Saturday, January 13, 2018

Street 05: The Value of Individual and Species Survival

This post in the series does not need a lot of background, because it makes a stand-alone point.

I am going to argue that animals generally - probably (though not certainly) including humans - do not have a natural desire for personal survival or, even less likely, a desire for species survival. Personal survival have value mostly as a means to other ends. In order to realize the other things that we value, we need to continue living, in the same way that we need money. The well-being of our children, which for them will require the well-being of their children, and so on, come to imply an interest in the survival of the species. Neither of these are identical to valuing survival or the continuation of the species for their own sake.

In order to evolve to have a desire for (or aversion) to something, the being in question has to be able to detect when such a state of affairs obtains. A creature knows when it is in pain and when it is not, and because of this can acquire an aversion to pain. It knows about different things that it can eat, and thus can acquire a preference to eat come things and an aversion to eating others. It can sense the temperature in its environment and adopt a preference for certain temperatures and aversions to others.

However, no animal other than human has the ability to know when a creature is a dead. It cannot acquire a desire "that I survive" because it does not understand the possibility of not surviving.

The case is even worse when it comes to the end of "survival of the species." It is not unreasonable to expect that humans acquired the ability to recognize individual survival or death long before it learned to identify the possibility of the continued existence or extinction of a species. Even if there has been enough time in human evolution for us to have acquired an aversion to death, there has been much less opportunity to acquire an aversion to extinction.

The implication is that for all non-human animals and, unless we have evidence to the contrary - for humans as well, survival of the individual and continuation of the species are not ends. These are the unintended side-effects of other ends.

They are important unintended side effects because these unintended side effects determine whether the species exists today for us to look at. That is to say, we only see species whose evolved desires-as-ends promote genetic fitness. However, all that is required for evolution is the production of these effects, not that the agent consciously aim for what it cannot even recognize.

Clearly, it is not the case that we eat in order to survive. Obesity and a tendency to eat things that will shorten our life tells us that. We have evolved to have a desire to eat and, in this, to have a desire to eat that would have tended to bring about the genetic fitness of our ancestors in their environment. If eating was a means to the end of survival, and not an end in itself with survival as an unintended side effect, then we would not have people overeating, or eating in ways that do not promote survival.

Similarly, our aversion to pain tends to keep us away from things that are harmful to us and threaten our survival. However, there are situations in which pain contributes to death, as when a painful injury to one's leg prevents one from escaping a predator. The end, with respect to pain, is the absence of pain, not survival.

The same is true of sex and procreation. We do not have sex in order to preserve the species. We have sex as an end in itself. This is why there is so much non-procreative sex. However, the fulfillment of these desires - plus other desires such as the interest in the welfare of one's children - have, as an unintended side effect, the continuation of the species.

Simple plants and animals, from bacteria to algae, also tend to behave in ways to promote their survival. Yet, clearly it would be absurd to attribute to them a desire to survive, or a desire for the survival of the species, and a belief that the activities they engage in are useful means to this end. Street mentions the Venus fly trap, which reacts to insects in its leaves with trapping and digesting the animal.

As I alluded to above, in the time that humans acquired the capacity to recognize death, we might have began to have inherited a desire for survival as an end in itself. However, since these other ends - hunger, thirst, aversion to pain, desire for comfort, concern for our offspring - have kept us and our species alive without this desire for survival itself, there is no need to postulate that we have evolved such an end. Some sort of evidence is required - evidence of behavior that cannot be explained in terms of these simpler desires and aversions. If there is a desire for survival, it seems to be a particularly weak desire when it comes into conflict with desires for food, for sex, or the aversion to strenuous activity. We simply are not all that good at promoting our survival when some other interest comes in conflict with it. We clearly seem to have no interest in the survival of the species.

It is also the case that, with our advanced intellect, we have acquired the capacity to recognize that individual survival or the survival of the species has instrumental value. While we may not have a desire for survival itself, we have acquired the ability to recognize that the fulfillment of our desire to take care of our offspring, or to enjoy the company of friends, or to have whatever experiences we have not yet had, all of us reason to live a little long. Consequently, we see survival as a most important means. We may not eat in order to survival. However, if we do not survive, we will not be able to have that meal we are looking forward to tomorrow.

However, as it turns out, ends are not only acquired through evolution. Humans and other more complex animals have systems that alter our desires depending on our interactions with our environments. This system - or, at least, the most important system - is the reward system. With this system, if an activity or experience produces a reward (e.g., pleasure) or a punishment (e.g., pain), we begin to acquire a desire for or an aversion to that activity or experience respectively. The possibility of learning new ends and shaping ends introduces some additional considerations. I will address those considerations in my next post.

No comments: