A Most Selfish Act

June 28, 2009 – Is the “right” of human reproduction beyond question?

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

This post may rile some people, perhaps many people, who thoughtlessly regard human reproduction as an innate right, although antagonism is not my intent. My goal is to provoke thought and encourage human beings to use their intellect to evolve for the better. Although I honestly prefer the company of animals, I genuinely like people, even children in small doses :-), and harbor no animosity toward those who reproduce, even those who reproduce to excess. I simply wish people would be a little more thoughtful when reproducing, particularly when it comes to planning how they’re going to support their progeny. Furthermore, I’m not using the word selfish contemptuously, but as a precise clinical term.

Selfish Genes

People often speculate on the meaning or purpose of life. I’ve long believed the meaning and purpose of life is exceedingly simple: to propagate our genes. That’s it. Anyone believing that humans exist for some lofty, noble purpose is mistaken. We are gene factories, nothing more, as is every other organism on the planet. Every human being, every fish, every bird, every insect, every plant, every bacterium is competing against every other organism and species in a race with no finish line to propagate its genes.

There can be no more selfish an act than propagating one’s genes, as genes are the most fundamental essence of the physical self, which is the primary reason why I call reproduction a selfish act. We are programmed by our genes to reproduce, programmed, for example, to respond viscerally to the sight of an attractive potential sexual partner. It really is not our fault that we are driven to reproduce, but unlike the lowly insects which are robotic prisoners of their genetic programming, we possess the intellect with which to override ours.

Ancient History

Mother nature, usually demonstrating uncanny wisdom, seems to have flubbed the creation of human beings. She blessed human beings with a powerful urge to reproduce – as powerful as that in any other creature – and at the same time she gave human beings an intellect that enabled the species to partially escape the constraints of nature imposed on all other species, yet not quite enough of an intellect to recognize the folly of such behavior and refrain from it. The result of this mishap of design is that human beings have been able to reproduce more or less without bound, resource limitations notwithstanding, all the while failing to concede the obvious, that such growth is impossible in the long run on a finite world.

There may have been a time, until as recently as perhaps a few hundred years ago, when unfettered human reproduction was tolerable, perhaps even desirable because all those bodies and minds working in concert enabled humans to make enormous technological advances. When human technology was immature and human beings were still largely subject to the whims and ravages of nature, maybe it made sense to procreate liberally. Yet this ancient demand to procreate seems to have lingered in our collective consciousness, and to this day all human cultures regard human reproduction as an innate right, sacred and beyond challenge. Since the dawn of recorded human history, human reproduction and population growth has been relentless, unquestioned, as if on auto-pilot, but the fact that something has always been a certain way is not a sound argument for perpetuating it.

Selfish Rationales

Besides the inherently selfish nature of reproduction embodied in our genes, every human rationale for having children is also fundamentally selfish.

In ancient times and in poor countries to this day, people had and have excesses of children to help secure resources for themselves, a purely selfish motivation. People have long had children to take care of them in their old age, an obviously selfish rationale. People selfishly have children to stave off loneliness. People have children to carry on the family line and name, in other words, for gene propagation, even though people don’t think of it in such unflattering clinical terms. People have children because they believe they possess good characters or qualities that they can impart to their children, selfishly seeking to propagate their psychological traits just like their genetic traits. Related to the previous two rationales is the rationale that one’s “inferiors” are reproducing, so one must also reproduce to keep up, which reflects both the competitive programming built into our genes and the selfish conviction that one has qualities worth perpetuating. Finally, a great many children are the result of “accidents,” but are such “accidents” not more accurately characterized as selfish indifference to the potential consequences of sexual gratification?

I cannot think of a single rationale for reproduction that doesn’t involve selfishness on the part of the parents, not that the rationales listed above are necessarily bad, but people should at least honestly acknowledge the fundamentally selfish nature of reproduction. People reproduce for their own interest, not that of the resultant children. After all, the children don’t even exist prior to reproduction, so how could any rationale possibly be aimed at benefiting the children? If procreation were truly about “the children” instead of selfish personal interest, then we would show a heck of a lot more interest in taking care of the multitudes of neglected children already suffering around the planet.

I have occasionally dreamed of having children of my own, but have always ended up recognizing that my motivations are ultimately one or more of the above. Besides, I honestly admit to myself that I don’t want to assume the responsibility of supporting and caring for children, which, ironically, is also an attitude borne of selfishness! But at least my “selfish” decision to not have children does not encumber the planet with another mouth to feed, making it the less “selfish” choice of the two.

Conclusion

The issue of uncontrolled human reproduction is an important philosophical one that needs to be raised, because something that cannot continue forever will not. We are seeing proliferating indications – increasing pollution, depleted fisheries, spreading food and water scarcity, accelerating species extinction – that there are simply too many human beings on the planet. There was evidently a time, perhaps hundreds of years ago, when the planet was capable of renewing itself at least as rapidly as humans were exploiting it, but today the earth is clearly losing the battle with man.

I’m not advocating eugenics or involuntary prohibitions on reproduction. I’m just hoping to get people to think before they act. Perhaps, though, expecting people to regulate their own behavior is expecting too much. Perhaps the human species is not capable of overriding its genetic programming after all. However, it’s crystal clear that we can choose to voluntarily moderate our behavior or mother nature, in her eternal, patient wisdom, will do it for us, unceremoniously erasing her previous mistake.

We human beings like to think of ourselves as the most important creatures on earth, if not the entire universe, possessing a “divine” right to procreate at will, blissfully ignorant of the problems ensuing from our feckless procreation. Perhaps it’s time we took a long, hard look at our behavior and maybe started taking some deliberate steps toward voluntarily reducing our numbers on earth, not only for the benefit of the earth and its myriad other species, but for the sake of our own species as well. Fear not for the planet, however, for should we humans succeed in extincting ourselves, life on this planet will happily continue and thrive without us.

The End