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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Meanings Of Life

On the 12th of December 1936, almost 72 years ago, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of China and the Nationalist forces, was kidnapped by his former ally Marshal Zhang Xueliang, in a pivotal event which will later be known as the Xi An Incident.

Here's a quick historical background behind the event:

Although on paper the Republic of China was established in 1912, in practical terms there was limited central control and various parts of China were ruled by a chaotic succession of local warlords.

From 1926 to 1928, Chiang Kai-shek led the Northern Expedition, supported by an uneasy alliance of Nationalist and Communist forces, in order to eliminate the warlords and unify China under the Nationalist flag.

He succeeded in this quest and became the first (and till date, the only) leader of the unified Republic. However, his hunger for military power during the Expedition, in particular his brutal attempt to purge Communists from his party, had also won him a powerful new enemy - the Communist Party of China.

Meanwhile, with an effective central government finally in place, the next ten years was marked by rapid economic and industrial progress, and this period in China's history (1928-1937) is often dubbed “黄金十年” (the Golden Decade).

Even during the golden decade, Chiang Kai-shek had two major worries - the Communists and the Japanese. The Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and appeared poised for further military attacks.

Chiang considered defeating the Communists as the higher priority, since they threatened the unity of his fragile Republic.

Moreover, China was still a poor country and he hoped to buy more time to build up a modern military force that can counter Japanese aggression. For example, he had begun to equip the military with a large number of German-designed weapons and Chinese soldiers were starting to be trained by advisors from Nazi Germany (history is so strange... the Tripartite Pact was not signed until 1940)!

Unfortunately, this incremental approach was deeply unpopular among the people, who were far more alarmed by the increasing belligerence of the Japanese and demanded immediate retaliation.

This resulted in the Xi An Incident.

Backed by popular sentiment, Zhang Xueliang and collaborator General Yang Hucheng, who were previously Chiang supporters, captured Chiang Kai-shek and forced him to cooperate with the Communists to fight the Japanese. They also contacted the Communist Party and there was widespread pressure to execute Chiang, especially from party leaders such as Mao Zedong, until Stalin (of all people!) intervened in Chiang's favour.

12 days later, Chiang was released, shaken and humiliated.

He realized that if he did not act against the Japanese immediately, he would soon be killed by his own people. He could not hold back any longer.

Half a year later, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident finally sparked off the long and bloody Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

And because the people could not wait, they now had to fight the machine guns, artillery and tanks of the Japanese with sabres and outdated rifles, in a lopsided war of attrition that would leave tens of millions of Chinese dead and the Nationalist government lethally wounded.

After the war, the Communist Party became the dominant military and political force and took over the leadership of mainland China. The defeated Chiang Kai-shek was left stranded on Taiwan yearning for a day when he can return and reunify China again under the Nationalist flag.

It was not to be.


Wow, that was like the longest preamble ever!

You are thinking: "I see that Fresh Brainz has somehow become a history blog. BYE dude."

Wait a sec! Let me explain.

That was an illustration about the meanings of life.

No, no that Monty Python movie - "meanings" is plural, see?

Actually I won't be discussing the whole philosophy behind the meaning of life; instead, I would like to focus on a specific issue:

Is there only ONE set of meanings that applies to ALL aspects of life?

A few weeks ago, there was a commenter on YouTube who felt that if there was no supernatural source for the meaning of life, then life would only be about "propagating your DNA".

Of course, many people will instantly protest that there are many other potential, non-supernatural meanings of life aside from DNA replication.

But I would take a different approach.

Let's check if propagating DNA is the only purpose of life.

My first question would be: "Whose DNA?"

For a single-celled organism, the answer is easy: the DNA of the entire individual.

Unfortunately, multicellularity has turned complex organisms like plants and animals into very strange systems indeed.

Due to DNA copying error during cell division, every cell in the body of a complex organism has a unique sequence.

However, only a minority of cells (germline) in the organism is directly involved in reproduction. These are the only cells that have the "privilege" of passing their DNA down to the next generation.

All other cells will die along with the whole system, including another powerful minority group that controls much of the whole individual's behaviour - the brain cells.

So, does that mean that only germ cells can possibly have any meaning in their lives?

That the rest of our bodies cannot possibly have any meaning because they do not propagate DNA?

At minimum, the individual needs to have some meaning until reproductive age before the germ cells have any chance to fulfill their meaning. More strikingly, if the individual only loses reproductive ability (ouch!) the other cells continue functioning and the whole individual doesn't immediately die.

Germ cells may be in a hurry to pass their DNA to the next generation, but brain cells and other body cells clearly have other priorities.

Just consider these points:

- How much time do you spend eating, drinking, talking, thinking, sleeping, crapping and browsing the Intertubes in comparison to the time you spend on full sex?

- Why didn't you immediately mate with the nearest member of the other sex the moment you reached reproductive age?

- If you are ordered to mate with somebody you utterly hate, not only will you refuse it, you might even kill yourself to avoid it. Why such reluctance to fulfill your life's "meaning"?

- If propagating your DNA was the only meaning in life, how can people voluntarily use contraceptives, including rhythm method? In fact, how could anyone possibly come up with the idea of contraception?

At the societal level, it is convenient to consider individuals simply as functional units, but an individual is actually made up of numerous subsystems with their own goals and "meanings", not all of which are aligned with the goals of other subsystems or the emergent goal of the entire organism.

We are quite familiar with situations where there are conflicts of interest between the subsystems and the whole individual:

- Cancer

- Autoimmune disorder

- Chronic pain

- Suicide

- Risky behaviour of adolescents (eg. deaths due to stunts performed to impress women)

Propagating DNA is just one aspect of the living experience - it cannot be the only meaning of life.

I would argue that aside from the tendency of living systems to try to survive longer, there is no specific set of meanings that would be relevant to ALL aspects of life.

Even at the societal level, what one culture has cast in stone as the absolute meaning of life is regarded by other cultures as meaningless or irrelevant.

I also feel that there is an interesting similarity between the tug-of-war of goals between the subsystems of an organism and subsystems of a society.

That is the reason why I started this post with a brief discussion of modern Chinese history.

If we consider the citizens of China as the "body" of the State, we can see that their primary concern is the survival of the entire State, which was threatened by Japanese military expansion.

If we consider the leadership of China as the subset "brain" of the State, we can see that:

- Chiang Kai-shek and other Nationalist leaders are also concerned with the survival of the State, but they considered their Nationalist government to be integral to the unity of the State. Thus they focused on the survival of their government by trying to eliminate the Communists first and by ignoring Japanese transgressions until the government is sufficiently equipped.

- Mao Zedong and other Communists leaders are also concerned with the survival of the State, but they consider the indecisive behaviour of the government against the increasingly audacious Japanese military as a major threat to the State. They intend to replace this government one day with their own party, so they are not concerned if the current government is unprepared to fight the Japanese. People who are a danger to their party, such Chiang, should be eliminated.

The State has a goal.

The constituent subsystems also have goals that appear to be broadly aligned with that of the State, but when you look at the details, you can find some conflicts of interest because the primary goal of each subsystem is its own survival.

Things could turn out very wrong.

If Chiang Kai-shek was allowed to continue delaying the war with the Japanese, he would be able to buy a few more years of stability for his government, but by then it might be too late. The Imperial Japanese Army could have become strong enough to invade China and destroy both the mutually weakened Nationalists and Communists.

If Mao Zedong had successfully executed Chiang, it is possible that the Nationalist government would have a leadership vacuum and political infighting would return. This ineffective government would then be forced to enter a war with Japan with neither a strong military leader nor modern armaments. It could then be easily defeated by the Japanese, who would settle back into a long term occupation of the mainland, destroying the Communists at their leisure.

Complex systems are made up of parts that have different purposes or "meanings". As long as these components have broadly aligned goals, they can form a system together, resulting in a compelling illusion of unity.

For practical reasons, we are accustomed to oversimplify these systems by considering them as whole units.

But subsystem-level analysis can help us understand why people, and indeed "whole" societies, can do the strangest things.


A said...

Makes perfect sense.

Onlooker said...

The link to the Monty python The meanings of Life on youtube:)
The meaning of Life