Reproductive success is the primary mechanism shaping life on earth for more than three billion years. Organisms that successfully reproduce the most offspring become most abundant within an ecosystem. Ultimately, what matters is total lifetime reproduction of the organism. Reproductive success has been a spectacularly successful pinnacle—an ultimate goal or final cause—leading to millions of distinct species, and billions of individual living organisms.
What does it take to succeed at reproduction? Bacteria only need nutrients, a non-lethal environment and a short time to grow until they divide asexually via binary fission. Bacterial populations can double as quickly as ten minutes. This is so successful that there may be billions of bacteria species. Insects reproduce sexually and the majority of insects hatch from eggs. This also seems to work well, resulting in about one million described insect species with estimates of perhaps five million species yet to be discovered and described. Increasingly complex organisms have evolved through speciation. Today there are nearly 65,000 described chordate species, including more than 5,000 described mammal species.
Animals, including humans, reproduce by surviving to sexual maturity and mating, followed by conception, gestation, and birth. This leads to the development of many of the most esteemed human traits. Survival requires successful strategies for obtaining food, shelter, and safety including protection from disease, injury, toxins, and predators. Physical strength, mobility, hunting and gathering skills, appraisal of resources, and alertness to dangers, assessment of risks and benefits, planning, disease immunity, healing strategies, and endurance all develop as a result of the need to survive. But more is needed to mate successfully. Coercive approaches to mating rely on dominance—the threat of harm. Dominance is often obtained through a combination of physical size, physical strength, aggression, and fighting ability. The importance of dominance in mating leads to increases in these traits.
Rather than relying on coercion, modern humans increasingly attract mates through some combination of beauty, charm, wit, talent, and practical benefits such as being a good provider. Increases in intelligence, knowledge, humor, cleverness, boldness, charisma, resourcefulness, and other valued human traits are the result.
Mating only results in reproduction if both the male and female are fertile. Fertility requires good health, adequate nutrition, and other conditions. These favorable traits are also promoted to attain successful reproduction.
Placing reproductive success at the pinnacle of life has worked very well, steering human development in many beneficial ways. It has also brought us cockroaches, bacteria, mosquitos, overpopulation, and societal collapse. While reproductive success promotes flourishing as number of offspring, it ignores limits to growth, as it selects for mating success.
Mating also helped to popularize conquest as violent behavior could lead to reproductive benefits. As one famous example, consider Genghis Khan, who started the Mongol invasions that resulted in the conquest of most of Eurasia. These campaigns were often accompanied by wholesale massacres of the civilian populations. Genghis Khan was one of the most powerful warlords during his reign; as a result the harem that he kept was of enormous size.
Perhaps this orgy of fornicating and fighting, raping and pillaging, helped religion to elevate salvation to the pinnacle. The promise was simple and compelling. Follow the divine teachings of your chosen religion and you will enjoy eternal life in paradise. Anger a god or disobey a true prophet, and you will burn in hell.
This was certainly a profound advancement. Often beginning with beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, religions derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. Religion provides a clear understanding of what is good, and can guide humanity toward that good. Religion also answers those nagging questions about life, death, and the origins of the universe.
With salvation at the pinnacle, magnificent places of worship were built, fabulous art work depicting significant people and events in the religious narrative were created, sacred music was written, performed and enjoyed. Study of sacred texts, notably the Gutenberg Bible, served to increase literacy throughout the populace. Codes of moral behavior such as the Ten Commandments, the Talmud, the Noble Eightfold Path, dharma, and sharia all guide the faithful in their daily lives. Flourishing took the form of the pious life.
But religious belief relies on faith, and the dogma preached by the various religions is inherently incompatible. Each distinct religion has its own origin myth, deities, sacred texts, prophets, leaders, beliefs, rules, and customs. Certain beliefs of one religion conflict with beliefs of other religions. This conflict often leads to discord, including religious violence.
Faith can become strained, especially when it is contradicted by empirical evidence. This famously happened when Galileo Galilei came into conflict with the Catholic Church over his support of Copernican astronomy. More recently, modern theories on the formation of the universe and the evolution of life challenge religious origin stories. As explorations continued and worldviews expanded toward a global perspective, the conflicts inherent in the various faiths became obvious.
If faith is not the ultimate answer, then perhaps we need to look toward reason and place Truth at the pinnacle. The age of enlightenment challenged ideas grounded in tradition and faith and began to reform society using reason, and advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange.
And there were always bills to be paid, so it was not long before Adam Smith began to think about economics. In 1776 he published his landmark book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Wealth became the pinnacle, as we learned how division of labor and free markets guided by the invisible hand formed the foundations of capitalism.
