness. This way, its energies are fully and explicitly directed towards the causes of survival and reproduction.
Thus any measure of self awareness for the brain comes as something of a surprise.
It would seem at first to be a liability for this servant to become capable of any degree of autonomy.
Having any degree of self-awareness comes with substantial risks and drawbacks. Such a brain houses an awareness capable of performing actions directly against the interests of its own body. Suicide actually becomes possible amongst human beings.
Giving the brain a degree of freedom allows for multiple, radical changes in survival strategies within the space of a single generation. In all other living things, speed of adaptability is the span of time between the current generation and the next. Perhaps humans combine energy efficiency with the ability to mimic the short generational spans that allow very simple, energy intensive living things to adapt to new stressors overnight.
Human consciousness is a tradeoff between adaptability and unpredictability.
The same creativity that allows for improvisation in tough situations also seems to allow the brain to engage in evolutionarily unforeseen activities with relatively low survival value such as watching TV or staring at paintings.
The more elaborate the brain and the further it operates ahead of natural selection, the more “unintended” properties and “bugs” there will be.
The ironic result is a living thing that has some capability of at least imagining an end purpose besides making endless copies of itself.
More intriguing still, it’s often the less explicitly “useful” activities in life that make us feel that life is worth living.
If optimum survival and reproduction were the only goal of human beings, we certainly would go about it differently than we do now.
Part of the “problem” seems to be that natural selection lets through anything that manages to survive and reproduce. It doesn’t ask why. It doesn’t make design decisions or plan for compatibility with future developments.
Our mental infrastructure can’t ever have known there would be a consciousness.
Thus we’re impelled towards many survival behaviors by indirect stimuli, usually a first cause in a desirable chain of events.
Strong pleasure incentives drive us towards sex, but not so strongly towards having children.
In previous species, getting a creature to have sex was a sure initial cause that would result in offspring.
Humans, however, have always known ways to get the pleasure payoff of intercourse without producing the consequences. That way they can keep getting more of the pleasure without pregnancies or responsibility for children.
Thus the mechanism that ensured other animals would reproduce can be gamed by humans, especially in a society where contraception is both simple and socially acceptable.
Still our initial issue lies unresolved: why did the tendencies of living things cause them to move beyond bacteria that are resilient, adaptable, and all but ineradicable. Surely if life was just about being survival and reproduction, bacteria already do it best.
Is even moving into less energy intensive forms really a satisfactory explanation if it results in organisms that are less adaptable, more easily eradicated, and even more perplexing: capable of unproductive or counterproductive behavior.
One of the founding laws of classical physics: something that is at rest tends to stay at rest.
We’re also told that our universe tends towards entropy. Things tend to be no more complex or structured than they have to be.
We wouldn’t expect water that has settled into a state of equilibrium under the influence of gravity to suddenly start spilling upwards.
So why would the most efficient living things diversify into more risky, more complex, less efficient forms?