Sunday, January 24, 2021

బ్రతకటానికి బ్రతకటం

"Evolution is the greatest idea anyone has ever had" -Daniel C. Dennett

Generally the phrase "living for living's sake" is used in a rather derogatory tone, as if to say that a being's life purpose must be greater than "just living".

I've been reading a bit about evolution lately: KL Evans' Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter (surprisingly fecund in more ways than one), half of Jerry A. Coyne's Why Evolution is True (accessible and fascinating) and am a quarter way through James Suzman's Work (astounding both in its intellectual scope and TIL moments) and a WhatsApp forward with this info1. And it’s beginning to dawn on me that the imposition of particular ways of living to transcend over 'basic living' is, in the world I live in, rather misplaced.

I think I understand what people mean when they say 'just living'. In that connotation, it means to live to eat, sleep, procreate and stay alive as long as you can. The 'quality of life' doesn't matter. And I think I agree with it, especially having rallied against that kind of unremarkable living for years now. But I think that disdain comes from, atleast from me, being unable to grasp the giant strides humanity, the species, has taken over the past few millennia where people have exponentially gained more comfort and security that now they spend most of their day worrying about how to live their lives. It's an astounding achievement to so easily overlook.

If I'd been born, say, 10,000 years ago, a large chunk of my day, and consequently life, would've been spent in extremely trying circumstances. Staying alive and passing my genes on would have been the biggest achievement. You know, 'basic living'. And now such a life is frowned upon by many2. Now we (have to) work on improving our lives and creating/ doing something of value for other beings. This could be something as primitive as gaining social status to something more sophisticated (there’s my value judgement) as advancing knowledge. There is definitely a qualitative difference between the two but by their design of being driven by the ends, they're similar.

In the chapter on fire, James Suzman reasons that once we'd learnt to tame fire, we could eat a larger variety of foods (thereby decreasing food-gathering time), did not have to spend nights worrying about carnivorous animals and spent nights gathered around a crackling fire developing social bonds and subsequently telling stories; We had more leisure. And yet, using Levi-Strauss' structural model, he argues that that, paradoxically, led to the creation of the concept of work. The earliest humans till then were purely biologically driven. Once they found it easy to find food, stay securely and procreate fairly easily, they realised that they were bored. They had time in their hands with nothing to do. And that probably led to the creation and evolution of culture, which then started an accelerated feedback loop3 where it became easier and easier to fulfill life's basic obligations and spend time doing more ‘fun’ stuff, and we had more and more time to fill. Ergo, you have art, and science, and all those wonderful things. And also consumerism and mid-life crises.

These ideas in my mind then struck bonds with what I'd read a few months ago: a part of Erich Fromm's Man in the age of Capitalist Society (meta-Social Studies if you will) and a brief introduction to Alistair MacIntyre's narrative being (from Michael Sandel's terrific, and very useful, Justice). And then it dawned on me, hopefully rightly, that once we got past physical compulsions, as a society we started creating subtler needs and aspirations for our members4. Both our physical, mental and spiritual environments took shape to find the least-resistant way for life to move forward5.

This is a non-teleological view of the universe which brings me to the starting point of this post- The point, in as much as there is, of life is to live. It's a question I've been grappling with for years and even though I've had similar epiphanies in the past, and by all evidence this will be short-lived as well, it seems both ludicrous to state it but also emancipating.

Having said all this, I must also say that I believe that all lives are not equal. I don't say this from a Social Darwinist stance but what I learnt from Sandel's chapters on Kant. I think Kant's articulation of, among other things, freedom is absolutely terrific. And because I found Sandel's example so accessible, I'll just use that:

Imagine you are walking on the road on a very hot afternoon. You are sweaty and tired when you come across a hoarding for Coka-Cola with splashy colours and a photograph of a really enticing cold bottle. You start salivating. Now, you could just walk across the street to a store and buy it. Every part of your body is craving for it. As you start to make your way, a small voice pops up in your head that reminds you that its not at all good for your health and that maybe you should drink water. You resist that thought. It becomes louder. You tell it that it's only this one time, it should be fine. It tells you that you'll feel worse once the hit wears off. You tell it to bugger off, you are free to do what you want and if you want to drink a cola, you will drink a cola.

