Life without purpose
I was looking out my window when a small beetle landed on it. Like maybe 3mm in diameter. I just crawled around on the glass. While it was there another one landed. I watched to see if they would interact. They didn't and then they flew away.
I don't think beetles like that have a very deep experience of reality and certainly it's different from mine. For the beetle the recently washed window was easy to walk around on and they were just doing a random walk.
A random walk turns out to be a good strategy for finding resources when you can't see very far. I don't think the beetles could perceive the grove of trees outside my window as they sat there. I tried waving and even tapping the glass. No response. I wasn't a part of their world at all.
I wondered about why they didn't respond to tapping the glass. Like my finger was within millimeters of them. But then I realized that I was seeing the beetle from the bottom where it has no eyes so it just didn't have any information that I was there.
This made me think of a seminal point that Richard Dawkins made years ago in his book The Selfish Gene. He wrote at a time when the idea of "the survival of the fittest" was a dominant idea in the popular mind about evolution. That focussed attention on the body. Think big man with big muscles is fitter because they could win fights.
But that's not really how evolution works. We are genetic creatures - we have bodies that grow in a very complex process mediated by genes. Dawkin's point is that the bodies don't reproduce - each child is unique. But genes and communities of genes in our DNA does reproduce.
Dawkins developed the strange idea that bodies were a kind of automaton produced by DNA for the purpose of replicating the DNA.
I think I could see that in these little beetles. I don't know what they were doing there on my window and what was motivating them to move around. It looked random to me but I have no idea what they were perceiving. Perhaps they were grazing on bacteria on the glass that I can't see. Perhaps they were doing a random walk in the hopes of discovering something they could eat or mate with.
I don't imagine that they have any purpose beyond that. Eat till you mate and then your young eat till they mate and then their young eat till they mate . . .. (repeat).
Mammals and birds are more complicated. Intention seems to be more and more involved. A beaver isn't just cutting down trees at random. It's looking for food and material for it's dam. We can build a story that the behavior is all just mindless instinct - but that's not the way it seems.
Similar with birds building very complex and highly stylized nests. Why did a bower bird choose just -that- trinket and put it just -there- - sure does look intentional.
Once I watched an eagle hunting coots. The coots were hard to get because the flock was watching in all directions and a single cry would make them all dive under water where the eagle couldn't get them. The eagle seemed cunning. It would fly at the flock and they'd dive and after a wait the eagle would swoop in again. This repeated several times. One time the eagle cut short the wait and came back quickly and caught an early rising coot.
That eagle knew what they were doing. Was it instinct or learned or intentional? Does the category matter? In the long run eagles and coots are automatons carrying their genes into the future.
People are very intentional. It's not that we don't have a genetic base to lots of our behaviors and capabilities - it's rather that in people other replicants besides genes have emerged; we call them memes People can decide to go against the interests of their genes and (say) forgo children.
But do we have any more control over memes than we do over genes?
What do you think?