The drive of life

Hi, I'm a middle-aged woman whose belief system has evolved from basic Christianity to not knowing what to think. Unfortunately, I am not content with not knowing what the truth is and feel the need to find answers. (To be honest, I am very disturbed by it and rather bitter.) I find it almost impossible to find people willing to analyze and discuss from a neutral perspective which makes my quest extremely frustrating and virtually impossible. I am hoping you can add some new insight. :) I must warn you that I will likely end up asking a zillion questions over time, but to start with I am wondering an atheist's perspective on why life has such drive. It seems odd to me that if we just happened (with no real reason behind it), that we, and all life forms, would have such a drive to survive. Why would we care, and why SHOULD we care? Rather than bungle this up with a subset of questions, I will leave it at that and let it play out as it will. I will greatly appreciate your thoughts and insight. :)
Atheist Answer: 

Hello and welcome, Celia. The one-thing-at-a-time approach will be just fine. Amber123 recently did the same thing.

The answer to this specific question is rooted in human evolution. At every stage in our development as a species there has been fierce competition for the resources necessary to survive. The survivors all the way along have been not just the strongest or the smartest, but those with the greatest will to live.

We didn't always have religion to drive us, you know. Before our ancestors even had the intelligence to conceive of gods or ponder the meaning of life, if they lacked a strong will to survive they would not have survived and we wouldn't be here. Those who were content not to survive or procreate were quickly scooped out of the gene pool by the dangers of the harsh ancient world. The survivors passed down their determination to us, as instinct.

On a personal intellectual level, I'm an atheist and I want to survive because I don't think I have any other life but this. There is a great deal of joy to be had, and to spread, and I want to make the most of it before I die.

- SmartLX


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Thanks for your response.

Thanks for your response. I'd like to expand on my question but have to work now. I will write after work in the very early a.m.

No rush.

No rush, and no need to schedule your contributions. Just relax and write when you're ready.

I guess what I was really

I guess what I was really getting at is if the beginning of life was just happenstance, where did the drive come from? -Thinking way back to the start ... it just doesn't make sense to me that something that just spontaneously occurred would have any drive whatsoever. Any theories on this? Thx.

Moderated forum

Answer coming very shortly.

Sorry you didn't see your responses, Celia. This site is fully moderated. Each post has to be approved by a moderator before it appears, so you just need to write one reply in each thread and wait for it to appear. I've published your initial response and removed the others asking what happened to it and repeating the question.


Thinking back to the start, there was no drive at all. There weren't any brains, let alone motivations. The first self-replicating organisms, essentially the first things we would recognise as alive, consumed their sustenance and reproduced involuntarily. Eating and breeding were built-in functions. They couldn't not do them. What use would "drive" have been?

As they developed into more complex organisms, any variations which did not have these life-sustaining functions built in simply died. Only those who kept themselves (and/or each other) alive became ancestors, and passed on their automatic skills.

Once animal brains developed above pure involuntary actions and stimulus-and-response, animals were presented for the first time with choices: do this and that and therefore live, or don't. Again, those which chose not to do the essential things tended not to survive. Over hundreds of thousands of generations, those who made the right choices won out so many times that those choices were bred in as almost automatic. They became instincts, and the rest is history.

Thanks for your reply. I

Thanks for your reply. I just cannot seem to accept that life with no purpose (wouldn't that be the case if it were just happenstance) would have any pursuit at all ... including involuntary self-replication. Beyond that, how did it advance, develop brains, etc.if there were no purpose or intent from somewhere? It does not seem that beings would become more complex just because there was lots of time.

I can't help but wonder how the two sexes developed. Why would we evolve emotions (it seems they are at least equally a liability as an asset)? Is new bottom-of-the-totem pole life still happening? If not, how come? Even though there is such a span of time over which this all is supposed to have happened, it seems we would have witnessed something ourselves (or have we, and I just don't know about it?).

Even though I have great interest and enjoy information, I cannot stand to read the scientific text (aside from trying to comprehend it), so I don't really know how those who don't believe in God think it all started. The materials had to come from somewhere, right? (I realize there is the same problem in thinking a God created us; even more of a problem perhaps.)

Would you list a few main reasons why you don't think there is a God and some things that make you think ... well, maybe there is?

I guess I have brought up a few different questions here, so I will stop for now. I really do appreciate you taking the time to discuss this. I'm sure you also know how difficult it is to find people who are willing to talk about it without trying to cram their beliefs down your throat. Most often these are people who really haven't given the whole thing much thought but think they have all the answers. :)

I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts again soon.


Yeah, it is hard to find people who are willing to re-examine their own arguments, let alone beliefs, to advance a discussion. Most folks are just waiting for everyone else to accept that they're right.

