The Whale of Magrathea Teaches the Meaning of Life

As the whale and biology tell us, life has no inherent meaning.

Posted Jun 20, 2018

At one point in Douglas Adams's hilarious Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a baby sperm whale has some thoughts as it plummets toward the planet Magrathea. This appealing but doomed animal had just been "called into existence" several miles above the planet's surface, when one of two nuclear missiles, directed at our heroes' space ship, had been inexplicably – and indeed, improbably - transformed via an "Infinite Improbability Drive." (The other missile was turned into a bowl of petunias.)

I’ll let the masterful and much-missed Mr. Adams take it from here:

And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.

This is a complete record of its thoughts from the moment it began its life till the moment it ended it.

“Ah … ! What’s happening?” it thought.
“Err, excuse me, who am I?”
“Hello?”
“Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life?” ...
“Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I’m quite dizzy with anticipation” …
“And wow! Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like … own … found … round … ground! That’s it! That’s a good name – ground!”
“I wonder if it will be friends with me?”
And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence.
Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was “Oh no, not again.” Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.

One thing we know about the nature of the universe is that evolution, too, is an improbability generator, although its outcomes are considerably more finite than a single sperm whale (however doomed and adorable), not to mention that bowl of petunias. But the key point for our purposes is that after we are called into existence by that particular improbability generator called natural selection, human beings have no more purpose in life than Douglas Adams's naive and ill-fated whale, whose blubber was soon to bespatter the Magrathean landscape.

Let’s start with some pure biology: nobody gets out of here alive. And at the other end, nobody got here except through a chance encounter between a particular sperm and a particular egg. Had it been a different sperm, or a different egg, the result would have been a different individual. Biology again. We, like all other sexually reproducing creatures, result from the conjunction of certain types of matter known as sperm and egg, nucleotides, proteins, carbohydrates and a very large number of other purely physical entities, with nothing approaching “purpose” anywhere to be seen. Finally, as to why we are here, the life sciences once again have an answer: human beings, like all other beings, aren’t here for any purpose that in any way transcends what their genes were up to in the first place. Evolution is a genetic process, and all bodies have been “created,” unlike Adams’ Magrathean whale, for no purpose except the dissemination of certain genes.

Admittedly, there isn’t much in gene propagation itself to make the heart sing. And in an increasingly overcrowded, polluted and resource depleted world there is much reason to deny its prodding. It is not something to sneer at, however; after all, every one of your direct ancestors has reproduced, without ever missing a beat, going back to the primordial ooze. But at the same time, no one likes to be manipulated, even when the manipulator is our own DNA! At the same time, as Richard Dawkins emphasized so dramatically at the end of The Selfish Gene, it is well within the human repertoire to rebel against our evolutionary purpose(lessness), thereby saying “No” to our genes.

Homo sapiens is probably the only life-form with this capability and indeed, the human search for meaning has been as persistent as it is inchoate. Where, then, does biological insight leave the human search for meaning? I see two fundamental possibilities. On the one hand, we can delude ourselves, clinging to the infantile illusion that some One, some Thing, is looking over us, somehow orchestrating the universe with each of us personally in mind. Or, we can face, squarely, the reality that life in general and our individual life in particular is inherently meaningless.

Here is a forthright acknowledgment to this effect from Heinrich Heine. In his poem, “Questions,” we are introduced to someone who asked the waves, “What is the meaning of Man? Whence did he come? Whither does he go? Who dwells up there on the golden stairs?” And in response: “The waves murmur their eternal murmur, the wind blows, the clouds fly, the stars twinkle, indifferent and cold, and a fool waits for an answer.”

This does not imply giving up on the search for meaning. Quite the contrary, it italicizes the foolishness of waiting for the world to provide an answer, expecting it (the waves, the wind, the clouds, the stars, our fellow creatures or a human-crafted written text) to reveal our meaning or purpose, as though these somehow exist outside ourselves, just waiting to be uncovered. Instead of despair, this perspective opens a creative locus of compatibility: between a recognition of life’s biologically based meaninglessness and another recognition, of the responsibility for people to achieve meaning in their lives - not by hiding behind the dictates of dogma, or the promise of a “purpose” preprogrammed for each individual, but by how each of us choose to live his or her life in a world that is inherently lacking in purpose.

Call it a kind of evolutionary existentialism. In an absurd, inherently meaningless world – our unavoidable evolutionary legacy as material creatures in a physically bounded universe – the only route to meaning is to achieve it by how we engage our own sentient existence. This vision of life’s absurdity is not surprising. It is, in fact, altogether appropriate, given that human beings – just as all other living things – are the products of a mindless evolutionary process whereby genes joust endlessly with other genes to get ahead. “Winners” are simply those who happen to be among those left standing whenever a census is taken, but how shallow that the only “goal” is to stay in the game as long as possible!  Moreover, it is ultimately a fool’s game, in which we and our DNA can never cash in our chips and go home.

And that, pure and simple, is life. The take-home message: It’s up to us to make the best of it.

David P. Barash is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book, Through a Glass Brightly: using science to see our species as we really are, will be published summer 2018 by Oxford University Press.