Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Evolution, knowledge, death, and the meaning of life
Posted March 22, 2012
At 9:00 a.m. on September 18, 2010, a Saturday, I received an email from someone named Mitchell Heisman. The subject line read "suicide note" and attached to the email was a large PDF. About one hour after I received the email, a thirty-five-year-old man named Mitchell Heisman shot himself to death on the steps of Harvard University's Memorial Church - while a Yom Kippur service was going on inside.
I had never heard of Mitchell Heisman and suspect that, with a few exceptions, none of the other people who received the same email knew him either. Although I never open attachments from strangers, that day I did. The file contained a book manuscript, 1,905 pages long, including a 20-page bibliography. I couldn't help but notice that my book Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World was in the list of references. I then discovered that Heisman discussed the book in great detail and in fact had pulled many quotes from it. I was shaken by the possibility that something I wrote could have somehow contributed to someone's decision to end his own life. I started reading the manuscript from the beginning.
I quickly gathered that the book was an intellectual inquiry into human nature, the history of philosophical and political thought in Western societies, the role of science and objectivity in understanding reality, and, ultimately, the meaning of life. The conclusions of the inquiry were not too uplifting.
A couple of hours later, in the midst of my reading, a person named Jared Nathanson replied-all to Mitchell Heisman's note. His email read as follows:
You can't argue the meaning or meaningless qualities of life or Democracy in absolutes. The human mind goes crazy within such attempts of discursive explanation. The idea that anything is meaningless because you cannot fathom meaning or because you can construct an elaborate thesis only exists within your own context.
Life is. We are. Whatever the meaning, the brutality, or beauty, we exist. To say thatthere should be a meaning or that meaning isn't there is in itself, a meaningless task. We exist. The alternative is not to exist. For whatever finite moments of joy and sadness and perhaps intellectual curiosity we experience, we will never solve it all and we (meaning you in this instance) will never come up with a cohesive answer to why one philosophical journey is inherently flawed or not. Like most scholars, you are caught up in the rhetoric of your self-made castle of words.
What I do know is that once life is over, it is very possible that whatever argument you are making ends with the static confines of your thesis and that your drama in presentation will not cause it to go on forever. The vanity of the suicidal person, the self-centered nature causes the need to exit with a bang, to be noticed by the very people who you probably pity and judge as the unwashed masses.
The only way that you can prove your thesis or allow it to live past these few moments and perhaps a tabloid moment on television is to live. Live to argue, live to discuss, live to see if you are right or not. Without you standing by your work, you are abandoning the baby, leaving something you obviously put great time into, simply so you can inaugurate its unique publishing. But your work will die, and not because of a great conspiracy that you think will stifle it, but because the drama of your actions will steal the attention from your work. You will take a work of intellectual labor and reduce it to an episode of the Jersey Shore. That is a sad thing for an intelligent man to do.
If you decide to stay on the planet, I'd be happy to read your work thoroughly and discuss.
I immediately Googled Jared Nathanson and discovered that he was the lead singer of a Boston music band called the Heartsleeves. (On their website, www.heartsleeves.com, they describe their music as "Neo Eclectic, Soul Reflected, Sounds of Real Life!") I decided to email him and ask him what was going on. Jared replied and, among other things, explained to me that
"I knew Mitch, though it must be said I didn't recall his name when I received the email or when I responded. I didn't mean to send my response to everyone, that was unfortunate. As a matter of fact, I wasn't sure at that moment that it wasn't some kind of internet scam. I responded because I had the feeling that I might know this person or at the least, I understood his plight, trying to find meaning in a world without simple moral narratives to guide us."
A few days later, Jared sent me another email with a link to an article about Mitchell Heisman that had just appeared on the online edition of the Boston Globe. In the article, reporter David Abel provided some biographical information about Mitchell, his family and upbringing, and his living conditions prior to his death. Family members and friends remembered him as a gregarious child who had grown introverted after his father died of a heart attack when Mitchell was only twelve years old. He had studied psychology at the University at Albany in New York, where he generally avoided people and spent much of his time reading. After college, Mitchell worked at bookstores and accumulated a library of thousands of books. He then started working on his book full-time. He lived alone and survived on microwave meals, chicken wings, and energy bars. To better concentrate for his writing, Mitchell often listened to a constant loop of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier'' and took Ritalin. On the morning of Yom Kippur, Mitchell showered, shaved, and ate a breakfast of chicken fingers and lentils. He put on a trench coat over a white tuxedo, with white socks and shoes. Then he went to Harvard and shot himself.
