You are reading a particular chapter of the

book ‘The Purpose of Life’.

2.2 Work

So what are we all chasing in life? Everyone seems to be pursuing some things, right? For many people, it is probably money. In today’s world, that is immensely important — at the basic level we need money to survive, to feed ourselves and our families. And at a higher level, money can get us all kinds of luxuries to live life to its fullest. But surely, that is not all we are seeking. And it’s probably true that the ‘greatest’ people who walked this earth didn’t really care that much about money — Gandhi, Einstein and others. They all chased different ideals —  freedom and equality, scientific discovery, etc. So, clearly, each person is chasing a different ideal or thing, and we are all different in what we choose to pursue. Right? Not so fast.

It may appear that we are not all chasing a common ideal or thing, but if we dig deeper we realize that all of these ‘different’ things we want to achieve are merely different strategies to achieve the same goal — higher status in society. Money is one way to get there, but there are so many different ways. People pursue knowledge, human rights, and many other ideals. But how can we know if it’s in fact pursuit of a higher social status that is driving all these strategies? One piece of evidence is the existence of hierarchies — everywhere you see there seem to be social hierarchies, some not as obvious as others. Posts and titles that signify your position in the social hierarchy exist in virtually any organization — academia, business, health / hospitals, and are actually most prominent in religions, even the ones that denounce materialism.

“Religious leaders tend to have high status, and it is not beyond the pale to see their preachings as a form of exploitation, a subtle bending of the listener’s will to the speaker’s goals. Certainly Jesus’ teachings, and the Buddha’s teachings, and Lao-tzu’s teachings had the effect of amplifying the power of Jesus and Buddha and Lao-tzu, raising their stature within a growing group of people.” — Robert Wright (Moral Animal, L6408)

Dig deep into any particular pursuit, passion, career, and you will find that the intention is always to climb to the top of some or the other hierarchy. Hierarchies have existed not only in the primate species from which we have evolved, but many other mammals as well.

“If you took a zoologist from another planet, showed him our family tree, and pointed out that the three species nearest our limb were inherently hierarchical, he would probably guess that we are too. If you then told him that hierarchy is indeed found in every human society where people have looked closely for it, and among children too young to talk, he might well consider the case closed.” — Robert Wright (Moral Animal, L4144)

But this is harsh, right? This perspective seems to discredit the greatest of the great and reduces everything they did to a very ordinary goal of achieving higher status. However, we must understand again that all of this works at the subconscious level — it is not that Gandhi thought, “leading a freedom struggle is an ideal way for me to achieve higher social status”. As we saw earlier, evolution shapes the things we do by creating feelings that operate at an unconscious level. And these feelings were probably common among all great men — tremendous passion and drive, a great desire to achieve some ideal for society. Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King truly felt that freedom and equality are ideals worth dying for, and this theory doesn’t question that at all. All it says is — the drive we feel to achieve things and make a difference is ultimately related to our genes achieving their objective as it helps us achieve a higher social status.

“the social discourses that supposedly lead to truth — moral discourse, political discourse, even, sometimes, academic discourse — are by Darwinian lights, raw power struggles.” — Robert Wright (Moral Animal, L5636)

Again, we are trying to answer the question — why do we do all the things we do? Most of us seem to spend a majority of our day working toward something we want to achieve or attain. To many people this is a degree, a job, a higher designation / position. To many visionaries and leaders it is to achieve some or the other ideal. To many religious people it is to attain a higher post, higher knowledge or salvation. But all of these pursuits are motivated by an inner drive. The argument is that this ‘drive’, just like every tendency and emotion that we feel, is ultimately serving the purpose of our genes. How does it do that? The drive ultimately helps us achieve higher social status. How status really helps our genes is something we will explore in detail in the next few chapters. 

In especially happy or driven moments, we often hear people say how they will one day “rule the world”. Or that “I am the king of the world” (Titanic). Or that “they are on top of the world”. Unfortunately, we don’t hear very often someone scream with joy saying “I want to help this world!” or “May everyone in the world be happy!”. Such is the nature of our drive and even our happiness — it’s ultimate purpose is to be on top of the world, to achieve the highest social status and when we actually feel a sense of achievement or feel ecstatic, it comes out in so many words.

I admit that it may be hard to see your own pursuits in this light. You may be thinking, I’m pursuing design, or teaching or whatever because that’s my passion. Not because of some social status thing! But think again. Within that particular field, what really are you pursuing? You want to get better at it right? You want to improve. You want to contribute and make a difference. These are the ‘proximate causes’. From an evolutionary perspective, what you really want is appreciation and recognition. You may not care about being a world famous celebrity, but you want the design or art community, or just people around you to think you are valuable, you have something to contribute. You want someone else to appreciate you or validate you.

Whatever work fails to achieve this, quickly dies. We say there is no ‘market’ for it, but that’s just another way to say you didn’t get the appreciation you hoped for. You may seek this validation by selling your product or service to others. You may seek it from your coworkers or bosses. Or you may seek it by selflessly helping others for no money. The sources are many but ultimately, through your work or passion, you are seeking love, recognition and validation from others. In the corporate world they call it sales and profits. In politics they call it power. In evolutionary language, we call that social status.

It’s not hard to see how even this very piece of writing and my pursuit of answers to the biggest questions in life emerge from this same drive to pursue higher status. I have always had an obsession with trying to figure out the purpose of life — of my life and of life in general. You can say it’s been one of my biggest passions and interests. This started at a young age, and I have no clue how or why – just like how it is with most such ‘passions’ people have. I very sincerely feel that this pursuit is incredibly important. I have been very driven to find answers and spread the truth to the whole world. But of course this passion and drive is just another ‘game’ — another endeavour that may ultimately lead to higher status in society. We all feel driven toward our passions and interests and we don’t really stop to think why they exist or where it is indirectly leading us. We don’t consciously realise it but ultimately these are all just different routes to achieve higher and higher social status.

Now, how does a higher social status serve the purpose of the genes? That is exactly the topic of the next few chapters.