It’s only natural for humans to ask “Why?” and then come up with answers. Ask children why rivers exist, and they might tell us so that we can have water to drink. They’ll draw the sun with a smiling face—depicting it not as an inanimate object, but as a purposeful being with a day job.
Even in adulthood, we never break free of such tendencies. Consider last year’s birth and spread of conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19. What makes us do this? Using case studies and research from diverse scientific fields, Rui Diogo, an evolutionary biologist, takes a scientific look at how humans have long made sense of their worlds. From understanding our tendency to seek purpose in life to our awareness of the inevitability and randomness of death to why we developed our beliefs in gods, conspiracy theories, and ghosts, Diogo looks at what our evolution can tell us about our tendency to wonder about life’s “cosmic purpose”.
While often considered one of humanity’s most noble features it is also linked to some of the darker developments in human history, including witch hunts, misogyny, animal abuse, colonialism, racism, eugenics, terrorism, and the majority of wars. In order to prevent their repetition and to avoid an ecological point of no return, Diogo argues that we must move to an understanding of life that is more rational and empirical. In our quest for understanding of earthquakes, rainbows, birth defects, and aspects of our bodies—anything not directly related to purposeful choices made by living organisms—we should reframe our questions not as a "why" but as a “how did this occur” question: How did this thing occur or evolve rather than why did this this occur or evolve?
Diogo is an associate professor of anatomy at Howard University’s College of Medicine and resource faculty member at George Washington University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology.
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