Competition as a hindrance to our existance.

Have you noticed humans are always competing against each other? Have you ever paused to think why that’s true – and if it needs to be true? Competition is the foundation of what has allows us to succeed and by us, I mean our species. Without a competitive spirit, a species is ill-equipped to survive and evolve, much less rise to global dominance.

Our competitive life-view is so encoded in our DNA that we view the world through the lens of competition. Competition may have been what got us to this point in our evolution, but it may also be what causes our eventual extinction as a species.

Not to worry, homo sapiens will not exist forever no matter whether we compete or cooperate. A very unique set of circumstances randomly coalesced in this space and this time to create all that the human mind comprehends as reality. Maybe instead of needless competition among ourselves, we should slow down and appreciate the unique opportunity of awareness available to sentient beings.

Competition is ubiquitous

Competition is reflected in almost every aspect of our daily existence. We compete for work and we compete at work. We compete for money and possessions long after we have accumulated far more than we need for a comfortable existence.

We lionize competition through the vehicle of sport. We devise games – large and small – simply to pit one person, one team, or one tribe against each other. And, the games are always zero-sum games. If one person wins, the other person loses. There’s no sport where the goal is for both parties to win. Where would the fun be in that?

We can’t escape the reality that we’re genetically hardwired to compete. Competition is apotheosized by a society that relentlessly inculcates it as a virtue.

Evolution

To be crystal clear, it’s unambiguous that the genesis of the human competitive spirit is the relentless, timeless imperative of evolution. We are here because we compete, but have we evolved to the point where competition is no longer a positive influence, but a deleterious one. One of my favorite examples is testosterone.

We could not have gotten to this point without the aggression and competition fueled by that particular little chemical. Half a million years ago, the prize for big muscles, anger, aggression, and conflict was food, shelter and the empowerment to mate and reproduce. I would argue that we can survive just fine in today’s world with much less of that hormone, and yet, we see its expression all around us.

Men seem to make all the rules and seem to love blowing up things and killing each other. Really, can you imagine seeing a news broadcast where all the armed conflict on the screen was carried out exclusively by women? Me neither.

Accomplishment without competition

It’s hard to think of anything where humankind has worked as one to achieve something great. The United States Apollo program and landing on the moon was a spectacular endeavor requiring cooperation among many diverse entities. But even so, it was the United States Apollo program, driven in no small part by competition with the Soviet Union in what was widely known as the space race.

Is there no global goal of such importance that competition can be secondary to cooperation? If there is, it would need to be a clear existential threat to the entire population. Famine, hunger, or pandemics might qualify, but they disproportionally impact the poor – nations or people.

I can think of only one thing that is agnostic in its impact on every living person and their progeny – climate change. Collectively addressing the challenge of climate change is the one thing that rises to the need for accomplishment without competition. In order to save the planet, we, as a species, must decide to change some very fundamental behaviors without immediately winning something we can touch, feel, or spend.

Why NOT save the planet?

Because it’s not a competition, and without competition, our species tends to become lackadaisical. There may be some areas that take positive actions, but the need for a coordinated global, cooperative response will be supplanted by incremental, small actions in response to identified short term threats.

The question I find hard to answer is how does a myopic species, carrying the testosterone-driven burden of playing zero-sum games, ever do anything great on a global scale? I have no idea, but sometimes I wonder if the great human experiment was to evolve to the place of dominance of the world, and then find a way to forsake those things that got us here to save what we achieved along the way. In other words, competition and testosterone got us here, but can we set those aside and take a different approach to ensure our existence. Probably not, but that’s the only path I see for a successful, long-term outcome.

Time – a perspective incomprehensible to society

I remember a discussion I had with my college roommate after returning from hiking the Grand Canyon. While trying to absorb that inspiring trek, he was lamenting the trash we had seen along the trails and the dams that had been built. I reminded him that those things really didn’t matter in the long run. In geological time, dams and trash will be but a hiccup to the Canyon. Will the Canyon be altered that much 50,000 years from now? No. For the record, it still pisses me off that people litter, and we largely disregard environmental issues.

Geologic time is one thing but thinking in terms of cosmic time really puts things into perspective.

