I remember asking my father what he thought the meaning of life was as he was close to his death. He said "for your children." I sighed. Immediately I realized that even my children's purpose would be to have more children, whose purpose was to have more... It seemed the explanation never touched the ground, like a loop of Fred Flintstone's whirring feet blurred beneath his rockmobile, far from Bedrock.
My father was smarter than that, of course, and added "to give your children a better life than your own." I was still unsatisfied, but it sounded better, nobler -- at least it involved progress. But why should progress matter? In some ways, it begged more questions than it answered.
But when you consider the nature of life and inheritance, his answer was an apt description of what's really happening, at least on some level. Is a chicken just a way to make another egg, as they say? Are we just vehicles for immortal entities, for genes, as Dawkins famously wrote in the 1970s?
We seem to know about it without reflecting much. People talk about living on in their children all the time. We stare into our children's faces and see ourselves extending into the future, on some level identifying with what survives us. We identify as individual mortals with the immortal genes, those replicating structures that persist at least in part through generations, imperfectly and incompletely, yet still persist in a meaningful way.
Reproduction is a bottleneck through which we stuff some of ourselves, a kind of SOS we toss into the ocean of the future from the isolated island of our lifetime. It makes sense just from the simple algebra of replication that any being who did a better job of moving replication along would persist better, especially as it requires limited resources. What better sign of loyalty than identification, like the double helix ladder-climbing manager who represents the owner's interests while she's on vacation?
But what of the other species of immortal? The meme? Most of us long to be remembered. To leave a mark, to write that book, make that film, achieve that goal that will extend beyond our lifetimes. Statues, monuments, names etched in stone. And some people promise to remember us after we die, or take care of our family, and then ask us to sacrifice ourselves. And sometimes we do.
So here we are, with dreams of immortality, myths about it, delusions about it, and I wonder whose interests it really serves. Because we are obviously not immortal. Could it be that in part our fantasies of immortality and identification with genes and memes are shaped by the logic of replication, and not our own individual lived interests? Could it be possible that acknowledging mortality is what's in our best living interests? Knowledge of mortality can be among the greatest of gifts, pushing us to be authentic and make every moment count.
But wait. If I do that, then my team of immortals will leave me in the dust and ashes... Am I really willing to say goodbye to them?
And then there's always the possibility that they're actually not immortal, after all.