11. Isn’t biological survival an inherently selfish concept, and won’t a mandate to reproduce exacerbate overpopulation?

 Couldn’t one say that, it’s in the inevitable nature of natural selection (a la Dawkin’s Selfish Gene) that in the scientific pantheist’s moral hierarchy, putting survival above well-being must logically lead to some sort of social Darwinist ethos? No.

Why? Because for individual modern homo sapiens, a simplistic “selfish gene” survival of the fittest strategy is a poor survival strategy. If such a strategy were accepted on a society wide level, most of our (your and my) personally unique genes won’t be the “fittest” genes, and thus they will die out via natural selection. By now humans, living and successfully surviving within the benevolent confines of civilization, should know that, due to the multitude of synergistic benefits of human social interactions, the best survival game for modern humans to play is a positive sum game. And short shortsightedly selfish gene games tend to be zero sum games. (see game theory)

So, you may say, “That may all be well and good, but humans simply are so genetically shortsightedly selfish, that they can’t change, to the degree that any enlightened-self-interest-philosophy is practical enough to even bother with”. That answer to that is that human cultural influence can be extremely powerful. Consider for example, the difference between the Jains (an ancient vegetarian culture so peaceful and non murderous that they wear face masks and have brooms when they walk so that insects can be gently removed from their path, rather then stepped on or inhaled), and the Aztecs (who made the mass sacrifice of humans, via cutting the heart out, a central part of their culture). We don’t know if humanity as a whole can sufficiently follow an optimum ethos such that civilization destroying selfish genes aren’t selected for, but we do know that homo sapiens is young (and thus relatively untested), and very culturally malleable.

 

Regarding overpopulation and over-consumption:

If living correctly (in accordance with the definition of life) means maintaining your genes as far into the future as you have influence, then what about the resulting mandate, to reproduce, exacerbating existing overpopulation and the earth’s taxed resources?

It could exacerbate overpopulation (and over-consumption), but only if reproduction and resource consumption are unwisely pursued as a zero sum game. Regarding the definition/Meaning of life (discussed in the “Home” article above) and overpopulation, the situation is complicated, and several crucial points need to be understood:

- To be in accord with the definition of life one should want to maintain the metabolic process that moves through us as far into the future as we can predict. And, thus, scientific pantheist morality prescribes that civilization should be structured such that the future (even the distant future) becomes more predictable, and thus predictably sustainable. I.e. the rapid rate of change in the modern world (of which mindless exponential population growth has been a central example), which is based on relatively short term hedonistic and/or utilitarian values, is too fast. Currently, it is very much not structured with the long term survival or sustainability of civilization as a top priority.

- We should be thinking about (and acting to be in accord with) the optimum sustainable human population and lifestyle of/for the earth. We need a vision for the optimum long term population, not just for the coming decades, but for the coming hundred million or more years. Thoughtfully, sustainably, and gracefully taking earthly life into space may be the greatest gift homo sapiens can hope to offer our biosphere and the universe as a whole, but,  if we love our species, and we love the gift of existence on this beautiful earth, why shouldn’t taking care of our original home also be a priority?

- Having a successful future means being mindful and respectful of the lessons of the past. We definitely can and should have modern civilization and continue to carefully pursue the latest technological improvements for the human situation. But, we evolved on this planet, and we evolved into homo sapiens as hunter gatherers. Thus, there are deep and crucial “spiritual” reasons for respecting, revering, and maintaining much of this planet as wilderness; enough wilderness, for earth’s wild species to thrive, but also enough such that every human can experience wilderness without destroying it. As descendants of hunter gatherers, we are best able to cultivate the passion for existence necessary to take on the travails that come with existence, if we have the wild nature of our home within which to become aware of the “sacred”, to connect with “God”. Thoreau, Annie Dillard, and John Muir, and Edward Abby, are “prophets” of this spiritual need/requirement. Check out this essay by Abby (and start on page 236 if you are busy): Link

- Cramming as many humans onto the planet as the latest technology will allow us to feed and shelter (the Malthusian maximum), is not wise. It is dystopian, if only because of the spiritual need (mentioned in the point above) that would be unmet. Thus, the common argument that, at this moment in history there are enough resources for everyone to eat, so therefore we don’t have an overpopulation problem, is immorally shortsighted.

Therefore: the proper way to consider the overpopulation and over consumption issues aren’t, “do we have too many, to few, or the right amount of people and stuff right now?” It’s, what is the optimum number of people and median consumption rates for this earth for the next hundred million years? True, future generations and cultures may come to a different decision regarding the optimum number and median consumption, but we and our descendants should none-the-less strive for that long term vision.

So, once the optimum population number is decided upon (ideally via egalitarian consensus, or at least via democratic vote) how do we humanly (positive sum game) arrive at and maintain that number?