Cosmic perspective

Stay with me, there really is a grand perspective that is relevant to today. It’s that the earth will eventually be gone no matter what we do. Not just humans, not just reptiles, and not just cockroaches. All life will be extinguished and at some point, our planet will also cease to exist. It is the natural way of the universe.

Don’t panic, don’t sell your life insurance policy. Our earth will be here for quite a long time – from a human’s perspective. However, the script is already written and it will play out something like this.

For the last 4.5 billion years, our sun has been faithfully converting hydrogen to helium to produce earth-sustaining energy. But, at some point, just like your car on a long road trip, our sun will run out of its fuel. One response to dwindling hydrogen fuel is that the sun’s fusion rate will increase and energy output will increase. The sun will get brighter. Approximately 10% brighter every billion years. [1]

In 3.5 billion years the sun will cause all the water in the oceans to boil away and the water vapor will be lost to space. Earth will be dry and barren. But that’s not the end of the story for our planet.

In 5.4 billion years, the sun will enter its red giant phase and extend in size to encompass the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and probably Earth. So, yeah – we’re all going to be toast. The image below is an artist’s conception of the earth as the sun becomes a red giant.


Fsgregs [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Not to worry, we’ve done this before

Humans may perceive the eventual death of the sun and subsequent obliteration of Earth as catastrophic, but it’s all a matter of perspective. Exploding suns and planetary destruction is the rule, not the exception. It’s the natural order of the universe. In fact, you, personally, have been through this sort of thing before. Or rather, the elements that make up your physical body have been through many massive cosmic events.

We Are Made of Star Stuff

“Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.” Carl Sagan[2]

“One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies are made of stardust.” Lawrence M. Krauss [3]

What Sagan and Krauss are alluding to is stellar nucleosynthesis – the process by which stars are born, die, and are re-born. [4] It’s not just the elements Sagan mentioned. The heaviest element a star can product in its lifecycle is Iron. Elements heavier than iron require more energy to create – the kind of energy only possible from cosmic events with impressive sounding names: dying low mass stars, exploding massive stars, exploding white dwarfs, merging neutron stars, or cosmic ray fission.

The only way to get any naturally occurring element other than hydrogen or helium in the periodic table is by one of those impressive-sounding events. The atoms in you were formed in a distant star that exploded. Or, more correctly, the atoms come from many cosmic events that have ended up here- in this time, in this space. [5]

The chart below shows the origin of the elements in the periodic table and how they are represented in the human body. For example, 73% of a person’s mass originated from the explosion of a super massive star.

We are cosmically unique but planetarily ordinary

I find it impossible to comprehend the circumstances that lead to the creation of the earth and its life forms. I am sobered to think that the atoms in the hands typing this article were once at the center of an exploding start. Or, more correctly, have been through multiple high-energy events in the universe. And somehow those atoms have landed here – typing away at a long article.

Although we are uniquely here in this spot in the universe in this time, I can’t believe that life is unique. I find myself wondering how life is evolving in other places. I must believe that competition is playing a central role in the evolution of life elsewhere, just as it did on Earth. I wonder if other civilizations have managed to evolve past the need for competition to find a better way to advance. If they did, what was the tipping point for them to make the transition? Did they face their climate change challenge? Was it some other existential threat?

While there is likely to be life elsewhere in the universe, humans uniquely exist in the here and now. It is such an irreplaceable opportunity to be alive in the here and now – to hear, see, feel, and taste all that was once scattered across the universe.

There will only be oneEarth – it’s unfortunate that we aren’t doing a better job of appreciating it and protecting it while it’s still here.


[1] Will Earth survive when the sun becomes a red giant?, https://phys.org/news/2016-05-earth-survive-sun-red-giant.html

[2] 1973, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective by Carl Sagan, Produced by Jerome Agel, Quote Page 189 and 190, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York.

[3] A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. By Lawrence M. Krauss. New York: Free Press, 2011.

[4] Stellar Nucleosynthesis: How Stars Make All of the Elements, https://www.thoughtco.com/stellar-nucleosynthesis-2699311

[5] Half the atoms inside your body came from across the universe, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2141950-half-the-atoms-inside-your-body-came-from-across-the-universe/


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