What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?

1151013_84699475By David Graeber

The tendency in popular thought to view the biological world in economic terms was present at the nineteenth-century beginnings of Darwinian science. Charles Darwin, after all, borrowed the term “survival of the fittest” from the sociologist Herbert Spencer, that darling of robber barons. Spencer, in turn, was struck by how much the forces driving natural selection in On the Origin of Species jibed with his own laissez-faire economic theories. Competition over resources, rational calculation of advantage, and the gradual extinction of the weak were taken to be the prime directives of the universe.

The stakes of this new view of nature as the theater for a brutal struggle for existence were high, and objections registered very early on. An alternative school of Darwinism emerged in Russia emphasizing cooperation, not competition, as the driver of evolutionary change. In 1902 this approach found a voice in a popular book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, by naturalist and revolutionary anarchist pamphleteer Peter Kropotkin. In an explicit riposte to social Darwinists, Kropotkin argued that the entire theoretical basis for Social Darwinism was wrong: those species that cooperate most effectively tend to be the most competitive in the long run. Kropotkin, born a prince (he renounced his title as a young man), spent many years in Siberia as a naturalist and explorer before being imprisoned for revolutionary agitation, escaping, and fleeing to London. Mutual Aid grew from a series of essays written in response to Thomas Henry Huxley, a well-known Social Darwinist, and summarized the Russian understanding of the day, which was that while competition was undoubtedly one factor driving both natural and social evolution, the role of cooperation was ultimately decisive.

The Russian challenge was taken quite seriously in twentieth-century biology—particularly among the emerging subdiscipline of evolutionary psychology—even if it was rarely mentioned by name. It came, instead, to be subsumed under the broader “problem of altruism”—another phrase borrowed from the economists, and one that spills over into arguments among “rational choice” theorists in the social sciences. This was the question that already troubled Darwin: Why should animals ever sacrifice their individual advantage for others? Because no one can deny that they sometimes do. Why should a herd animal draw potentially lethal attention to himself by alerting his fellows a predator is coming? Why should worker bees kill themselves to protect their hive? If to advance a scientific explanation of any behavior means to attribute rational, maximizing motives, then what, precisely, was a kamikaze bee trying to maximize?

We all know the eventual answer, which the discovery of genes made possible. Animals were simply trying to maximize the propagation of their own genetic codes. Curiously, this view—which eventually came to be referred to as neo-Darwinian—was developed largely by figures who considered themselves radicals of one sort or another. Jack Haldane, a Marxist biologist, was already trying to annoy moralists in the 1930s by quipping that, like any biological entity, he’d be happy to sacrifice his life for “two brothers or eight cousins.” The epitome of this line of thought came with militant atheist Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene—a work that insisted all biological entities were best conceived of as “lumbering robots,” programmed by genetic codes that, for some reason no one could quite explain, acted like “successful Chicago gangsters,” ruthlessly expanding their territory in an endless desire to propagate themselves. Such descriptions were typically qualified by remarks like, “Of course, this is just a metaphor, genes don’t really want or do anything.” But in reality, the neo-Darwinists were practically driven to their conclusions by their initial assumption: that science demands a rational explanation, that this means attributing rational motives to all behavior, and that a truly rational motivation can only be one that, if observed in humans, would normally be described as selfishness or greed. As a result, the neo-Darwinists went even further than the Victorian variety. If old-school Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer viewed nature as a marketplace, albeit an unusually cutthroat one, the new version was outright capitalist. The neo-Darwinists assumed not just a struggle for survival, but a universe of rational calculation driven by an apparently irrational imperative to unlimited growth.

This, anyway, is how the Russian challenge was understood. Kropotkin’s actual argument is far more interesting. Much of it, for instance, is concerned with how animal cooperation often has nothing to do with survival or reproduction, but is a form of pleasure in itself. “To take flight in flocks merely for pleasure is quite common among all sorts of birds,” he writes. Kropotkin multiplies examples of social play: pairs of vultures wheeling about for their own entertainment, hares so keen to box with other species that they occasionally (and unwisely) approach foxes, flocks of birds performing military-style maneuvers, bands of squirrels coming together for wrestling and similar games:

We know at the present time that all animals, beginning with the ants, going on to the birds, and ending with the highest mammals, are fond of plays, wrestling, running after each other, trying to capture each other, teasing each other, and so on. And while many plays are, so to speak, a school for the proper behavior of the young in mature life, there are others which, apart from their utilitarian purposes, are, together with dancing and singing, mere manifestations of an excess of forces—“the joy of life,” and a desire to communicate in some way or another with other individuals of the same or of other species—in short, a manifestation of sociability proper, which is a distinctive feature of all the animal world.

