Review of E.O. Wilson’s: The Meaning of Human Existence (Part 1)

People … yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. ~ E. O. Wilson

Eighty-five year old E. O. Wilson, one of the world’s most important living scientists, has written another wonderful book. I have just finished reading it, and I can’t recommend it more highly.

The Meaning of Human Existence

Wilson begins by telling us that if we truly understand our evolutionary history, we will realize that:

We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above. We have only this planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.  (15-16)

We must choose where we are to go as a species, nothing else will choose for us. Wilson thus reiterates a theme which goes all the way back to the opening pages of his Pulitzer prize-winning book, On Human Nature. He makes a similar point a few pages later.

Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for our long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based on a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies. (26)

Wilson proceeds to tell the story of human evolution as only a great biologist and prose stylist could. Self-understanding requires that we accept, once and for all, our biological roots—an animality. Without this truth we deceive ourselves and expedite our extinction. We are thoroughly mammalian; we are connected to the ecosystem. This is the truth, and we reject it at our peril.

Yet reject it we do, for “the evolutionary innovations that made us dominant over the rest of life also left us sensory cripples. It rendered us largely unaware of almost all the life in the biosphere that we have been so heedlessly destroying.” (90) That may not have made much difference when we were small in number, but today it makes a great difference. We are destroying our only home.

Wilson continues to take us on a fascinating journey, telling us about ants, microbes, and ETs. His impassioned plea for our attention to collapse of biodiversity is perhaps the most moving section of all. We are destroying life because of habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overharvesting. When you read these heartfelt sentiments from a wise sage like Wilson, it is hard not to contrast them with the short-sighted, self-interested, ignorance of most politicians.

Our choice will be a profoundly moral one. Its fulfillment depends on knowledge still lacking and as sense of common decency still not felt. We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world, seen the beauty of nature, and given value to the individual. We alone have measured the quality of mercy among our own kind. Might we now extend the same concern to the living world that gave us birth? (131-132)

In the penultimate chapter, “Idols of the Mind,” Wilson uses his biological expertise to explain why human life is so mysterious and how we might solve that mystery. The key to understanding the mystery is to accept that our minds are products of natural selection, and thus instruments of survival. Our minds are a curious mix of reason and emotions, influenced by instincts and environment, by nature and by nurture. We typically fear snakes, and like music. “Human nature is the ensemble of heredity regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.” (143)

Music releases dopamine, as does food, sex, and religion. In fact, the neurosciences suggest strongly that religion is largely instinctual; it is hard-wired. Of course religion has evolved beyond its biological roots. Today religion typically postulates a deity, hopes for eternal life, provides an extended community and more. The deity “is the final and forever alpha male, or She is the alpha female. Being supernatural and infinitely powerful, the deity can perform miracles beyond the reach of human understanding.”  (149)

 The second half of the review will appear tomorrow. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *