by Katherine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart in the movie The African Queen.
Human Nature was formed to benefit our genes in an ancestral
environment, and it has always been a bad guide for the individual; it is
an especially bad guide for individuals in the modern environment.
The boxed statement is this book's guiding thought for the person who wants
to fine tune their personal philosophy for living.
It is important to have this thought in the background of our thinking as
we consider the merits of the everyday push and pull of our emotions. The
enlightened person's goal should be to understand the "ultimate causation"
explanation for the origin of thoughts and emotions. This challenging task
can be done best in calm moments. The process should also be the basis for
the amendment of one’s "value system."
The more one understands the world, the greater the challenge for reconciling
internally generated drives and goals with insight and logic. The person
climbing "Mount Cognoscenti" at some point arrives at an altitude where he
begins to see the "existential dilemma." The dilemma starts with an acknowledgement
that life is inherently without purpose, after eschewing the plethora of
false goals meant only to serve our genes. "Salvation" takes on a new meaning.
How does one re invent a life? How can an individual who has discredited
gene contaminated goals invent new ones which make sense and have value to
a mind disciplined by logic? If all values are ultimately derived from tricky
genes, how can an individual invent new values that are free of genetic trickery?
As Nietzsche argued, when God is at last dead for Man, when he feels surrounded
by the darkness of an uncaring universe, how does one go about inventing
new values to live by? The dismay following these questions is an "existential
Throughout history individuals have recorded what now can be seen as groping
attempts to confront the existential dilemma. The dilemma can only be sensed
by those who are able to see themselves as "individuals" entities
with distinct identities, theoretically separate from the crowd. Early societies
had cultures drenched with mysticism, and naturally the first groping attempts
to understand the individual's existential dilemma were greatly influenced
by mystical thought. It is an awesome irony that there are superficial resemblances
between the wisdom of early mystics and the new scientifically based wisdom
that I espouse.
Figure 22.1 The two paths to wisdom sometimes converge.
It can be disconcerting when someone else arrives at the same destination
after traveling a less disciplined and less arduous path. The above cartoon
(by my high school friend Frederick L. M. Doll, 1999) suggests that a left
brained scientist’s insights resemble those of a right brain mystic. For
example, the physicist's F=ma conception of a mechanical universe states
that every particle in the universe is connected to every other particle
by the four forces of physics (gravity, electromagnetism, weak and nuclear).
In other words, the universe is a fully-interconnected system in which everything
affects everything else, and in every corner of the universe things unfold
in response to the influence of every other thing in every other corner of
the universe. This description has an amazing resemblance to a tenet of Eastern
Thought, that everything that happens in the world does so in accordance
with a universally interconnected "flow."
For another example, consider the longstanding quest for salvation. I remember
when I was with a high school friend (the same person who drew the cartoon,
above) and we encountered the phrase "What shall we do to be saved?" in Pilgrim's
Progress (page 64, a significant number in math, as I noted at the time).
We laughed mockingly at the quaint question, realizing that it referred to
salvation from a non existent Hell, yet the same question can be recast with
a modern sociobiological and existential context, which I am in effect doing
with this book.
Life'a a Funny Proposition, Indeed
As the George M. Cohan song says, "Life’s a funny proposition, indeed!" We're
not "supposed" to understand why we exist, for to do so would put one on
the road to emancipation! Our minds are an assembly of modules for getting
a job done, which is to promote genetic longevity, sometimes at the expense
of individual welfare. There can be no coherent understanding by the character
at the center of this predicament until he strays into the forbidden territory
of logical, left brain insight, and is lucky enough to discover the secret
genetic tricks that have victimized him. It is no accident that the biggest
questions surrounding the meaning of life appear to be inexplicable for most
people. Each person must "know thyself" in ways more profound than Socrates
could have imagined.
Life is Backwards
Life is "backwards" in the sense that only near the end of life do we have
some sense of how to approach life wisely. It is ludicrous that cruise ships
are filled with old people, who have the money but are losing the energy
to explore the world. If "youth is wasted on the young" then wealth is wasted
on the old. Health and wealth are too often found at opposite ends of life.
Risk Aversion is Backwards
Another oddity of human nature can be found in a pattern of "risk aversion."
The young, who have a whole life in front of them and therefore have the
most to lose from mistakes, seem prone to taking risks with an abandon that
ignores large potential consequences. The caution they should practice can
only be found in the old, who have the least amount of life at risk. Perhaps
as people age some of them begin to break loose from the genetic grip and
realize that risk-taking is for fools.
The Genes are Never Satisfied
As Schopenhauer wrote, “…how insatiable a creature is man! Every satisfaction
he attains lays the seeds of some new desire, so there is no end to the wishes
of each individual.” “For intellect is fundamentally a hard-working factory-hand,
whom his demanding master, the will [genes], keeps busy from morn to night.”