To exercise one’s capacities to their fullest extent is to take pleasure in one’s own existence, and with sociable creatures, such pleasures are proportionally magnified when performed in company. From the Russian perspective, this does not need to be explained. It is simply what life is. We don’t have to explain why creatures desire to be alive. Life is an end in itself. And if what being alive actually consists of is having powers—to run, jump, fight, fly through the air—then surely the exercise of such powers as an end in itself does not have to be explained either. It’s just an extension of the same principle.

Friedrich Schiller had already argued in 1795 that it was precisely in play that we find the origins of self-consciousness, and hence freedom, and hence morality. “Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man,” Schiller wrote in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man, “and he is only wholly a Man when he is playing.” If so, and if Kropotkin was right, then glimmers of freedom, or even of moral life, begin to appear everywhere around us.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that this aspect of Kropotkin’s argument was ignored by the neo-Darwinists. Unlike “the problem of altruism,” cooperation for pleasure, as an end in itself, simply could not be recuperated for ideological purposes. In fact, the version of the struggle for existence that emerged over the twentieth century had even less room for play than the older Victorian one. Herbert Spencer himself had no problem with the idea of animal play as purposeless, a mere enjoyment of surplus energy. Just as a successful industrialist or salesman could go home and play a nice game of cribbage or polo, why should those animals that succeeded in the struggle for existence not also have a bit of fun? But in the new full-blown capitalist version of evolution, where the drive for accumulation had no limits, life was no longer an end in itself, but a mere instrument for the propagation of DNA sequences—and so the very existence of play was something of a scandal.

It’s not just that scientists are reluctant to set out on a path that might lead them to see play—and therefore the seeds of self-consciousness, freedom, and moral life—among animals. Many are finding it increasingly difficult to come up with justifications for ascribing any of these things even to human beings. Once you reduce all living beings to the equivalent of market actors, rational calculating machines trying to propagate their genetic code, you accept that not only the cells that make up our bodies, but whatever beings are our immediate ancestors, lacked anything even remotely like self-consciousness, freedom, or moral life—which makes it hard to understand how or why consciousness (a mind, a soul) could ever have evolved in the first place.

American philosopher Daniel Dennett frames the problem quite lucidly. Take lobsters, he argues—they’re just robots. Lobsters can get by with no sense of self at all. You can’t ask what it’s like to be a lobster. It’s not like anything. They have nothing that even resembles consciousness; they’re machines. But if this is so, Dennett argues, then the same must be assumed all the way up the evolutionary scale of complexity, from the living cells that make up our bodies to such elaborate creatures as monkeys and elephants, who, for all their apparently human-like qualities, cannot be proved to think about what they do. That is, until suddenly, Dennett gets to humans, which—while they are certainly gliding around on autopilot at least 95 percent of the time—nonetheless do appear to have this “me,” this conscious self grafted on top of them, that occasionally shows up to take supervisory notice, intervening to tell the system to look for a new job, quit smoking, or write an academic paper about the origins of consciousness. In Dennett’s formulation,

Yes, we have a soul. But it’s made of lots of tiny robots. Somehow, the trillions of robotic (and unconscious) cells that compose our bodies organize themselves into interacting systems that sustain the activities traditionally allocated to the soul, the ego or self. But since we have already granted that simple robots are unconscious (if toasters and thermostats and telephones are unconscious), why couldn’t teams of such robots do their fancier projects without having to compose me? If the immune system has a mind of its own, and the hand–eye coordination circuit that picks berries has a mind of its own, why bother making a super-mind to supervise all this?

Dennett’s own answer is not particularly convincing: he suggests we develop consciousness so we can lie, which gives us an evolutionary advantage. (If so, wouldn’t foxes also be conscious?) But the question grows more difficult by an order of magnitude when you ask how it happens—the “hard problem of consciousness,” as David Chalmers calls it. How do apparently robotic cells and systems combine in such a way as to have qualitative experiences: to feel dampness, savor wine, adore cumbia but be indifferent to salsa? Some scientists are honest enough to admit they don’t have the slightest idea how to account for experiences like these, and suspect they never will.

This article was originally published as What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?

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