First, if at all possible, children should never be made to suffer if their parent’s reproduce more than is fair. So, since it is hard to involve the law, in consequencing parents without making children suffer, ideally instilling cultural mores and taboos around birth control and family planning are the sanest, primary, and first ways to arrive at and maintain an optimum population.

Second, considering the definition/Meaning of life, reproduction is like voting:

-It shouldn’t necessarily be required, but it should feel like a  responsibility for anyone who wants to, and thinks they are up to, respectfully excepting the nature of existence.

- Since it’s part of the very definition/Meaning of life, reproduction to maintain the metabolic process that moves through us is literally as fundamental as breathing, and as such should be considered as fundamental a right as breathing.

- Just as every citizen should have the vote, but no one should vote more than their share, every one should have the right to reproduce, but once the (positive sum game) optimum population is agreed upon, at least democratically,  no one should have more children than their equal share. I.e. two parents should have no more than two children (unless of course there are natural twins, triplets, etc).

 

Assuming it can be arrived at humanly, what is the optimum population for the earth? That is a fairly subjective question, but I (the author) would vote for one billion, because:

- Currently there isn’t even close to enough wilderness for long term ecological balance and sustainability, for our “spiritual health”, or, simply, for wildlife. For example, this statistic is insane and evil: humans and our domesticated mammals make up 96% of all mammalian biomass on the planet. Despite the immoral prerogative we have taken upon ourselves of so diminishing the natural world, how can we justify leaving such an impoverished world to our poor descendants?

- Our current civilization is precariously (even insanely) based on the use of unsustainable resources, the most obvious being fossil fuels.

- One billion people is enough people that we could have at least a few cities that are big enough that, no matter how much an individual may desire to be around a lot of people, there would still be enough people (we reached the 1 billion mark in 1804). There could still be a lot of cultural diversity. And, there is no way any one person could ever come close to knowing a billion people.

- One billion people would surely supply enough creative individuals for sustainable and enjoyable technological and artistic innovation. And there would surely be sufficient economies of scale such that eventually humanity could sustainably begin to “colonize” space.

- With one billion people, that is a large enough number that  it would be hard to for most traditional disasters, volcanoes, plagues, etc. (at least) to wipe us out.

- One billion is a nice round base-10 number!

So, what about the people who can’t or don’t want to have children? Like not being able to or not wanting to vote, it is a handicap. It is generally naturally and instinctual-ly easier, to find the motivation to be invested in the future, when your own progeny (see post on selfishness) can create the direct path forward for the metabolic process that moves through us.
But, like most handicaps, it doesn’t have to rob one of one’s reason for living. There is much that can be done to remain in accord with a scientific pantheistic ethos. In this complex reality values must fall into a hierarchy. We can prioritize (within the hierarchy) as individual circumstances may require. As one descends the hierarchy shown on the right side of the mandala, the rules for life are roughly akin to Maslow’s “ascending” hierarchy of needs. I.e. generally we must be able to feed, shelter, and reproduce ourselves first, before we can have the capability to work for a sustainable future/path for our descendants. So, for those who have no direct descendants (fending for whom is actually relatively similar to fending for one’s self), personal energy can be freed up for expanding one’s efforts towards the survival of an expanding circle of genes that one shares with relatives, the human race, or the survival of our marvelous modern niche (civilization), or of biologically related species, or of ecologically and “spiritually” necessary species, or of earthly life as a whole, of the material niche that is this earth, and of the future niche that is space.

And what about over consumption? Well, rules of thumb such as “no more that two child children per citizen” are much harder to come by, but for an individual citizen, once the basics for a healthy and happy life span are attended to, a culture and democratic government should be continuously cultivated such that, one willfully will work and tithe, and/or allow oneself to be taxed, to wisely benefit and maintain that which is larger than the self. With that in mind, we can reasonably say that, in general, we citizens of the developed world are too “materialistic” by, probably, an order of magnitude. We can spend more time in nature, more time with the earths millions of other life forms, more time socializing, more time appreciating and creating art, live in much smaller homes, use or own automobiles far less, own far fewer possessions, throw far less away, eat less and more simply, etc..

Finally, for anyone who has read this essay, the  following question has probably arisen: isn’t the vision for the future, elucidated above, too Utopian? And the corollary question: even if it were somehow possible to briefly create a human culture where the majority wanted to follow the vision elucidated above, couldn’t and wouldn’t a small differential of selfish individuals inevitably still fuck it up? Well, yes, the future is uncertain, but in the terminologies of biology and evolution: if a specie’s niche is correctly maintained by the majority of organisms, then individuals who act out of accord with the survival parameters of the niche will not be naturally selected. e.i. For humans, civilization (our niche) can create and have effective, but humane, ways of dealing with criminal behavior. And, just because a path may be difficult, and the risk of failure great, does not necessarily mean that there are other options; if we love this reality/universe enough that we wish to be in accord with it, then there is a prescribed path. Whether it is a difficult path or not is of secondary relevance. 

 

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