(Schopenhauer, 1851, pg. 127). We serve the genes, and no matter how much
we’ve accomplished they are never satisfied. Schopenhauer bemoaned man’s
preoccupation with attaining what is close enough to touch but not close
enough to grasp, instead of appreciating that greater wealth of what is already
possible. When I retired I placed a sign in my office “Go thy way, eat thy
bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart, your work is done.”
(Ecclesiastes, 9:7, altered)
Wellness Begets Wellness
Another of life's little ironies is that the better off one is, the better
off one becomes. The converse is also true – the worse off someone
is, the harder it is to recover.
Over the years, after noticing many life paths, I have come to realize that
the world is a great place provided you are physically and emotionally
healthy. It takes health to stay healthy, just as it takes wisdom to gain
wisdom. To know that exercise promotes health is only useful to the person
who is healthy enough to exercise. The healthier a person is, the more feasible
and fun it is to exercise, and the more that exercise improves the person's
health. Similarly, the smarter the person the more able he is to learn and
become smarter from such places as the internet and judicious reading. But
the person who never learned how to read, for example, has lost many opportunities
for new learning. Thus, there is a tendency for people's mental and physical
health to continue to improve if it starts out above average, or to degrade
if it starts out below average. Over time, the rich get richer, and the poor
get poorer in more respects than monetarily. There is something
inherently "unfair" about these life destinies; most people sense this but
can't express it. This version of how the world works is captured by the
following motto: "Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have
abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which
The More One Knows, the Less There is to be Known
The more a person lives life with eyes open, the less of it that makes sense.
To cite an oft quoted commentary on the nature of the cosmos by a Nobel prize
winner, "The more comprehensible the universe becomes, the more pointless
it seems." (Steven Weinberg, 1977). To follow the crowd, or even to
follow one's predispositions, is the quickest path to folly. There is wisdom
in the perverse method of searching for Truth which states that you start
with beliefs sustained by the masses, and turn them upside down. The mystics
sensed the fraudulence of common beliefs, and fled to the quietude and clean
air of the mountains. I share this instinct, but do so guided by a left brain
instead of a right.
Don’t Follow the Crowd
Don't follow the crowd! That should be one of the first rules for living.
The crowd does what the genes want done. At least, this is the case in environments
resembling the ancestral one. And since some of our genes are outlaws, anyone
following the crowd unthinkingly is open to fraudulent exploitation by these
It is especially difficult to instill this idea in children. They take their
cues from peers, while ignoring good parental advice. Their desperation to
"belong" is so strong that even an enlightened parent can feel helpless.
Thankfully, most of us survive the silliness of youth, and get second chances
to face foolish fashions. By adulthood there are no excuses for failing to
be true to one’s self. As said by someone I overheard in a bookstore, "When
you live by someone else's standards, you betray your own."
Be Careful What You Wish For
In retrospect, I am thankful that in childhood the Forces of Fate denied
me some cherished longings. A part of me, a dumb part, wanted to be popular
with the prettiest girls. Thankfully, this was not to be, and my interests
turned to less popular aspirations such as making telescopes
and home made cameras for photographing the planets, auditing university
courses while in high school, and taking hitch hiking camping trips every
summer. Only later did I recognize the wisdom in the saying "Be careful what
you wish for, for you may get it." There must be a part of me that does battle
with residual primitive wishes, for it counsels that "When you get what you
want, you deserve what you get." Sayings like these help discredit what is
bad for us, that comes from within us.
Let the World Leave You Alone
Someone on the street asked “Are you Clint Eastwood?” and Eastwood replied
“Only when I’m alone!” The greatest gift to an individual is to be left alone,
even if it means feeling unwelcome in a dumb world of hand-me-down beliefs
and values. A resourceful individual will invent new values to live by, and
if he is lucky they will be better. As Nietzsche counseled, start worrying
when people claim to understand and agree with you. You may think that Life
dealt Nietzsche lemons, so he made lemon aide; if so, it was a lucky deal.
Beware Inner Wisdom
Ironically, whereas my first specific advice is "Don't follow the crowd"
I am also counseling "Don't follow your inner self." Neither the crowd nor
one's inner self can be trusted, since both are creations of the genes -
some of which are outlaws.
So what's left if you shouldn't follow either the crowd or your inner self?
My advice is "Don't follow anything; start thinking for yourself!" In other
words, start relying upon left brain insights, and figure things out for
yourself. Following is for fools; wise men blaze their own trails.
I will accept the charge of being an aesthete! Aesthetics is as old as the
record of human thought. From the ancient Greek philosophers to 20th Century
philosophers, and especially during troubled times, there has been a place
in the mind where this theme resonates. Irwin Edman’s The Contemporary and
His Soul (1932) has given eloquent expression to this haven; it is an eternal
“place” that an individual can create when surrounded by tumult and confusion
(see Chapter 24 for more on aestheticism).
