The gene-centered theory of evolution, popularized in the book The Selfish Gene, posits that living beings are survival vehicles constructed by genes in order to protect and project themselves into the future. The vehicles are designed, or rather, have been selected by the trial and error process of life, for the sole purpose of survival. A force drives the whole process forward, what Schopenhauer calls the will, the will of life.
To ensure survival, the genes must not only control physical features, but also the survival vehicle’s direction, its behavior. They drive us through our feelings. Our imperatives are feelings of hunger, thirst, fear, libido, etc. needed for survival that we share with other species, and a longer list that are peculiarly ours: love, friendship, loyalty, injustice, greed, generosity, envy, pride and many more that come from our need to socialize in order to survive.
Feelings are only partially affected by our rational mind but in the end they rule and override any carefully concocted logical conclusion. How we make major decisions in our lives is the result of an emotional computation that is partially and often totally inaccessible to our consciousness. Do we understand why we fall in and out of love? In the end, our gene-programmed emotions are in command, often without our conscious awareness.
We are the least aware of the most fundamental of feelings because it is so intrinsic to our condition as living beings. Our genes ensure that we always feel the desire to live and that it pushes us to endure the pains and sorrows the wheel of life may deal. This thirst for life and all other emotions are the whips of our condition as slaves, the strings in our condition as puppets, and how our genes command us to continue struggling in the valley of tears, oblivious to our suffering, cognizant only of their own best interest, their survival.
But how can we embrace a notion of slavery, so contrary to our common self-image? What became of our own will, our free will? Can we accept that we are marionettes jerked around by our genetically prescribed emotions, that we are slaves of the will of life, that our genes control us by giving us pleasure or pain according to whether our actions are good or bad for their survival? Can we believe that every aspect of our conduct, our virtues and faults, as well as our abilities, all of what we recognize as human nature, is nothing but the result of evolution, of the will of life to survive? This is such a dark and pessimistic view of the human condition! How do we reconcile it with our enthusiasm, our joie de vivre? Or are these just illusions created by the will of life to coax us into carrying on? If we accept the gene-centered theory of evolution there is no choice.
Schopenhauer published his insight on the will and its control over the human condition in 1819, well ahead of Darwin’s theory of evolution (1859). He also wrote about the relationship between art and the will, in particular of music. He proposed that music gave a direct insight and connection with the will, the hidden realm of one’s emotions, because it did not attempt to represent or communicate with the rational mind. He saw art as a way to at least temporarily free us from the slavery of the will. Abstract art is the plastic counterpart to music. It also attempts to communicate with the will directly, tame it, and offer liberation. Can we get a respite from our slavery, or is it inescapable and the feeling of liberation just another one of the will’s illusions?
This is as far as language will take us. Go look and feel.