The Evolution of Meaning

Many humans feel incomplete. As they contrast the ticking time bomb of their own life expectancy – statistical, but no less real – with the job that they work and they hate, they feel as though their life is “meaningless”.

Strangely, however, there isn’t much agreement on what “meaningfulness”, in this sense of the word, actually means. Most attempts at defining the word strike as semantic sleights of hand. The sound “meaning” is replaced with another sound, a synonym, like “purpose”. But such word juggling does not clear things up. Indeed, couldn’t ones life be purposeless, and yet still be meaningful? Maybe. We just don’t know, because no one we ever talk to has any idea about what these words actually mean. (Or maybe I should just speak for myself?)

Surely, however, a good place to start would be the beginning. Specifically, where did this seemingly innate sense of longing for meaningfulness come from? Like all of our other traits, it must be an at least indirect outgrowth of our evolutionary past, whether selected for being advantageous, or emerging as a benign or malignant byproduct.

Unlike things such as legs and arms and specific joints, “meaningfulness” can’t be mapped out genetically, amongst all the other species in the web of life. But if we can’t compare the evolutionary development of meaningfulness between species, neither can we compare it between individual humans. Just as each individual has had that same trippy day-dream – what if everyone sees colours differently duuude… – it’s probably also true that people experience their sense of meaningfulness subjectively.

But if meaningfulness was selected evolutionarily – if meaningfulness itself had its own evolutionary purpose – then it should also be expected that it has an objective aspect. Maybe there are no hard and fast rules. Maybe it feels different for everyone, but maybe there is an almost unshakable correlation between, say, being bitter to everyone you meet, and not having a meaningful life. When socially alone and bitter, and so unable to communicate with other vessels of meaningfulness about meaningfulness, most humans will feel incomplete.

At this point, when we begin to realise that meaningfulness, although subjective at the individual level, is also an inherently social activity, we realise also that it is so closely related to language, and communication, that the answer to our original question may have been far more easy to grasp than it first seemed. That is, what if the longing for meaningfulness is a drive that evolution selected for its ability to propel the evolution of language? This makes sense evolutionarily, because a group of people who could communicate with ever increasing nuance would be able to out-bid the genetic competition with ever more ease. But it also explains the longing we feel. Humans spend a lot of their time thinking. That is, using language to process meaning. So the invention of language, and therefore the invention of the communication of meaning, has shaped us deeply. We think about who we are with language. When we think about what it would be like to stop thinking for an extended period of time, we feel like we would be sacrificing ourselves. We almost are the words we think. Or at least, that’s what it sometimes feels like.

So it’s perfectly likely that the same yearning for meaning that drove forwards the evolution of language, is still within us, driving us to find meaning in places other than words.

Of course, this is where the chicken and egg come to rear their perennial heads and shells. If the evolution of language came first, perhaps out of sheer practical necessity, then there is a reasonable chance that our senses of meaningfulness are redundant byproducts. That is, humans have so far just failed to realise that using the longing for meaning to drive forwards existential thoughts is actually a gross over-stretch of its intended purpose of language formation. The implication of this is that humans should just stop thinking so much, so as to relax, and more easily chat amongst themselves. Alternatively, if the longing for meaning comes first, and it is language that is the logical outgrowth – language as just a way to better get to the bottom of what things mean – then there actually might be some greater purpose to the pursuit of meaningfulness.

In any case, the process clearly snowballs, with language leading to deeper searches for meaningfulness, and those searches leading to the discovery and invention of more language. The more words one learns, the more questions he or she is able to ask. From these questions, we project outwards into ourselves a larger search for more meaning. From this we discover a new word, or a new concept, and it changes everything.

Is there a purpose to all of this? Did the evolution of meaningfulness arise for some greater reason? Is there an endpoint to this longing we feel, from which we could finally rest in contemplative satisfaction, relying on the luxury of the complete catalog of all meaningful sound bites in order to appreciate through conversation the reason we are here, having such a merry old time?

Maybe. But at this stage we simply don’t know. And yet we do long for more meaningfulness. And by any measure, we should keep the search alive, because currently – after thousands of years of human history – still no body really knows what meaningfulness actually means.

Amateur Historian / Passive Aggressive Inline skater

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