There are at least three pressures to procreate. First, there’s the lure of pleasure from sex hormones that are released during sex. Humans have learned to control that pressure by separating the pleasure from procreation, with birth control techniques. Second, there’s a limited time in which reproduction is biologically feasible, so that if you’re interested in having children, you’re pressured to do so within only a certain number of years. To some extent, humans have learned to control this pressure too, by setting up infrastructures for child adoption or for raising children by the extended family. Plus, you may not be interested in having children in the first place.
Procreation and the River of DNA
But the third pressure pertains to that question of interest, although this pressure is so mind-shattering that it’s seldom consciously considered. Every animal is chemically connected to what the biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book River Out of Eden, calls a river of DNA that stretches back to the origin of life on this planet. This is to say that we’re each alive not just because of the obvious facts that our parents reproduced and that their parents did as well, but because a continuous stream of our ancestors did so, including the evolutionary ancestors of our species and the ancestors of those ancestral species, and so on back to the simplest sexually reproducing organisms. This is a biological fact rather than just a metaphor and the point isn’t merely the abstract one that humans descended from other species; rather, each one of us, and each animal currently alive, is alive only because that animal’s germ cells were produced by its parents’ sperm and egg, which themselves were produced by their germ cells, which in turn were produced by that animal’s grandparents' sperm and egg, and so on, going back countless generations and thousands and millions and billions of years. Each one of us, therefore, was literally produced indirectly by certain dinosaurs, for example, who stomped around on prehistoric Earth long enough to procreate.
The third pressure, then, is that when an animal fails to reproduce, for whatever reason, that failure is the termination of a multibillion-year-old chemical process that created millions of generations of creatures that necessarily succeeded in sexually reproducing. There’s the sense that although most of our ancestors, including our nonhuman ones, can’t know when we fail to pass their genetic material to a new generation, we nevertheless let them down when we fail in that regard, since we render their struggles ultimately inconsequential. When a person dies without reproducing and raising a child to be able to carry on the genetic legacy, the person is a dam blocking the river of DNA from flowing onward. Did the river flow for countless miles and for billions of years, through its dinosaurian and mammalian host organisms, only to be stopped by Joe Blow, who slips on a sidewalk and dies prematurely or, even worse, who chooses not to have children even when he has the resources to honour his ancestors’ victories by letting their river of DNA flow through him as well? There’s the feeling that life is precious and that if everyone ceased reproducing, ending life on this planet, the loss to the universe would be unfathomable. Thus, when even a single person takes a step towards realizing that possible lifeless future, by failing to procreate, the person sins against the sacredness of life.
In his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, Cormac McCarthy depicts the end of most life on Earth and the correspondingly increased pressure on a surviving father to “keep the fire of life lit,” to protect what’s most precious, namely the life of his son, who represents the continuation of life after the father’s eventual death. According to this grim thought experiment, then, we regard life as so precious that we’d cheer for its continuation even when the world has ended and reasonable hope for happiness has been lost. The symbolism of the Olympic passing of the torch is apt here as well: if the torch represents life, we each have the solemn obligation to receive the torch from our parents and to pass it to a new generation, by having and raising kids ourselves. If we drop the torch, we literally can’t even imagine the enormity of our blunder. For example, we lack the brainpower to empathize with each one of our millions of ancestors whose often triumphant survival we negate with that failure.
Should Life be Valued?
Is this third pressure to procreate real or imaginary? Is it like our fear of threats in the dark, caused by mere paranoia? Fear of the dark isn’t necessarily irrational, though, for creatures who depend on their vision which in turn works best with adequate lighting. But is it likewise rational to think of the river of DNA or the passing of the torch as a reason to procreate? Only if life were precious, and this raises the question whether the high value of life in turn is justified. Most people who ever lived regarded life as precious because they assumed organic life was created by God who himself judges that life to be good. At any rate, given this theistic assumption, we wouldn’t be merely imagining that a universe without life in it would be bad, since a nonhuman intelligence, whose perfect judgment we’d have to respect, would deem it so. However, theism is no longer the default worldview, not after the Scientific Revolution and the influence of modern rationalism in philosophy and in public affairs. (See Theism). So suppose there’s no viable theistic reason to believe that life is precious. Is our urgency to protect our DNA, to pass the torch, rational or irrational? This is to ask whether this urgency is caused ultimately by a fact of life that makes it worthy of our esteem.
Perhaps the most promising reason to think there’s such a fact derives from naturalistic philosophy, which posits our biological “functions.” A function is a purpose or a reason to exist. For example, the heart’s physiological function is to circulate blood, and an organism’s evolutionary function may be, in large part, to sexually reproduce. In the case of artifacts that we create, like shovels or computers, their functions are normative, and so we can speak of a shovel’s failure when it breaks and is unable to fulfill its function, because the shovel doesn’t measure up to its designer’s or its user’s intention. Once we dispense with theism, there is no intention behind the design of a so-called biological function, because natural selection has no plan. At most, then, the host organism that uses its organs could be let down when those organs malfunction, and so we could speak of the value of body parts to the user of those parts.