With Truth, science, and capitalism all unleashed, the industrial revolution was roaring ahead. This resulted in major technological developments in textile manufacture, metallurgy, mining, steam power, chemicals, machine tools, gas lighting, glass making, paper machine, and agriculture along with advances in transportation systems including, canals, roads, and railways. Material abundance was increasing almost as fast as knowledge. Flourishing took the shape of more. Prosperity was measured in material possessions and knowledge acquisition.
Driven by wealth at the pinnacle, technology advances continued through the second industrial revolution, the atomic age, the jet age, the space age, the digital revolution, and the information age. Progress has been astounding. The measure of “Gross world product”—the combined gross national product of all the countries in the world—is one estimate of economic productivity. This has grown from approximately $128 billion in 1750—just prior to the industrial revolution—to approximately $71,830 billion in 2012. This represents an increase in production by a factor of more than 560 times over that time period.
Yet the world faces grand challenges, including inadequate access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, and malnutrition for millions of people. Obesity, disease, substance abuse, poor physical fitness, and unreliable access to health care services affect billions of people. Many manifestations of poor mental health bring misery to so many people. Poverty, income inequality, homelessness, inadequate education, unemployment, oppression, and discrimination cause great suffering. Various forms of violence, including homicide, terrorism, child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual abuse cause billions of people to live in constant fear. Crimes including gang violence, gun violence, organized crime, human trafficking, hate crimes, and bullying disrupt our lives. Divorce, unintended pregnancies, incarceration, vandalism, and natural disasters upset many lives. Environmental degradation accelerates as we continue to ignore limits to growth. Global warming, destruction of natural habitats, depletion of natural resources, unusually intense natural disasters, accelerated extinction of species, and deforestation continue as we consume the very planet we live on. Ineffective governments contribute to genocide, war, and other assaults on human rights.
Wealth at the pinnacle has exposed many economic faults that contribute to these problems. While so many of us are busy accumulating wealth and gaining knowledge, we seem to be lacking the wisdom we need to live better lives.
The pinnacle establishes a filter, drawing in resources that advance toward the pinnacle and screening out the rest. We were told that “the best things in life are free” but because economic models don’t assign value to so many valuable things, we are missing out on many of the best things in life. The pinnacle creates a sort of super organism that aligns the activities of isolated individuals in such a way that the pinnacle emerges almost unknowingly. Think of thousands of ants instinctively creating an ant hill, or busy bees unknowingly creating the bee hive. Wealth at the pinnacle has aligned us all in creating material wealth for those at the top, while it acts to suppress all else. Knowledge is valued only to the extent it can help create wealth, while ignoring the wisdom that could help us all benefit from a deeper understanding.
We need a broader, more inclusive pinnacle that will help us focus on what matters and draw in clean fresh air, peace of mind, integrity, tranquility, quiet, clean water, the beauty of nature, a healthy environment to enjoy now and sustain for the future, awe, family, friendships, community, safety, stability, trust, leisure time, joyful play, meaningful work, authentic experiences, human virtue, respect, good health, reduced stress, ongoing education, creativity, curiosity, exploration, discovery, deeper understanding and appreciation, enjoyment of the arts, transcendence, and making significant contributions that help others, while it filters out folly and misery. Can we place wisdom itself at the pinnacle?
There are many definitions of wisdom we could choose. I suggest focusing on the simple and practical definition of wisdom as “pursuit of well-being” as a working definition that can have broad appeal. People can easily conceive of well-being as the statement: “all things considered, I am pleased with my life.” Each of us, all of us, can then do whatever improves our own well-being, without jeopardizing the well-being of others. Whenever it becomes possible to improve the well-being of others, we take the opportunity to do so. First, do no harm; reduce the folly. This is essential wisdom.
Well-being is a broader concept than wealth or knowledge, or even happiness. Too little research on well-being has been completed, but some results are available. The book Wellbeing—The Five Essential Elements, by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, identifies these five components of well-being:
- Career or occupational Well-being: how people occupy their time during the day and whether it is fulfilling. Do you like what you do each day?
- Social Well-being: the quality of relationships in people’s lives
- Financial Well-being: the degree of financial security people have
- Physical Well-being: the extent to which people can do what they want to free of pain
- Community Well-being: the extent to which people feel safe and are involved in giving to their community
The concept of flourishing, as explored recently by positive psychology, is “to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.” With that definition flourishing now becomes the pursuit of well-being.
Each of us can achieve well-being by focusing on what matters and applying wisdom as we live each day. There are so many things each person can do to live more wisely.
As history continues to unfold and our perspective broadens we can look back and see that each peak thought of at the time as an ultimate pinnacle is simply another foothill along the path to progress. Let’s work to make wisdom the next pinnacle. Imagine, describe, and help build the wise world we need and want. Pursue well-being. You can bring wisdom to life.