Now, you might think that you are making a choice, expressing your freedom. But in reality, you are slave to your 'lower' biological urges and have been manipulated by a well-designed advertisement. On the other hand, when you resist that impulse, inspite of the fact that you are seemingly bound a 'virtuous' cause, you are experiencing a higher freedom. He makes the distinction between those two freedoms as heteronomy (following a more desire-driven impulse) vs autonomy (a more objective, reason-guided calling).

I don't generally end with advice but I'm compelled to give in case someone, especially a later version of me,  finds it useful:

  1. Environments are important. Structures are stunningly useful and once instated can be hard to budge. (“We shape our buildings thereafter they shape us” -Winston Churchill) That’s why it’s so important to design our environment to (I don’t want to use the word optimise) give as much support as possible for our lives to blossom. Yes, there's a lot to unpack in that statement and I don't want to get into an argument about it now, but as a heuristic, its important to remember that our environments have a much bigger impact on our lives than we like to think. But are they deterministic? I don't think so, I think we still have 'elbow room'.
  2. As you grow older, the plasticity of your brain decreases and you become more set in your ways. So old people literally have a hard time changing their ways. I don't know what I can do about it except try to keep it at bay for as long as possible. Apparently, as you grow older, your world narrows down because your brain makes the choice to protect your body6. Which is why being fit is so important.

The 'rightest' way to live is to keep finding what makes you feel deeply alive, I have a few broad markers for identifying that state but a lot of the knowledge is also experiential, and act accordingly. Admittedly, I'm a beginner student of evolution but in many ways, it has created more wonder and clarity within me than the bit of religious searching I've done over the years. 


I actually wrote most of this piece about a week ago but sat on it because I felt what came out was valuable and it would be best if I could 'work' on it further to shape it into a better form. A lot of thinking has happened this week (specifically around a startup idea, what I want to do with my life, and how do I work) and I think I'm not a very calculative/ rational person when it comes to living. The more I try to shape my life, bring it to order to improve it, the more I fail. I could be lazy, incompetent, undisciplined, and not as intelligent as I like to believe I am, but I find joy in reading and writing in this sort of messy way. I seek to find processes so that I can tap this 'joy of work' at will but it creates more anxiety than I like.

Bottomline, I don't really know what's the right thing to do. Thankfully, I seem to atleast identify some of the moments when I'm feeling really alive. Maybe life is like that, islands of joy in a sea of ennui, confusion, anxiety. Is it wrong/ right to want joy all the time?

1 A few other resources that don't specifically deal with Biological/ Cultural Evolution also helped: Vinay Sitapati's Jugalbandi (a ripping yarn with many insights), Amit Varma's conversation with Krish Ashok (my tongue was salivating but not more than my mind), C Thi Ngyuen's Agency as Art

2 Reminds me of Inkoroju vellipoindu from Amaravathi Kathalu and Bangaru Murugu. They 'simply lived' without worrying too much about the purpose of their lives

3 The bit on brain plasticity was a marvel. Unlike most other creatures which evolved to thrive in a certain environment, we learned to learn and so can adapt to/ dominate many environments quite easily

4 I don't know if we came up with it as much as life evolved in those ways. Like Yuval Noah Harari's pithy quote says, 'We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.'

5 At this point I have a non-teleological view of the universe

6 I got this nugget from this absolutely terrific Airbnb experience that Anindo suggested

P.S- I should probably post the stuff I wrote as part of my BWW workshop. It seems ridiculous to 'hold' onto them to unleash more 'value' from them later. When did I become so transactional?

P.P.S- Maybe I won't become anything more than an occasional blogger? Maybe I don't have it in me to be a successful writer. Why is that so bad? Why am I so driven by that image of myself? Because I live in a society that tells me to use the talent I have, improve it via hard work and achieve success (material wealth, social recognition, attributable impact on society etc.)? Maybe that's not such a bad idea, but is it a particularly good one?

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