This would locate the value of life, though, in our own minds rather than in some objective fact. Were we to change our mind, or our plan for our body parts, we’d alter the normative status of their biological functions, just as nothing would prevent a shovel’s function from changing were we all to favour some new use for it. Again, were someone to commit suicide, deeming her life to be worthless, there would be no fact of the matter to counter her negative evaluation, assuming the preciousness of life is due to a biological purpose that has only that subjective use value. Suppose this suicidal person is a hermit with no social ties to anyone, so that no one indirectly makes use of her functional body parts. For example, suppose she has no employer who makes use of her brain. In that case, there wouldn’t be even a conflicting subjective basis for her life’s value. As soon as she deems her life to be worthless, her judgment would make it so. Therefore, were life to have factual value because of evolutionary purposes, these purposes would have to depend on something other than the goals of the user of the functional body parts. Without theism, the only alternative is a version of panspermia, according to which life on Earth was seeded by intelligent extraterrestrials. This only pushes the question back a step, since now we’d have to ask whether we could trust the judgment of those imperfect intelligent designers and whether the preciousness of their own life is factual or delusory.
These considerations don’t prevent some naturalistic philosophers and biologists like Dawkins himself from smuggling normative judgments into their talk of natural selection and of biological functions. Dawkins shows us the gene’s “perspective” as the “immortal” gene sends its “instructions” to protein “machinery” that builds its “host” bodies, “discarding” generations of them as it floats along waves of sexual reproduction. The sole merit of this extended metaphor of the "selfish gene," however, is its usefulness in simplifying a complex biological theory. We should remind ourselves that this metaphor doesn’t report any scientific discovery that genes actually have a perspective or that they instruct machines. These anthropomorphic images are empirically gratuitous. At the genetic level, evolution is a chemical process, whereas in the well-understood case of the function of artifacts, the function’s value derives from intentions which are psychological. So if genes have no minds, they can’t confer any value to the body types they help produce. Likewise, if the process of natural selection has no mind of its own, neither can it confer any such value.
It seems, then, that biology gives us no reason to think that life is precious as a matter of fact. On the contrary, by replacing Creationism and theistic Intelligent Design theories, evolutionary biology supplies us with abundant reasons to think that, like any physical system that exists ultimately as a matter of inexplicable brute fact (due to a random quantum fluctuation that produced the big bang and natural laws, for example), life is objectively, factually worthless. Indeed, to speak of worth in the absence of the mind of a beholder is to commit a category error. What this means is that if we subtract our personal goals and standards which we’re free to change, and restrict our attention to natural facts that are what they are regardless of what’s in our immediate--mental as opposed to bodily--capacity to affect, we find that as far as biologists are entitled to say, life has no value one way or the other. There would be no more objective loss were life to wink out of existence than were an asteroid, traveling along its path for millions of years like the DNA river, to be suddenly blown apart. Again, what’s at stake here is that, roughly speaking, if life isn’t precious there’s no failure in dying without procreating, in the sense of any dishonour to the ancestors. More precisely, if there’s no objective fact that makes life precious, the high value we put on life would depend entirely on our life-affirming interests which we’d be free to change.
But this suggests another basis for thinking that life has a kind of objective value. Instead of biology, we can turn to society. Even were life’s value to depend entirely on our minds, we have limited control over them. In particular, we have the most control over merely our own mental states, and few if any people can affect how everyone in a society thinks or feels. So if life’s value derives from a social convention, the value is objective and factual in that the value persists regardless of what each person individually has to say about it. Only were the social convention widely rejected and were most of a population thus to regard life, say, as profane rather than sacred, would life’s corresponding value change. Presumably, such a society would implode and so wouldn’t remain long to influence other peoples’ attitude toward life, which is a Darwinian reason why social conventions tend to be life-affirming.
Still, a convention can be more or less justifiable. Some conventions can even be absurd, so while the true source of the third pressure on people to procreate may be that of mass preference, this doesn’t afford much of a reason to procreate. As I said, we’ve decreased the first two pressures, and an individual, if not society as a whole, can shrug off the third by reminding herself that just because someone else acts questionably doesn’t mean she has to follow. For example, just because non-Nietzschean secularists cling to outmoded theistic values doesn’t mean all secularists should do so.
Evolution as a Ponzi Scheme
If life isn’t precious, and thus the river of DNA doesn’t make for a good reason to have and to raise children, how should we regard life? There are more than the two possibilities I’ve so far discussed, that life is either precious or of no value at all. If we assume that life has no objective or factual value, because it exists ultimately as a brute fact, there’s still the question of whether life should be subjectively valued and if so, what that value should be. I’ll assume that life should somehow be so valued or at least that most people can’t help but be somehow interested in their own and in other creatures’ lives. And I’ll assume the post-Nietzschean context in which theistic values are for clueless zombies. Instead of deluding ourselves with faulty evaluations that no longer make sense, what story should we tell ourselves about the strange existence of living things? What myth about the value of life has a chance of compelling authentic nontheists?
