Finding Meaning in a "Dog-eat-dog" world
There was a time in a former life a few decades ago when I did a lot of reading. In addition to all the stuff I had to read for college classes, I was cranking through a lot of “pleasure” reading: usually classic novels, history, and a good amount of theology/philosophy. But as I got older and various adult responsibilities kicked in, the pleasure reading steadily decreased. Since it seemed that time was limited, I tried to read more productively, focusing on stuff that might help me be a better American history teacher. It was easy to forget how fun it is to lose myself in a great story.
The itch to get back into pleasure reading has been growing lately, and I now have a little more time since the kids are older and I find myself at home more often with covid still lingering. So I decided that Jack London’s White Fang, which has been sitting on our shelf for years, would be a good place to start. For when it comes to good old-fashioned raw storytelling, it’s hard to beat Jack London. Given my frame of mind during these strange times, it has turned out to be an appropriate choice.
Like Call of the Wild and other Jack London books, White Fang is largely about the basic struggle to survive. It focuses primarily on a young wolf trying to make it in this brutal world where the one basic rule is to eat or be eaten. But unlike we humans who sometimes stop to ponder how and why this world operates as it does, the young wolf merely accepts this reality as the way things are. It’s not just that he lacks the capacity to reflect on the meaning of life. Even if his brain was capable of this level of self-reflection, he would be far too busy trying to find the next meal or fight off the next adversary, and he would go insane with guilt if he felt any compassion for the living things who had to die for him to live.
As a human living in a “civilized,” modern, industrial society, I have the brain power and the luxury to ponder the meaning of it all. Unlike the main character in White Fang and all other creatures who live in “the wild,” I’m not spending all my time scrounging around for the next meal, and better yet, I’m not one of the creatures constantly on the lookout for a wolf looking to pounce. But for whatever reason, I’ve found myself over the past couple of years thinking a lot about what London calls the “law of meat”: either eat meat or become meat. Like it or not, the simple fact is that the only way that most living things can survive is to kill and consume other living things. And as a member of the species on the top of the food chain, we are the most successful killers and meat eaters that have ever walked the planet. I only feel peaceful and “civilized” because I, like most humans these days, am not required to do the killing myself.
I wish this world operated differently. I wish that living things sustained themselves by consuming non-living objects, or better yet, I wish that living things did not need to eat (and excrete) at all. Of course, there are a lot of things about this planet that I wish were different. I could easily do without earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, infectious diseases, physical pain, and a whole mess of other shitty things about living on this planet.
And I’m not the only one. Ever since our primate brains got big enough to think about the meaning of it all, humans have tried to explain why this world operates as it does. Unlike the wolf nicknamed White Fang who could simply accept the world as it is, we humans have spent thousands of years trying to explain why it was created this way. The world, after all, must have some from somewhere. For much of our long history as religious beings, people believed that gods and spirits could be as immoral and irrational as humans, which helped to explain why the world was so messed up. But more recently in human history, many people came to believe that God or the great life force(s) were good, forcing people to come up with creative ways of explaining how a good creator could make such a fucked up creation.
Back in college when I was still trying to be an evangelical Christian, I read quite a bit of Christian theology and apologetics. These included the major popular works of CS Lewis. While I came over time to disagree with much of his reasoning, I always appreciated his creativity. In the Problem of Pain, Lewis takes on the task of reconciling Christianity with human suffering. Unlike so many of the theologians over thousands of years who explain suffering as a product of freewill and sin, Lewis took a different path. He raised the simple question of how the concept of a morally perfect, all powerful, all knowing God could have ever come into being in the first place. Lewis’ answer was pretty simple. In a world as messed up as this one, only God could have planted the idea of the Christian God in the human brain. Because there is no way that a human actually experiencing and observing life in this world could conclude that it was the product of a good and all-powerful God.
I disagree with Lewis. I think humans have a remarkable capacity to believe in things that don’t make any sense. All a person has to do is spend a little time surfing the internet to conclude that humans have the ability to believe just about anything. But there is also a logic to our belief systems. Humans, like all living creatures, are programmed to survive, and we came to dominate the planet due to our unique ability to find and create order. Religious beliefs, in addition to helping maintain the social order, have also played an important role in giving humans emotional comfort and a sense of purpose when times get tough. For so many of us, believing in an afterlife where the wrongs will be made right and we will see long lost loved ones keeps us going in the face of so many things that don’t make any damn sense. Sure, this is a brutal world, but the next one will be better. And when good things do happen, it is a sign that a loving God is there behind the scenes helping us out until we get there.
Maybe the best case for the existence of God is the intelligent design argument. Can natural forces and evolution in themselves explain all of the complex life forms and ecosystems that make up this planet? Did everything just come into existence out of nothing? While I have no clear answers to these big questions, I don’t entirely buy the intelligent design argument when it comes to this planet. While some people see beautiful and complex ecosystems existing in perfect balance and harmony (at least until we humans screw them up), I mostly see a bunch of creatures killing and eating each other. But I also recognize that I may be kidding myself if I think that I can just become a hard-core atheist and chuck all of the things that religion and spirituality provide for us humans. Being non-religious may be as natural to humans as being celibate, and one of the most profound insights in London’s White Fang is that living things feel the most happy and alive when they are doing what nature has “designed” them to do.
In White Fang, the young wolf has to decide if he should escape back to the wild and be a killer or go back to collecting scraps from the “man animals” who he considers to be gods. Should he accept the comforts and restrictions of “civilization” or go back to what nature has designed him to be. Should he be a dog or a wolf? Is it possible to be both? Am I “designed” to be a primal killer or to be a spiritual member of a community? And if God does exist, can He really blame me if I sometimes give in to my more primal instincts and do what it takes to survive?
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 25, 2021:
Nice summary review.