Existential Esteem

Or: Humans Aren’t Special.

Existential philosophy maintains that life is an inherently meaningless endeavor. We are born, and shortly thereafter, we will die. Any greater purpose assigned to life is something that we manufacture to reduce the anxiety provoked by acknowledging this reality. Life is meaningful because we give life meaning. I am inclined to regard this as truth for the most part. There isn’t some sacred meaning of life beyond the continuation of our species, as far as I can tell.

Wolves probably aren’t preoccupied with ensuring that they have a meaningful life beyond having as many pups as they can manage. Domesticated animals do not pretend that there is some greater purpose for their existence. They sleep, eat, play, fuck, and die. They are no different than humans were before we started compulsively searching for the eternally secret and mystical purpose of life. Not all life, mind you, just human life. Most people have no issues with assigning zero meaning to the life of animals, yet feel that human existence is special, and must have some sort of  transcendent purpose.

Humans are a species that can no longer accept that our existence is meaningless. We need greater meaning, because we need to be special, which is one point of discussion that is not actually the result of the Self-Esteem Movement. Being too much like the other animals invalidates our collective feelings of superiority, so we have gone about much of our existence attempting to prove that humans are not animals.

The unfortunate part about all of this involves the tremendous amount of power and freedom that accompany embracing the meaninglessness of life. Not only can we choose the purpose of our own lives, we have the intellectual capacity to be aware of this and act on it. We are free to captain our own ships, and joyfully run them aground if we wish. Few of us choose to act on this knowledge because accepting this power admits that humans are not special as a species.

Humans and the other great apes diverged at the point that humans discovered fire. That’s it. That is the singular thing that made us different. Had some other kind of primate discovered the usefulness of fire before our predecessors, then another kind of ape would be writing this book and I would be very contently living in a jungle somewhere.

Until the discovery of fire, the apes that would eventually become humans ate plants and sometimes raw meat. Somewhere along the line, they harnessed the power of fire, using it to provide warmth and/or as an instrument of fear against the other ape tribes. Probably by accident, one of them threw a dead animal into the fire and came to the conclusion that eating cooked meat was infinitely preferable to eating the raw meat that was occasionally available.

My theory on how humans came to cook with fire is (very obviously) all conjecture on my part, but this next bit is entirely factual. The benefits of eating cooked meat are that it offers higher caloric and nutritional content, is easier to chew, and easier to digest. The result is a diet that requires less time and effort to obtain the same nutritional value.

The human brain accounts for 2% of our mass but uses 20% of our resting energy to work in the way we have become accustomed to. Gorillas have brains that are approximately one-third the size of human brains, containing one-third the neurons. In order to maintain this, most Gorillas spend approximately nine hours per day eating raw plant material. To have a brain equivalent to a human brain, they would need to eat for approximately two more hours every day.

The low calorie raw plant diet of many primates prevent them from achieving a human like brain because there is simply not enough time for them to ingest the calories needed to maintain it. Even if a certain kind of ape did accomplish this, they would have time to do nothing but eat and sleep, likely rendering their increased cognitive abilities useless.

Pre-humans were spending less time grazing, and more time observing their surroundings, socializing with other proto-humans, and engaging in any number of activities that are more intellectually stimulating than foraging and eating for hours on end. More time to learn and socialize combined with an excess of nutrients allowed our brains to grow and develop beyond those of other primates.

So, yes, the discovery of (cooking with) fire is essentially the only thing that sets humans apart from the other apes. We would do well to stop pretending that we aren’t just (mostly) hairless apes that live in houses, have jobs, and pay taxes.

You aren’t special. I’m not special. Humans aren’t special. But that’s totally okay, especially with regard to existential thought. Embracing our lack of inherent meaning can help us to achieve a life that is freer and happier than the ones we usually pursue.

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