The Magnificent Obsession
We understand immortality as the limit of stability, infinite survival, duration, persistence, and lack of change or variety. It is often observed that the phrase "survival of the fittest" is a tautology. We understand it more as a definition of fitness in terms of survival, and hence of stability. Since it must be that evolution produces stability, then we can say that evolution moves towards immortality. This can be seen in genetics, in which (according to some definitions) genes are immortal. (this, however, does not mean that immortality is an evolutionary necessity)
Living creatures display a behavior resulting from having both knowledge and goals. Both knowledge and goals are organized hierarchically. Similarly, in order to achieve a higher-level goal the system has to set and achieve a number of lower-level goals (subgoals). This hierarchy has a top: on the one hand, the limits of a creature's ultimate knowledge; on the other, the supreme, ultimate goals, or ultimate value, of a creature's life. As discussed in section philosophy, philosophy results as we consider the top of the hierarchy of knowledge, the deepest questions. In a non-human animal this top is inborn: the basic instincts of survival and reproduction. In a human being the top goals can go beyond animal instincts.
Ultimate human knowledge is science. But since an essential property of human intelligence is people's ability to control their goal setting, the ultimate human freedom is to choose our highest goals, our "meaning of life", and our ethics. Evolutionary ethics got a bad reputation because of its association with the "naturalistic fallacy": the mistaken belief that human goals and values are determined by, or can be deduced from, natural evolution. Values cannot be derived from facts about nature: ultimately we are free in choosing our own goals.
The supreme goals, or values, of human life are, in the last analysis, set by an individual in an act of free choice. This produces the historic plurality of ethical and religious teachings. There is, however a common denominator to these teachings: the will to immortality. The animal is not aware of its imminent death; the human person is. The human will to immortality is a natural extension of the animal will for life.
Since the newest mechanism of evolution is inside individual people, the will to immortality is now not only desirable, but also evolutionarily demanded. Since ultimate goals cannot be derived, only chosen, it is not possible to justify the will to immortality as the ultimate goal for people, or to assert it as dogma, as traditional religions do. Rather it must be the free, creative act of each individual.
Every human being experiences a moment in his/her life, usually in childhood, when he clearly realizes for the first time that sooner or later he will die -- inevitably. This comes as a shock. You feel that you are cornered, and there is no way out. Your imagination jumps over the years you have still to live through, and you find yourself on the brink of disappearance, complete annihilation. You realize that you are, essentially, on the death row. Different individuals react to this situation with different degree of acuteness. Some try simply forget about it, and succeed, to some degree. Others try forget but cannot. Life seems to have no point, because all roads lead to annihilation; one is haunted by the feeling that whatever he is doing is in vain.
This is a very ancient feeling. Remember the book of Qoelet. We can be sure, though, that the feeling is much more ancient than the Bible. The realization of one's own mortal nature is a most fundamental distinctions between a human being and an animal. Rebellion against death is found at the source of religions, philosophies, and civilizations. People look for a way to transcend the limit put on our lives by nature. They look for a concept which would reconcile the impulse to live on, which is inherent to every healthy creature, with the inevitability of death. Some concept of immortality becomes necessary for keeping life meaningful.
Another concept of immortality can be called creative immortality, or evolutionary immortality. This uniquely human motive underlies, probably, all major creative feats of human history. The idea is that mortal humans contribute, through their creative acts, to the ongoing universal and eternal process --- call it Evolution, or History, or God --- thus surviving their physical destruction. I call it Evolution, because contemporary science tells us that human history is but a small part of the universal cosmic process.
The theory of evolution is the cornerstone of the contemporary scientific worldview. Evolution is a constant emergence of higher and higher levels of cybernetic control. This process provides a material means for the manifestation of the mysterious something that we call freedom, or will, or free will. Evolution proceeds by metasystem transitions, in which a number of pre viously uncoordinated systems become controled by a metasystem, which thereby vastly expands the effects of its free choices. Hierarchical levels of control created by evolution are, essentially,amplifiers of freedom.
The evolutionary growth of the control hierarchy is a natural law, to which we refer as the Law of Evolution, or the Plan of Evolution. Like every law of nature, the Plan of Evolution does not determine uniquely and in detail how things will develop. It only sets the boundaries between the possible and the impossible. But it introduces a new dimension into the world, which provides a basis for distinguishing between good and evil. No one has proved, and hardly will ever prove, that the existence of life, and specifically, highly organized life, is inevitable. We have not yet had any sign that life exists outside Earth; as for humankind, it can destroy itself, and possibly the whole of life, if it chooses to do so. Continuing constructive evolution is a possibility but not a necessity. Acts of will can contribute to evolution or counter it. Because of the nature of evolution, there is a fundamental difference between constructive and destructive contributions.
The fate of the world is not predetermined, it depends, among other things, on what I and you are doing. The contribution to the Evolution made by an individual can be of critical importance. It can also be everlasting. For example, the contribution made by Aristotle or Newton is written down into the history of mankind and will stay there forever, even though there are only very few people who read Aristotle or Newton now. But each next stage of evolution is dependent on the preceding stages. The acts contributing to evolution create structures which will outlive the actors and determine the structures that follow. In this way, they are eternal. Those acts which go against the plan of evolution will be drowned in chaos and erased from the memory of the world. Evolutionary immortality is the immortality of deed. The deeds of mortal men may be immortal.
You can say that this evolutionary immortality is rather pale, not real. But it is quite real, especially for imaginative and creative people. The reason why we appreciate creative per sons -- sometimes even deify them -- is that we understand the eternal nature of their contributions. For creative persons it is important that their achievements are known and used, i.e. that they make a difference, and in this way stay forever. It may become more imortant than life itself. You know the famous story about Archimedes who said to the Roman soldier: you can kill me but please do not destroy my drawings. Even if this story is invented, which is quite possible, it still is very telling.