Action and Inaction (有为与无为): Another Explanation


  • It is the first English article on my website. As you may know, I am a senior high student in China, so my English is quite poor. If you have something that cannot be understood, please leave a comment below.
  • Some words may have explanation in Chinese, so if you are an English reader, you can ignore them.
  • This article will provide a new understanding of Action and Inaction. However, what I said may make you disappointed about human society, so I hope you have a strong heart (just kidding).


Humans are special among all the species in the world, because they have extraordinary(非同寻常的) abilities of cognition(认知) and behavior, which can be descripted as Action(有为). "Active" is always a word for praise. However, about 2500 years ago, Lao Tzu mentioned inaction. It may mean that by doing nothing, you can achieve everything, which is just like talking nonsense. This article will help understand his words from a modern perspective(角度). 


Lao Tzu: The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done.
「无为而无不为。」 —— 老子


Action and Inaction(有为与无为) is a special thought mentioned by Lao Tzu(老子).  Many of you may think that Inaction is doing nothing but follow nature, which sounds ridiculous and negative. In the past, I also thought like that, but after reading philosophy books, I began to think more about it and gradually had some new ideas.

Before starting, we must know one thing, that is, the purpose of species evolution(物种进化). In my opinion, the answer is simple. The purpose is to adapt to(适应) the environment, to live longer, and to transfer genes as long-term as possible in order to avoid extinction(灭绝). [1]

Lao Tzu called for Inaction, but in fact, you cannot choose to be active or inactive. It depends on the level of species evolution. For example, no one dares to lie on the bed, doing nothing, even you are Bill Gates, but if you are a stone or a book, you will not have any idea to move.

However, if we compare everything together, we can find some strange phenomena(现象), such as the living time in total, from the appearance to the disappearance of a living thing.

  • The single-celled organism, together with the protocell(原初生命体), appeared 3.5 billion years ago, and now they are everywhere on the earth, from the seabed(海底) to the volcano(火山). [2]
  • About 540 million years ago(Phanerozoic(显生宙)), animals and plants with multiple cells(多细胞) started to appear. With the evolution(进化) of species, various organisms(生物) appeared faster and faster. But meanwhile, their extinction(灭绝) was also becoming quicker. For example, as a representative of Reptile(爬行动物), dinosaurs dominated(统治) the earth for only 140 million years and then suddenly disappeared. [3] After dinosaurs' disappearance, the mammals(哺乳动物) began to grow rapidly. They have only existed for about 80 millions years till now, but they are already in danger.
    Extinct animals cemetery

    Shizhao, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

    • According to IPBES, by 2019, the biomass(生物量) of wild mammals has fallen by 82% and a million species are at risk of extinction, largely as a result of human actions. [4] [5]
    • We are in the sixth mass extinction(全新世灭绝事件) period, which is the fastest among all mass extinction events. [6] It is estimated that every year, 140,000 species disappear. [7]
  • Finally, we, humans appeared. As the most "senior" species on the earth, who created the sixth mass extinction, we have now clearly revealed(表露) the crisis of being over-developed(过度发展) before extinction.

From the data, you can see that the original species(原始物种) can live for a long time without extinction, but those so-called senior species(高级物种) will face disappearance more quickly. There is no doubt that the senior species can do more things compared to the original species. That is to say, the more abilities you have, or the more things you can do, the faster you will die out.

You may think what I said is wrong because, with the evolution of species, its life is getting longer. For example, the cell cycle (or life) of single-celled organism(单细胞生物) may be only a few hours [8], but human may live up to more than 80 years. Remember, what I talk about is not the life of an individual(个体), but the living time of a whole species. Also, you may think that comparing the living time is meaningless because we cannot live for such a long time. However, though you cannot, your genes can. In fact, what is really meaningless is the individual life because the genes will be transferred to the next generation. An individual will die, but its genes will still exist. For example, the life of the single-celled is short, but after division(分裂), they will have a new life. In other words, the human body is just a tool for genes to transfer. Our life goals should be simple: to eat and to transfer genes. So, we must look at the living time of a whole species, instead of the life of an individual.

Then, a new question arose. What caused such a strange phenomenon? Why is the living time becoming shorter? Maybe, we need to think in another way.


