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Animal Behavior

Animal Behavior and the Meaning of Life

Behaviors across species have meaning and purpose beyond the need for survival.

This blog post addresses behavior across all animal species. It considers what we can learn about behavior when we do not limit our study to just humans. Studying nonhuman animal behaviors is something that often can be done in much more strict, objective ways than studying human behaviors. We can study nonhuman animals for longer periods of time without objection and can be much more rigid in choosing where and when we study the behaviors. Given that we can be much more scientific in how we study nonhuman animals, it is worth considering how much we can learn about behavior, regardless of what species we are considering, from that sort of study.

Studying nonhuman animal behavior to determine how it applies to all behaviors, including human behaviors, warrants asking about purpose. If we are asking what all behaviors have in common, then it is also useful to ask if all these behaviors have the same purpose. Questioning the purpose of behaviors then leads to deeper questions about the meaning of why we do anything at all. All animals sleep, wake up and then start doing things. They then go to sleep and start the whole process over again. What all animals do during the day follows similar rules — these are the rules that govern behavior, and it is worth looking at whether they are all done for similar purposes.

“Why are we here?” “What is the meaning of life?” These are questions that are unique to human beings. Other animal species do not ask questions like these. But not asking the questions does not mean that other animals do not have meaning or purpose. And it does not mean that their behaviors are meaningless. It just means that the questions themselves about purpose and meaning may be unnecessary.

Asking questions about meaning does not increase the actual meaning that exits. And being able to answer the question in complex ways does not actually mean that the answer has to be that complex. It may just be that the individual has decided that a more straightforward and direct answer can never do and that the answer has to be complex.

When we look at human behaviors and nonhuman behaviors, it all clearly has a purpose. Humans behave in certain ways for a variety of reasons. Nonhumans also behave in certain ways for a variety of reasons. Even though the ultimate meaning of these behaviors may differ, what does not differ is that the behaviors do have some meaning. There are purpose and meaning to behaviors of all species, and that purpose and meaning are there even if the species cannot explain, or even question, what they are.

Looking at behaviors across all animal species can be tricky because behaviors across species are often so different. What behaviors are exhibited can vary so much that it can be very difficult to see what they have in common. Identifying the commonalities can be very important, even if it is difficult, for understanding what we mean by “behaviors” and how we can go about changing behaviors.

All behaviors are directed in some ways to help members of a species survive and reproduce. That is at the heart of what is taught with evolution. It is also at the heart of what is meant by phrases like “survival of the fittest.” This is a phrase meant to reflect that members of species develop physical, cognitive and/or emotional traits that make it more likely that they will be able to take advantage of what is in their environment to help them thrive and survive.

When scientists use phrases like “survival of the fittest,” it can be pretty depressing. For one reason, the phrase suggests that strength, however that is defined, is the primary ingredient needed for survival. All other factors seem to become secondary. And then, for another reason, it suggests that surviving is the only reason animals, including human animals, exist. Suggesting that the only purpose of existing is to keep surviving is a pretty depressing thought. Almost like the answer to the question about meaning is “we exist so that we can keep on existing.”

Lacking a real purpose to life is actually one of the most limiting features of evolution. When evolution is described by scientists, they usually stop at survival as being the only reason that any animal, and really any living thing, exists. Everything in evolution is directed towards survival and we all evolve as a way of continuing to exist. It is hard not to think of all this as reflecting that survival is the only purpose of life. When we ask the question “What is the meaning of life?” from an evolutionary perspective, much of what scientists say indicates that the answer is “surviving.”

But, I would say that this is a misinterpretation of what all this really means. Much of evolution in the natural world is geared to survival. When we evolve as a species we do so as a way of making it more likely that we will survive and have offspring. Changes among all animal species are directed to making it more likely that the individual members of the species will survive.

Survival is the purpose of evolution but that does not mean it is the purpose of life. Saying that we evolve to make it more likely that we survive does not mean that is the only reason we evolve. Species evolve to increase their likelihood of survival but the reasons why the species exist, and why they would need to survive, goes beyond that point.

It is often said that every living thing has a purpose in this world, and when you look at the whole world, it is hard to argue that point. All animal species seem to have a purpose. That purpose may, as is the case with humans, be to try and make the world better. Or it may be that the purpose, as in the case of many types of insects, is to keep control over what happens in nature. Many animal species have the main purpose of being food for other animal species.

Saying that being a source of food for another animal species may be counter-intuitive when thinking about meaning. But if some animal species have the role of changing the world or keeping the world running, then having sources of food to keep them healthy would be an important purpose. One species could not maintain their purpose without having the other species available as a food source. Each species plays its role and each role is important.

