After reading Richard Dawkins’ book – The Selfish Gene, a thought occurred to me that seems to hold water. What if perhaps the notion of sentience and self thought is just the next step in maintaining the genes of a species? Throughout the book, Dr. Dawkins returns to the notion that individuals strive to maintain their inherited genes for the next generation. Throughout the animal kingdom, it is an axiom to state that organisms strive to survive. The surrounding environment is either something that may hinder its survival or an aspect that can be exploited to further its life – increasing the chance of passing its genes forward.
In essence, DNA has evolved machines that would benefit from its own continuity. In order for the genes to survive, the organism needs to also survive in order to reproduce. We as humans generally view ourselves as the most evolved beings in a long lineage of ancestors stretching back billions of years. The general difference between us and other animals is that we not only survived, we thrived (more so than any other species). Why is that though?
The answer is simple, humans are smart(er) than other animals. We can manipulate our environment to construct tools such as hunting weapons which enabled our ancestors to climb atop quite a large food chain. Furthermore, one could argue that we, as sentient beings, value of our own lives greatly as being alive (and knowing that fact!) can be quite the forward pressure to avoid death.
Rene Descartes famously said, ‘I think, therefore I am’. We as people, ‘are’ our own selves and just like individual animals, strive to live on. The notion of the ‘self’ and the understanding of ‘existence’ is perhaps isolated to only ourselves amidst the entire animal kingdom. We exist as individuals – with our own thoughts, values, ideas, personalities but most importantly, our own consciousnesses. Perhaps, consciousness itself is just another tool genes have evolved to further their own survival.
Although one could argue that we don’t understand consciousness, I could also argue that a white shark doesn’t understand the workings of its jaws and teeth that ensure its survival. That is because these mechanisms are beyond the intellect of the animal – therefore, why is it so far fetched to claim that consciousness is beyond the intellect of humans?
Our understanding of the world that has birthed the technological revolution may perhaps be shadowing ourselves from the fact that we are just like any other animal. It is true that we stand alone in our triumphs, but our triumphs are survival mechanisms in and of themselves (even though some are a quite complicated). Its a strange thought to think that although we are relatively intelligent and that we bare the quality of individual consciousness, both of these so called ‘miracles’ push us forward to survive. So at some point, it may just be worth asking ourselves whether we’re acting on our own behalf, or just as survival machines furthering a pool of genes. One thing is for certain, consciousness seems from my view, to be the most powerful way to ensure an organisms survival in the entire animal kingdom.
Following the lines of Descartes, the genomic variation of his famous phrase may very well be:
‘I am, therefore I will survive’ – and we most certainly have.