On sausage machines


Bertrand Russell once wrote about the kind of people who want to get to the bottom of themselves, to find their true selves. People like me.

He made the analogy of a sausage machine. A sausage machine is quite content as long as it is doing what it was designed to do: making sausages. But as soon as it stops and inspects itself and wonders what all this complicated machinery could be for, it becomes a little dissatisfied. It starts worrying that sausage-making is perhaps not good enough. There must be something more.

I agree with this. I think a computer is for computing, a pen is for writing and as long as they are doing what they are designed to do they are as fulfilled and content as they can be. There is no need for even more meaning. To carry out their function is to be in tune with their nature. If computers and pens could lead fulfilled lives, then computing and writing respectively is all they need.

I think the same applies to animals. The biological function of animals is to reproduce. This is what they are designed for. Of course they have to survive long enough to be able to do that. They therefore need to eat and sleep. Evolution has made sex, eating and sleeping pleasurable so as to persuade us animals to engage in those activities.

Animals are really just gene machines. They are mobile chunks of meat made to the genes’ recipe as a way of getting the latter into the next generation. So as long as animals are eating, sleeping, having sex and protecting their young they are living in accordance with their design and they shouldn’t need anything more than that.

Humans are animals so the same applies, yet we are a bit more complicated since we can take a mental step back and inspect ourselves as if from the outside. We can ask ourselves what all this is about. This self-analysis puts us at one remove from our spontaneous desires and our animal-like selves and frequently makes us imagine that we are actually for something other than just living to reproduce. Maybe God has a plan for us? Maybe I am being prepared for a life after this one when the real meaning will become clear? Maybe I should be fulfilling myself by writing and learning rather indulging in animals pleasures and reproducing my genes?

I don’t think there are meanings floating around in the universe waiting for us to come across and pick up but I do think that there are activities that are important to humans that aren’t important to other animals. These activities are weird spin-offs from our primary needs and desires. They include things like writing books, scoring goals in football matches and furthering the cause of your preferred religion, among other things.

These secondary goals are often novel ways of impressing the opposite sex and thus, if you’re lucky, mating. One man wants to be a second Shakespeare while another wants to score the winning goal at Wembley but both are driven by the same instinct to impress girls. They are just variations on the strutting peacock and the chest-beating gorilla.

Strangely, these new, non-primary goals can loom so large in a person’s life that they replace the original goal of passing on one’s genes. Then people do odd things like deciding not to have children and instead to follow their career or dedicate themselves to some other interest.

In a way this is cheating their genes. Genes built our brains so as to give us some autonomy over our basic instincts. They hoped that a big brain would help humans survive long enough to have children and thus produce more copies of their genes. It is therefore unfortunate for genes that some humans use the big brains they have been gifted with to thwart the plans of their genes. That’s pretty impressive but at the same time horribly ungrateful.

Still, this may be a temporary blip. After all, those who choose to read, write and do arithmetic rather than have children will leave fewer descendants than those who prefer to eat, sleep and reproduce. The fine art of wooing the opposite sex as an end in itself will die out.

Anyway, whether you have secondary or primary aspirations, as long as they seem meaningful and important to you you will probably be content and fulfilled enough. Unless, that is, you wake up one day and wonder if all your book-learnin’ and childlessness were really what you wanted after all. Maybe you only thought you wanted them because that was fashionable in your 20th century western liberal bubble. Once you step outside that bubble such a life can start to look sterile and pointless. Unfortunately it will then be too late to do anything about it. So, perhaps better not to question in the first place whether your commitment-free life was really what you wanted after all.


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