It's unfortunate that you haven't found science books you liked. As books easy for non-scientists to read, I recommend the new book Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, or Richard Dawkins' older books The Blind Watchmaker, The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor's Tale.

It's not simply time that creates complexity, it's opportunity. On Earth before life, the air, the ground and the water threw together molecules of every kind countless times. Chemicals have a chance to react every time they touch, so countless billions of combinations got a chance. Some stuck together, and of those, some kept reacting once they had combined. Of this group, a very, VERY small percentage had the tools to make copies of themselves. These groupings, possibly just one grouping in the whole world, produced the first self-replicating organisms.

So you see, nature had no intent; it wasn't trying to create anything in particular. It just tried everything at once, and at least one attempt gave an interesting result.

Once the first self-replicator was off and running, its offspring were suddenly in competition with each other. If any of them was even slightly different, its offspring would have the same change and it might confer either an advantage or a disadvantage when it came to survival. That's how natural selection works.

Features evolved, without fail, because they occurred naturally and then helped somehow. Brains are the obvious one: if you can think then you can be more careful than something which can't think. If you can think better than something, you can outsmart it. At every stage, more brainpower is an asset when all other things are equal.

The evolution of emotions is harder to visualise, but you can easily see the survival value of simple emotions like fear and love. You run away from things that might kill you, you protect your beloved family and procreation (sex) makes you happy. Pick a more complex emotion yourself, Celia, and see if you can think how it might help someone have a longer life, or more children. Tell me if you get stuck on one.

Before the separation of the sexes, and before sex itself, organisms reproduced by cell division and essentially cloned themselves. This meant that the only genetic changes occurred through mutation. The initial separation was likely some simple transaction where two similar organisms exchanged genetic material directly. Its advantage is that genetic change could now also occur through recombination, and evolution could proceed much faster. Sexual creatures out-evolved asexual creatures, and for example developed resistance to diseases more quickly.

We don't know the exact circumstances under which the first life emerged, so we're not sure where to look in the present day to see whether it's still happening. Chances are that the circumstances planetwide have changed too much in the last 3.5 billion years, and it won't occur naturally on Earth again. However there's still a chance that it could be recreated in a laboratory. Scientists who've tried have had some minor successes producing the precursors of life, like amino acids.

We have indeed observed evolution since the start of human history, and even in our own lifetimes. Look up "observed speciation" for some examples. In our own family tree it's currently about 100,000 years between new species so we're unlikely to detect significant changes in ourselves, but in species with shorter lifespans and generations (e.g. insects) the changes are much quicker.

Going off the topic of evolution, I used to think there was a god because I saw a set of meaningful coincidences in my life. Then I did the math and realised that although the chance of each coincidence is small, the chance that a coincidence of some sort will happen at any given time is tremendous. It's like the lottery: it's unlikely that any particular ticket will win, but very likely that there'll be one or more winning tickets somewhere.

Beyond that, I never heard or felt God when I prayed sincerely (I was raised Catholic), and I knew that people worshipped many other gods with no more evidence than I had. Once I had explained the coincidences, there was no more reason for me to believe.

Once I realised I was an atheist, I went looking for all the other arguments in favour of gods in case I'd missed something important. I've answered most of them on this site (start with the "Great Big Arguments" series). In short, none of the apologetic has changed my mind, and in each case I can tell you exactly why.

Thanks for the lengthy

Thanks for the lengthy explanation and book referrences. I will have to read your reply over a few more times to soak it all in. : )

I will check out those materials and will bring up more questions as they come to mind. For now though, just one more question for you. Since there are those in the science community who understand all the facts and still feel that God was behind it (evolution and all), do you think that much belief simply has to do with personality type?

Thank you so much for your willingness to share your opinion and knowledge. I find that of all the things in life to enjoy, connection with others is the most rewarding.

Religious scientists

It was a bit long, wasn't it? Sorry, but there was a lot to get through.

Yes, there are those who uphold science in every way and still see the hand of a god in it. Ken Miller is one of those, and his book Finding Darwin's God is a great introduction to evolution for religious people.

People like this tend to have believed before they became scientists. Rather than finding a reason why their god is necessary, they find ways in which he is compatible with science. Miller for instance thinks that the Christian God started evolution as the means to design the creatures He wanted. There's no way to prove that wrong, but there's also no need for it to have happened. Natural selection is such a straightforward process that it would have occurred without any help at all, as soon as resources ran low for the early lifeforms.

I don't think it's really about personality type. I think that maintaining religious belief without corrupting one's view of science requires intelligence coupled with some prior religious indoctrination, and likely a state of cognitive dissonance. (Look that up, it's an interesting subject.)

Talk to you again soon.