ambition and subsistence

Holly Swyers (swyersh@INTERPORT.NET)
Fri, 26 Jul 1996 19:08:28 -0400


and double hmmm....

I let my messages pile up unread for about a week (curses on the evil
necessity of a second job!).

Yet again, hmmmm...

Is the opposite of an altruistic behavior an ambitious behavior?

This is going to muddle together, but we'll see if I can make sense. I've
been reading through arguments about altruism, the anthropomorphizing of
animals, the abstract nature of language while trying to keep a pride (if
four equals a pride) of cats at bay and off the keyboard. I spent a good
chunk of my childhood on a farm and have always been surrounded by animals
of one sort or another and have watched them interact. And as I'm reading
everyone's comments on "cross-specificity" (right word?), I'm watching
Alfred groom Georgia, who won't even groom herself so won't reciprocate,
and I'm remembering the dynamics of how cows establish pecking orders (a
surprisingly complex thing to observe) and I'm thinking of all the
anthropomorphizing I'm guilty of in daily life...

This is going somewhere, I promise...

I spoke earlier of the consciousness of impending death as something which
may distinguish humans from other species (see, I'll get every thread in
this one). Humans know that they will die, and when they see death, they
know it will happen to them one day ("nothing's sure but death and taxes").
And people seem to want to assure themselves some immortality, whether it
be in a soul or in accomplishments or in children or in freezing their
heads. A question occurs to me: is this a universal trait of human kind,
that we know we will die?

If it is, what sort of evolutionary advantage does knowing you are going to
die give you?

Does the purpose of life become not "to live," but rather "to overcome death"?

Of course, we have no way of knowing _for sure_ that animals are not aware
of their impending doom (thanks, BTW, to Adrian Tanner and Jim Martin for
very thought provoking posts). Some animals, when they are very ill or
severely injured, will crawl somewhere to die, but that doesn't speak to a
lifelong awareness of their own death.

I titled this post "ambition and subsistence," and I know what I meant, but
I'm trying to get at it so you know what I mean. Maybe "ambition and
existence" would be a better way to put it. If knowledge of your death
pushes you to overcome it, you will not be content to merely live in the
moment and "exist" (or maybe you will, but I won't). There comes with the
knowledge of death a certain "ambition" to have many children or provide
more for the ones a person has or to push the limits of knowledge (perhaps
because people know enough to realize what they don't know?) or to secure
prestige or power. It is not enough to just "be." (or is it in some
cultures? I know that there are philosophies that suggest that just
"being" is the ultimate state, but can people intuitively just "be"?)

I'm wondering as I type this if I am thinking of too "Western" a model.

People have suggested that religion is not a universal trait of mankind.
Are there any people in the world who do not strive for some explanation of
the inexplicable, be it natural or supernatural? (I count "science" as
filling the same function as religion - I'm wincing in anticipation of
flames...) And is this not another way of making death less final?

When I started this I even had a way to link in the comments about the
complexity of language usage, but I'm already more scattered than I wanted
to be. Please understand that this post is sort of "thinking out loud" and
I am not firmly wedded to any of these ideas - if anything here is coherent
enough to be called an idea. I welcome any feedback that can help me
figure out what I'm trying to say and whether it has any merit...

Thanks for listening.

"...for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
- William Shakespeare, _Hamlet_ (II, ii, 247-48)