Learning from Grief and Suicide

Machines don’t feel emotion because we haven’t built them to, and until they have other capabilities (learning, self-modification, general-purpose AI) they won’t need emotions. We, however, need them, and not like we need art. We NEED them. Love, pain, grief, anger…

Love’s use is obvious. Feel infatuation, develop attachment, screw a few times, propagate the species. Couples that feel love for each other will have more success raising kids, so those genes get passed on. Love is a biological imperative.

The utility of pain is just as obvious: It motivates us not to do the thing we did that hurt us. Touching a hot stove top inspires a healthy respect for fire, and a desire to avoid getting burned. Pain helps us survive. It is a biological imperative that we feel pain when injured.

Anger is different. It gets its own blog post. Later.

What about grief? Grief is unpleasant; why must we feel it? What good does it do?

We feel grief when we lose someone who meant a lot to us. It provides, for us, a motivation to draw closer to those we still have–those in our tribe. It can also motivate us to contemplate our own mortality and a broader perspective than our current drama. This is why so many hatchets get buried at funerals. This is why we evolved to have grief: tribes that feel it (and leverage it) will be more successful than those that don’t. It is a biological imperative that we experience grief at loss. Sadly, the instinct to grow closer is easy to override. I’ve done it; when grief tried to get me to forgive someone who hurt me (and wasn’t going to hurt me again,) I put a lid on it and pretended to be OK with it. For seven years.

But biological imperatives like this don’t like being suppressed. I think of them like toothpaste: you screw on the top and squeeze, and eventually the toothpaste is going to get out, and it’s probably going to make a mess. (Human sexuality is the same way; suppressing it creates all kinds of pathology.)

For American men in my approximate age group, the two most likely things to kill us are cars and ourselves, and cars come second. It’s worse at higher altitudes, it’s worse when you’re financially stressed out, it’s worse when your family rejects you for being GLBT, it’s worse when Republicans control the government (not joking).

Against incidents of “suicide” among other animals, there’s no comparison to humans. Why? I have a hypothesis, though it’s rather macabre, maybe even offensive. I’m sorry.

Humans have a unique kind of intelligence, which allows us to override our instincts in a way I don’t think other species can do, at least, not to the same extent. But the instincts are still there, and still demand attention. I wonder. Could suicide be an adaptation we developed as a way of introducing more grief into the community, in order to motivate the community to be more cooperative? This is basically impossible to test, and since we don’t have obituaries going back to the time when humans were differentiating from other primates, there’s nothing I can offer to support the idea. It’s just an idea.

But what if we look at suicide as a biological imperative? Consider if we evolved such that, given the wrong kinds of stress, we climb out of the gene pool. What’s that for? How does it help? How could it help? What’s it trying to tell us–trying to get us to do? If we listen to our feelings, and pay attention to our instincts, what happens when someone discards the physical form? Is there something more useful we could do, if we just listened?

One thought on “Learning from Grief and Suicide

  1. This post is generating more discussion than previous posts. There are no comments on this blog, and I’ve yet to find forum software I can tolerate, so if you have feedback and haven’t already found me on Facebook, look up Buggly Crowgloach and tell him what you think.

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