Mitchell was on a quest to understand himself and the world around him. As a scholar, he used scientific and logical reasoning to examine and evaluate theories and discoveries produced by biologists, psychologists, historians, philosophers, and other researchers. His inquiry led him to conclude that evolutionary biology provides the most direct answers to questions about the self and human nature. In his book, he argued that many of our emotions, feelings, and thoughts reflect biological predispositions that help us survive and reproduce. He also wrote that many patterns in human history can be understood as the outcome of nepotistic cooperation among members of one's own family or group and competition against members of other groups, and that similar social dynamics occur in other primates as well. When discussing the controversies that followed the publication in 1975 of Edward O. Wilson's book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Mitchell bluntly stated: "The problem is not that sociobiology does not make sense. The problem is that sociobiology makes too much sense."
Satisfied with the way his scientific reasoning produced the knowledge and explanations he was looking for, Mitchell tried to use the same approach to search for a justification of knowledge-seeking in itself and, ultimately, of his own existence. He wanted to be objective at all costs and eliminate all sources of bias that might cloud his analysis, especially the psychological predispositions toward self-interest, survival and reproduction, and life in general. But after searching for and eliminating all of these subjective biases, he couldn't find any rational justification for knowledge or life. So Mitchell concluded that, taken to its extreme, striving for objectivity ultimately leads to nihilism and rational self-destruction. In his own words: "Life is a prejudice that happens to be talented at perpetuating or replicating itself. To attempt to eliminate this source of bias is to open your mind to death. I cannot fully reconcile my understanding of the world with my existence in it. There is a conflict between the value of objectivity and the facts of my life." He committed suicide as an experiment to demonstrate the incompatibility between "truth" and "life."
If Mitchell and I had met and discussed our ideas, I would have agreed with many of his analyses of human nature and human history. I would even have accepted his conclusion that "life is a prejudice that happens to be talented at perpetuating or replicating itself." Unlike Mitchell, however, I don't have any problems with that. I find this "prejudice" to be interesting, beautiful, and well worth living.
Mitchell's death is a great loss for his family, friends, and humankind. But, ultimately, Mitchell was the only one responsible for his death - not the people he met in his life, not the people whose books he read, and certainly not evolutionary biologists and their explanations of life and human nature. As Jared Nathanson tried to explain in his email to Mitchell that didn't reach him in time, the justification for living one's life doesn't come from the explanation of what life is but from life itself. It is possible that had Mitchell lived a better life, he would have chosen to keep on living.
Evolutionary explanations of the origins and processes of life - as opposed, for example, to the religious explanations advanced by creationists - are viewed by critics as being cynical, pessimistic, and depressing because they essentially maintain that life came out of nowhere. It simply emerged from some lucky mix of rocks, gas, and water. Nor is it going anywhere, since evolution does not have an ultimate goal, such as the reaching of complexity or perfection. The "selfish gene" view of natural selection articulated and publicized by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is also accused of being cynical and pessimistic, because it implies that organisms are merely vehicles for genes and that genes are preprogrammed to advance their own cause in the competition with other genes for survival and propagation. Finally, evolutionary explanations of human social behavior are often labeled as cynical because adaptive behavior is viewed as the product of cost-benefit ratios that are advantageous to individuals and their genes, often at the expense of others.
These critics make the same mistake Mitchell made. They misunderstand what science is and what it does. Science produces knowledge and explanations, not philosophical, moral, or religious justifications. Evolutionary biology is a scientific discipline; its job is to help us understand what life is and how it works. Evolutionary biology has no business telling us whether or not life is worth living and why. In my view, whether or not life is worth living depends on the quality of one's own life, which in turn may depend on one's physical and mental health, one's happiness or unhappiness. I like to think that there is a threshold level for quality of life, below which one's life may not be worth living, especially if the prospects for improvement are nonexistent - a rare situation, but one that may nevertheless occur in some unfortunate circumstances.
Science can improve the quality of our lives in many ways, such as through medicine or useful technologies. Knowledge produced by scientific research can also empower us, increasing our capacity to control our lives and accomplish our goals, and knowledge of the natural world and of all living organisms may lead us to an appreciation of the beauty in nature. However, science does not and cannot provide philosophical reasons that justify why life is worth living or why knowledge is worth pursuing.
Nature is neither good nor bad; therefore, explanations of the natural world cannot be optimistic or pessimistic. Nor is human nature simply good or bad, and "rational" explanations of human behavior such as those provided by evolutionary biologists or economists cannot be optimistic or pessimistic, uplifting or depressing, hopeful or cynical. People search for happiness in many different ways throughout their lives, and being happy may include feeling good about oneself and having a positive outlook on life and the world. Although knowledge of oneself and the world may be instrumental in the pursuit of happiness, the truth is that there is no correlation between knowledge and happiness. People who are clueless about themselves and the world can nevertheless be very happy. Understanding ourselves, life, and the world we live in can be useful, and indeed a lot of fun, but I don't think that there is an overall justification for the process of seeking knowledge of the kind that Mitchell Heisman was looking for, just as there is no overall justification or "meaning" of life.
This blog post is the Epilogue of my new book Games Primates Play. If you enjoyed reading it, check out the book (out on March 26)
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