Fungi and the Meaningless of Life

This is the cheesiest existential/philosophical piece that I have ever written. Hopefully it is worth something to someone. (Goal achieved – worth something to me.) Importance: 5, Confidence: 9.

Like all other species, we exist because we do. That’s it.

Most have grappled with the idea that our existence on earth is meaningless. A few atheists claim to have come to terms with it. Yet I think that even fewer have connected their abstract and symbolic understanding of this to the true nature of life’s meaninglessness.

While reading Fungi: A Very Short Introduction, and enjoying the amazing reproduction, spore distribution, and even mind control that these species are capable of, the realization that all organisms exist purely because they do took root. I’m sure it seems silly for me to be associating fungi with nihilistic epiphanies, but I believe that some subsets of fungi are in a unique position to spark this association — at least for me that is. These fungi are special in that there exists a stark dichotomy between their degree of sophistication and purpose, and their bland, ephemeral and inescapable lives.

E. coli is so simple that it seems to lack any clear purpose and fails to generate any form of empathy. Why should you have any feelings towards the existence of a couple of boring cells? A rabbit is complex enough that we assign it agency and awareness. As they possess cute whiskers and can do cool things like jump really far, we are lured into assuming their lives, like ours, are filled with some form of excitement and meaning. A fungus like the white rot fungi Phanerochaete chrysosporium is multicellular organism intricate enough to be more than just a ‘bag of chemicals’. It fulfills an incredibly important purpose in driving the entire carbon cycle by breaking down lignin in plant fibre; and yet once it finishes breaking down its food supply it has enough energy to eject a few spores and then… die… before the whole cycle repeats itself again. This creature is living, involuted, and important, performing a task the world’s entire climate and carbon cycle depends upon. But as its existence is neither attractive nor arresting, we find it boring and can’t be distracted into thinking it too has any greater purpose or transcendental significance. Only Evolution, the blind idiot god, could be capable of such handiwork.

A few more examples from the book before I further explain what I mean:

“A similarly complex symbiosis has evolved between Sirex woodwasps and the fungus Amylostereum areolatum. Female woodwasps drill holes in the sapwood of pine trees, lay one egg at the bottom of each hole, and add spores of the fungus on top. … when the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the fungal mycelium.”

“Orchid seeds are microscopic and do not contain sufficient nutrients to support germination and early seedling development. Nourishment for these critical stages in development is provided by fungi that grow as knots of convoluted hyphae inside the cells of the swelling embryo. These knots are digested by the orchid, furnishing the little plant with food until it turns green and can start supporting itself by photosynthesis. … Pale orchid species that do not produce chlorophyll exploit these networks by obtaining all of their food from the continuous digestion of the knots of fungal hyphae in their cells.”

This presentation of the workings of Evolution in the form of fungal slaves really hit home. The only rule of Evolution is that it reproduces what reproduces. With the Sun running in the background to power Operation Earth, we, the organisms of this experiment, continuously iterate on our ancestors, filling every possible replication niche that can be filled. There is no meaning or purpose, just existence.

Imagine a scenario in which nefarious aliens launched hundreds of shipments of a mysterious nutrient to earth. Upon contact with the nutrient, humans quickly find that it is indigestible. Little do they know that if it is digested, it will lead to the creation of mental suffering equivalent to 7 billion people on Earth being tortured to death. Evolution not only doesn’t know about the suffering, but doesn’t care. Given enough random iterations, it is probable that at least one organism will become able to digest the nutrient. And if the nutrient somehow increases that organism’s ability to reproduce, then the digestion of the nutrient will be selected for and take place, no matter the consequences.

This insight into the nature of Nature and reality is one that no religious person, who believes in a higher power, can ever have. And while this revelation is not directly applicable to any specific problem, I cannot help but feel that it is profound for one’s ability to see the world more clearly in its raw and blemished form. Yudkowsky, in this articulate piece, agrees.

If someone hears a noise in the background for long enough, their perception of it will fade though the actual noise remains. In the same vein, we are unable to see the invisible bars of Evolution that have determined our meaningless existence. Yet this blindness to the bars of Evolution have not stopped us from designing our entire culture and society around them. If you assume that death is inevitable and aren’t a transhumanist you too are guilty of this and may want to read: and ASAP.

The very fact that we have developed the ability to see a glimmer of the evolutionary bars locking us into our meaningless cycle – through our symbolic reasoning – is an incredibly rare, evolutionarily-freakish sequence of events that should have never happened. And perhaps it is thus no wonder that these realizations are completely taken for granted by almost everyone (link to Symbolic Species book review coming soon). We are the only species on Earth with the ability to see through meaninglessness and desire to craft meaning in it. This is the first and only time that a process has ever been created that has general optimization abilities (in that we can pick a target in state space and hit it with high accuracy) and cumulative optimization (due to writing and reading our knowledge accumulates) since the emergence of evolution itself, Yudkowsky again with a great piece on this.

We need to better acknowledge our innate lack of purpose and celebrate the incredible power we have evolved by a fluke of selection pressures, while not taking it for granted. If we don’t take the destiny of the human race into our own hands, Evolution will continue to have its way with us. And like fungi, we will continue to traipse through our incredibly meaningful lives, that really amount to nothing more than ejecting spores and dying.

Rationality: From AI to Zombies, Elizer Yudkowsky, (in particular book 3 which gives a brilliant coverage of evolutionary biology)
Fungi: A Very Short Introduction, Nicholas P. Money