I’ll assume also, as a starting place, the existential conviction that human life especially is absurd and tragic. We’re the victims of a perfect cosmic storm: we’ve evolved to be social and thus to be skilled mind-readers, and so we think in anthropocentric terms, positing not just gods but meanings and purposes where there are objectively none; we instinctively delude ourselves, clinging to comforting, politically correct fairytales even while our consciousness, reason, and freedom alienate us from the rest of the world; we’re self-conflicted, and the culprits, natural selection, the genes, and the laws of nature have no ears to hear our complaints. Job could call on Yahweh to answer his accusations, but we who understand such anthropomorphism as childish or lazy have no such recourse. Ultimately, we’re destined to be unfulfilled, to prefer what can never be, to be pawns in a game played by impersonal forces that we can’t help but personalize. In these facts lie the ridiculousness and the grotesqueness of our existential situation. (See Happiness.)
With these assumptions in mind, I’d say that instead of a river or a sport of passing a torch that holds the precious flame, a more fitting metaphor for the profound continuity between sexually reproducing creatures in a genetic lineage is that of the Ponzi scheme. In this fraud, insiders steal money from a multitude of ignorant followers, by selling them on a false promise that if they invest, they’ll each receive a high return. As long as enough people continue to believe the promise and to invest their share, the insiders can temporarily siphon funds for their own enrichment and pay back a limited number of contributors to maintain the appearance of a thriving business. What makes this a fraud is that the promise to the mass of investors is a lie: were everyone to be rewarded as promised, the business would collapse, and indeed the business can’t sustain itself in the long-term. The scheme requires that there be a minority of insiders with secret knowledge who manipulate fresh legions of fooled outsiders whose investments replenish the system.
The proliferation of creatures by sexual reproduction can be likened to a Ponzi scheme. The fooled majority are those who in nonhuman species have no conception of their existential situation or, in the case of humans, who are misled by theistic delusions into believing that living things are precious. The same neural mechanisms that cause the projection of psychological categories onto inhumane natural processes compel the majority to anticipate a lavish payoff in heaven if they follow divine commandments, by multiplying and respecting God’s creatures. Some can interpret their relative success and happiness on Earth, at least, as preliminary rewards for their contributions to the kingdom of heaven, while unhappy folk obey and are seemingly punished for no known reason. But if there are no gods, who are the sophisticated insiders that exploit the system? I submit that the authentic nontheists can occupy that role. Granted, they don’t direct natural selection or even necessarily concoct the religious narratives that propel the fraud, but they can exploit the system in which we all find ourselves. This is because only the authentic, post-Nietzschean nontheists understand the absurd, tragic nature of that system. Only the insiders realize that human life has persisted despite our exclusive ability to comprehend the horrifying truth, because of our compensating capacity for self-delusion.
How, though, can the existentialist profit from nature’s Ponzi scheme? Some charlatans exploit people’s gullibility as cult leaders, televangelists, or politicians, literally stealing from them and setting up classic mini Ponzi schemes within the greater one that perpetuates our species as a whole. I reject that option as distasteful. A more minor but aesthetically more refined payoff for the secular insider is schadenfreude, amusement at other people’s expense. The value of life is that in the minds of insiders, our tragedy can be transmuted into a comedy, and the profit for sophisticated observers who exploit the victims of the evolutionary Ponzi scheme is their extraction of humour from the haplessness of their more ignorant fellows. Insiders should laugh inwardly, if not also outwardly, at the expense of adult humans who, despite their godlike cognitive powers, act like hallucinating children.
What does this mean for procreation? On the one hand, the insider can bear children and raise them as insiders, spreading the wealth of schadenfreude. Should the offspring wilt under social pressures and become duped outsiders, victims of the cosmic Ponzi scheme, the parent may be forced to pass them off as hot potatoes, exploiting them too for bittersweet pleasure. Here, then, is a mixed reason for even the authentic nontheist, who regards life as objectively worthless and as subjectively ridiculous and largely tragic, to procreate. On the other hand, merely coping with knowledge of our dark existential situation requires great stamina and toughness. Facing the prospect of bursting a child’s balloon by informing her that most people who ever lived have lived as unknowing clowns or puppets, as victims of a monstrous system of natural forces that renders the whole human endeavour laughable at best, may be daunting for even the stout cosmicist. Then again, facing the potential tragedy that your own child may be mesmerized by politically correct fictions and join the unknowing mass of cosmic victims has a silver lining, since ignorance can be bliss. I see, then, no obvious implication as to whether an authentic nontheist, a post-Nietzschean cosmicist and existentialist should procreate. This depends on the individual’s fortitude and capacity to derive pleasure from circumstances that might just as well be interpreted as exquisitely painful.