Humans are not the only species that have a purpose in this world. They are not the only species whose life has meaning. Where humans differ is that we are the only species that thinks about and questions their purpose and meaning of life. Other animal species have meaning but do not take time and effort thinking about and questioning it. All other animal species go on living their meaningful lives without questioning what that meaning is.

If you think about this you should realize that being the only species that thinks about meaning and purpose is not always a good thing. Questioning whether your life has meaning does not actually make your life more meaningful than another individual who does not question. Humans can get bogged down with anxiety and depression as they question whether their lives have meaning and how to bring more purpose to their lives. Nonhuman animals have just as much purpose and meaning in their lives but do not get bogged down in worrying what those purposes and meanings are.

All of this suggests that one thing human and nonhuman animals have in common is that they are behaving and living their daily lives with purpose. It is hard to say for sure but it is not difficult to imagine that every animal, regardless of what they are doing, has some sort of purpose in their daily life. What may differ is what purpose their lives serve. And what also differs is whether the purpose an animal species serves is one that another species would necessarily see as important. There also is the difference about whether any other species, compared to humans, actually asks any questions about whether there is purpose in what they do.

But living a purposeful life does not mean that anyone else has to see that life as purposeful. And living a purposeful life does not mean that it has to serve a similar purpose to what other species serve. Our world is complex and it takes many different roles to make it run the way it should. If every species served the same purpose, the world would likely come to a screeching halt. Species are interconnected but that connection does not mean they are all doing the same thing. And living a purposeful life does not even mean that you have to ask whether you are living a purposeful life.

It is also the case that living a purposeful and meaningful life does not mean that you have to live what someone would call a “long” life. Evolution stresses survival but it typically stresses this as optimal survival. Species seek changes and behaviors that maximize survival but surviving an “optimal” life does not always mean surviving for as long as possible.

In fact, if you look at survival and its importance in evolution, one of the main purposes of survival is reproduction. Individuals seek to survive in large part so they can reproduce. But it is useful to note here that surviving as long as possible does not mean having the possibility of reproducing for that long. Most animal species have ages where the chance of reproducing is highest and then the chances go down as the individuals get older. We see this in humans when we consider that most humans live a large percentage of their lives when they are physically unable to reproduce. These are mostly also times where the human offspring would be able to survive on their own, so the parents’ survival is not in any way tied to the offspring's survival.

There are a lot of questions out there about the purpose of species and the purpose of behaviors. And when scientists draw conclusions about purpose and meaning, those conclusions are often pretty general and leave out a lot of answers. Making statements about survival and reproduction being important is useful but does not answer questions about why survival would be a purpose by itself and why members of species continue to work for survival past the point where they are able to reproduce or contribute in any meaningful way to their offspring’s survival.

But, as I stated early, an individual being able to ask questions about why species exist, why they do what they do and what purpose and meaning exist behind their survival and behaving, does not in any way relate to whether there are actually answers to those questions. Even agreeing about whether the meaning behind a species existing and surviving is actually meaningful does not mean that it is not meaningful. It just means you are able to ask the question, not that you are necessarily able to answer it correctly. Keeping in mind that meaning in the universe does not require that any one individual agree with that meaning can be both humbling and useful.

Viktor Frankl is the founder of a school of psychology called “logotherapy” and his approach focuses considerably on the importance of meaning. What is interesting is that he notes that human and nonhuman animals often act in similar ways and for similar reasons. Humans differ in that they are the only species that ask questions about meaning and have concerns about whether their lives do have meaning. Other animal species do not ask these questions or show concern about their answers. But even Frankl’s writings, even with their stress on the importance of meaning and purpose, do not equate asking questions about meaning and actually having meaning. Showing the ability to change our behaviors based on questions about meaning is certainly a human strength, but it is not the only thing that actually gives our lives and behaviors meaning and purpose. Meaning and purpose exist for all species, even if they are not able to ask questions about meaning and purpose.

All of this is important for considering behaviors across animal species. We can say for certain that virtually all behaviors have specific goals. They are all geared towards accomplishing something. And those goals are all directed towards more global meaning and purpose. For all species, that meaning and purpose relate in some way towards survival and reproduction. What meaning and purpose there are beyond survival and reproduction differs for each species. When we look at the world and its interconnectedness, we can say with reasonable certainty that each species has purpose beyond just survival. We can also say that each species has purpose that in some way contributes to the world functioning the way it should.

All members of all species share similar rules to behaviors. They all share that their behaviors are directed towards some purpose and meaning. It may be that the purpose and meaning is something that other species would, if they could communicate an opinion, consider important. But having meaning that others do not consider important does not actually make it less important. And being able to ask questions about meaning does not make an individual less important. Each species is involved in some way to making the world run like it should and knowing that we are all working in some way towards that goal helps make all our behaviors more understandable.

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