During the process of evolution, the structure(结构) of an organism(生物体) is becoming more and more complicated. On the one hand, from the single-celled to the multiple-celled(多细胞生物), every individual can do more things. But on the other hand, each cell can do fewer things, which means becoming weaker. For example, the single-celled organism can do all the things that are needed, such as eating and reacting, with only one cell. Although it cannot do too many things, what it can do is already enough for survival. But as for humans, you know what will happen if we have only one cell. Also, there is no doubt that we will lose our lives immediately if we lose just one type of cell.

Now, the question I mentioned just now should be clear. During the process of evolution, the structure is becoming more complicated, so the senior species need to do more things to keep alive and transfer genes. Meanwhile, the requirements they need for survival will also become more and more, and if just one kind of requirement is lost, they will die out soon. This situation can be described as "unstable living".


Lao Tzu might have found the secret of species evolution, so he once said weakness is the function of Tao(弱者道之用). Here, it means that the phenomenon of becoming weaker is the expression of Tao, which is the modern explanation of Tao. He also called for a lifestyle of living in a small state with few people(小国寡民), but it seems that he did not notice the fact that nothing can go back to the previous level to be inactive. Of course, if it tries to, it will not be able to do the needed things to keep alive. Since the living requirements cannot be satisfied(满足), it will lose its life. 

As the saying goes, human is a thinking reed(人是一根能思想的苇草). Humans are the weakest species on the earth. We are not above everything. Instead, we are under everything. The reason why we have intelligence is that we need to think about how to survive, unlike the stones or the single-celled, which are strong enough to survive nearly forever without asking anything. Look at the problems we face now: environmental pollution, population crisis, wars, and so on. Nuclear weapons(核武器) from only America and Russia are able to kill everybody on the earth for over 20 times [9]. Look at what we are doing now: wasting water and food, killing wild animals, destroying the forest. I believe the disappearance of humans will be caused by ourselves because we are killing ourselves now. But, after all, the extinction of humans is also a relief for our mother earth. Since we cannot change the trend, why not push it more heavily?

In the end, I want to tell you a familiar story. In ancient China, there was a person who was afraid of his shadow(影子). He was so scared of it that he tried to run faster and faster to escape from his shadow. But no matter how fast he ran, he could not get away from it. And finally, he died of tiredness. After thinking about the development of society and humans’ movements about environmental protection, I found that we are trying to cure and protect the environment by developing technology. However, it is the technology that caused environmental problems. You know, it is just like trying to lift yourself up by pulling your own hair. In fact, we are as stupid as that man, but we have no other way, and finally, we can do nothing about it. At that time, we will truly reach "cannot-be-active" instead of "inactive".

Finally, I want to say:

Time to Wake Up.


When I was in junior high school, I started to read books written by Wang Dongyue. I found his book 《人类的没落》 in the school library. At that time, I admired his courage to write this book, which is the opposite of the current worldview(世界观). As time goes by, I began to buy his other books. By reading them, I gradually had new views on nature, spirit(精神), and society.

In my opinion, if we humans want to develop, or survive, we have to know where we are now, otherwise, we will be blinded by the rapid development, which is reflecting(反映) our instability(不稳定).


  1. Williams G C. Adaptation and natural selection: A critique of some current evolutionary thought[M]. Princeton university press, 2018.
  2. Wikipedia, Unicellular organism.
  3. Wikipedia, Dinosaur.
  4. Wikipedia, Extinction.
  5. Wikipedia, Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
  6. GERARDO CEBALLOS, PAUL R. EHRLICH, ANTHONY D. BARNOSKY, ANDRÉS GARCÍA, ROBERT M. PRINGLE, TODD M. PALMER. Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances. 2015-06-05, 1
  7. S.L. Pimm, G.J. Russell, J.L. Gittleman and T.M. Brooks. The Future of Biodiversity. Science. 1995, 269: 347–50.
  8. 刘青, 张晓芳, 李太武, 等. 光照对 4 种单胞藻生长速率, 叶绿素含量及细胞周期的影响[D]. , 2006.
  9. Kristensen, Hans M., and Robert S. Norris. "Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945–2013." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69.5 (2013): 75-81.

See Also (Chinese Only)

  • 《知鱼之乐》—— 王东岳
  • 《物演通论》—— 王东岳
  • 《人类的没落》—— 王东岳
  • 《道德经》—— 老子


  • This article is modified from my speech in an English class, so there may be a few mistakes.
  • For more contents, please have a look at my website.
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