The book Brief Encounters by Coleman and Edwards (1980) states what should
be obvious to every sentient being, and which is therefore not obvious for
humans: things can have value even when they don't last forever! A brief
conversation with a stranger in a supermarket line, for example, can leave
both people feeling good for the rest of the day (if this hasn't happened
to you, maybe you're hopeless). Friendships don't have to last forever for
them to have value. Nor do marriages, necessarily. Too often people view
others as having to be there for them forever, and if they’re not useful
to you for life then they’ve violated some kind of social contract. Some
of this is understandable considering that our natures were fashioned in
tribal settings at a time when life spans were shorter than now. Social interactions
were based on a long-term exchange of favors, called reciprocal altruism,
and this binding social force can become unglued when one person gets ready
to leave. The old tribal requirements for social relationships are no longer
valid, and it takes effort to think of brief encounters as possibly having
Consider the logical consequences of the hypothetical position "My pet cat
is destined to die from cancer in a matter of months, so why bother to keep
it alive with medication and extra care?" The pet cat is destined to die
sometime even if it were healthy, if not one month, then 5 years, so why
have a pet cat in the first place. Each one of us is going to die in a few
years, or decades, so why do we bother living? Each day of continued existence
is brief when measured in cosmic time units, yet we bother to strive to enjoy
each day. The brevity of our days should not diminish their value. Indeed,
this brevity should enhance their value!
Categories of Time
In my view there are two categories for life activities: 1) life justifying
activities, and 2) all others.
For me, life seems justified by such activities as reading a good book, having
a good thought, listening to good music and enjoying the company of friends.
I also feel life's justification while hiking in the mountains, breathing
clean air, enjoying expansive views and having the quiet opportunity for
"connecting" experiences and thoughts from that other life among humans.
I feel a part of the universe after viewing it with my telescope, or photographing
what the eye cannot see of a distant galaxy. These are things that meet two
criteria: 1) they do not interfere with the lives of other people, or malign
their beliefs, and 2) they enliven the individual's experience of life and
contribute to the feeling that life is worth living.
The second category of life activities, "all others," is comprised of several
sub categories. The most important of these is the sub category that makes
possible activities of the first category. For example, before you can partake
of life justifying activities, you must eat and have shelter, and for this
you must earn money. Becoming self sufficient requires that you have a job
that pays the bills. These things should go without saying, and I won't belabor
Another sub category of "all other activities" is to fulfill obligations
which are the result of decisions taken, or actions made, earlier in life.
For example, if one has children then there is not only a moral obligation
but also a natural desire to be responsive to their needs. If one has volunteered
to help some organization that meets community needs, then fulfilling these
obligations is a moral obligation.
I almost forgot a third category of time: that which is wasted!
Attending to the Positives
Returning to the matter of the life justifying "positives," each person is
different and must make his own personal list of what makes sense for him.
By intentionally thinking about these positives a person is probing the values
that unconsciously underlie one's life. The mere acknowledgement of this
category of activities, and the act of identifying them, should by itself
"sensitize" the individual and empower him to take steps to "protect" the
life justifying activities from less worthy ones. A technique I use is to
"score" each day with two numbers, a score for the degree to which my day's
activities contributed to the logistics for living in life justifying ways,
and a score for how much the day's activities were life justifying. My goal
is to live so that both scores are high, but especially the second one.
It would be somewhat maudlin and mawkish for me to recite hobbies, pastimes
and favorite activities that for me are life justifying beyond the examples
I have already given. Suffice it to say that everyone has a right to have
favorite activities, and to be "true to themselves" by trying to work them
into one's daily lifestyle. I leave it to you, reader, as a "homework assignment,"
to make your own list of life justifying activities.
Attention paid to life justifying activities is not only life affirming,
it is individual affirming. After all, tending to things that enhance
the individual's appreciation for being alive is equivalent to taking the
stance that the individual "I" is more important than the "self that is employed
as a tool for the genes." Any person who takes these matters seriously will
become engaged in a life long program of "personal liberation from one's
After taking care of oneself as an individual by asserting the right to an
experience of good things in life, the greatest challenge will be to avoid
the negative, life denying activities that somehow "capture" us, and steal
chunks of our finite time on the earth. “Negative people” must be avoided.
We sometimes need to intentionally think about this negative category of
activities, and I claim that we will be usefully guided in this task by identifying
and eschewing those thoughts, emotions and behaviors that were selected by
evolution for the benefit of the genes while incurring an expense to individual
well being. The next chapter is a guide to this task.
In closing this chapter I offer some Schopenhauer aphorisms that pertain
to wise living:
“In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children
in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits
and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not
know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times
when children might seem like prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to
life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.” Schopenhauer,
Studies in Pessimism
“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after
thousands and thousands of years of non-existence: he lives for a little
while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no
more.” Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism
"Each day is a little life: every waking and rising a little birth, every
fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death."
Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Counsels and Maxims, 1851
“Most people, if they glance back when they come to the end of life, will
find that all along they have been living ad interim: they will be surprised
to find that the very thing they disregarded and let slip by unenjoyed was
just the life in the expectation of which they passed all their time. Of
how many a man may it not be said that hope made a fool of him until he danced
into the arms of death!” Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism