Cameron, Donald Allan. 2001. The Purpose of Life. Woodhill Publishing.
Bold, daring, and, well… cruel
For a very brief summary this book is a cross between Richard Dawkins’s ‘The Selfish Gene’ and Social Darwinism, but that is perhaps too brief to really capture the scope of the book.
A better summary would be that Donald Cameron has presented a fairly compelling argument for values based upon evolution, which he argues is the one true constant when it comes to human life. The basic idea underlying his argument is what he calls the ‘Evolutionary Value Principle’, which states, “The correct set of values, in any evolved being, is the one that will give its holder’s genes the maximum advantage in terms of natural selection.” (p. 63). From this value, Cameron derives the following axioms which serve as the basis of his philosophy:
(a) Natural Selection is the only source of value information that we have discovered so far in the universe.
(b) A correct value set, unless it is empty, must have a source of information. It can have no authority for me, if it comes from obviously random events.
(c) A complete and correct value set should not be self-contradictory. It must give a one-dimensional criterion.
(d) Values should concern real-world variables, not simply a sensation of success in the brain produced by simulation.
(e) Something matters: the nihilist view that nothing matters at all may not be disprovable, but it is one of my axioms not to accept it. (p. 70)
First, let me just say that I think Cameron is on the right track. In the course of his book he throws out most philosophies, theologies, and religions as useless. Though the argument that they are social creations isn’t very clear, I think that is what he is driving at and is the reason why he sees them as worthless in determining values – they are relative and indexically located. So, having admitted that I agree with his basic premise, let me point out some of the major problems I see with his philosophy.
My biggest problem with his argument is that he is ultimately arguing for uncontrolled reproduction; he advocates people have as many children as they possible can because in the long run the only thing that really matters is having kids. According to Cameron, “There is no amount of misery and suffering which should make us give up the chance of transmitting our genes into the future, if there is even the slightest hope of doing so.” (p. 185) The logical conclusion to this argument is population control based upon external factors (famine, drought, disease, war, poverty, etc.) which results in misery. Now, according to evolution and excluding any sentience humans might have, Cameron is right. But this is where I disagree with him. Because humans are sentient and aware of their purpose (gene replicators, nothing more), they can conceive of artificial and internal means of population control (limiting birth rates, birth control, etc.; e.g. China) so as to maintain an optimum population as well as maximize individual level comfort. There is absolutely no need to procreate like rabbits and let natural selection sort things out. If our sentient minds can’t maximize healthy reproduction while minimizing suffering, what good are they? Is quality of life not at all important?
My second major problem with Cameron’s book is a point he repeatedly tries to make that is nearly indistinguishable from racism (I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt because it could easily be seen as such). He repeatedly tries to make the point that Europeans (and their North American descendents) are headed toward extinction. I find this to be a particular naive and ethnocentric argument. His point is that where Europeans and North Americans have reduced their fertility rate to below replacement levels, members of third world nations have increased their fertility rates or maintained them at higher levels. The result will be the eventual ‘extinction’ of North Americans and Europeans, “Malthus would be astonished, two hundred years later, to see his descendants in the midst of a crisis of infertility which might lead to their extinction, but enjoying a level of wealth unparalleled in the history of the world.” (p. 161). The problem with this thinking is that Europeans are just part of the human species. If they cease to exist as a distinct race (either through interbreeding or through decreased breeding) they are not truly extinct as a species until humanity becomes extinct. For some reason Cameron seems to equate the disappearance of Europeans with extinction and preemptively mourns the loss of a group of people. Based on his own theory, so what if Europeans cease to exist as a distinct group among humans – isn’t the idea really just natural selection working its course. If Europeans are not selected, it’s their own fault and it is not really a significant loss to humanity because evolution selected the best course. Sure, Cameron wants his specific genes to continue, but he should leave the ethnocentric biases out of his philosophy.
Two more problems and I’m done. The next problem I have with Cameron’s argument is a false dichotomy argument he employs – either extinction or limitless children. These are not the only options. As noted above, humans are sentient. They are different from other animals. Despite the similarities, Cameron has to admit the difference; and because humans are different, different rules may just apply. There are any number of potential solutions to the problem of extinction, limitless children is just one of them. If I opt not to have children but work as a sociology professor teaching other people’s children, is humanity done for? Please! It’s a false dichotomy, a scare tactic and nothing more.
The last problem includes something I should have mentioned earlier – the book is self-published. I believe, because it is showing up on Amazon, that you may eventually be able to buy this from someone other than the author, but I actually wrote the author in England and had him ship me a copy of the book. Because it is self-published it is in desperate need of an editor. There are numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes that a careful reading would catch making for periodically interrupted reading, which just plain bugs me.
Overall, despite the major problems with the argument that I have pointed out, I think Cameron really does have a good point – the only real way to determine societal values should be based upon the survival of the species. If he can take out his ethnocentric argument and give human sentience some credit, he might be on to something big.