Review of E.O. Wilson’s: The Meaning of Human Existence (Part 2)

Part 2 of my review of E. O. Wilson’s new book: The Meaning of Human Existence.

For most of history the gods explained natural phenomena, but with the coming of modern science better explanations became available. Still the instinctive appeal of religion remained, as does the comfort it provides to so many. But the cost of religion is staggering.

They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular. From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with others who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code… It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things. ( 150-151)

Moreover religious groups define themselves in large part by their creation myths, which assure them that they are favored by the gods. These myths also put them in conflict with other religious tribes. Accepting the myths and miracles constitutes faith, which is “biologically understandable as a Darwinian device for survival and increased reproduction.” (151) Religious conflicts “were widespread through the Paleolithic Era and have continued unabated to the present time. In more secular societies faith tends to be transmuted into religionlike political ideologies.” (152)

Despite all the suffering it causes, religion offers psychological benefits. It gives people an explanation for existence, tells them they are loved and protected by the gods, binds them with other members of the tribe, gives them rules of conduct, and provides meaning to their lives. If the faith is lost, the tribe disintegrates, so myths must be set in stone and dissidents punished. Scientists are generally cautious about religion, so as not to offend. But sometimes they can’t help themselves. When a distinguished scientist heard the 1950 edict by Pope Pius XII that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily into heaven. he replied “that he couldn’t be sure because he wasn’t there, but of one thing he was certain, that she passed out at thirty thousand feet.” (153)

Wilson thinks this is all very important because tribalism causes so much evil in the world today. “The principal driving force of mass murders … is tribalism, and the central rationale for lethal tribalism is sectarian religion—in particular the conflict between those faithful to different myths.” (154) Tribalism, of which religion and religionlike ideologies are expressions, is the real culprit.

Nowhere do people tolerate attacks on their person, their family, their country—or their creation myth. In America … it is possible in most places to openly debate different views on religious spirituality … But it forbidden to question closely, if at all, the creation myth—the faith—of another person or group, no matter how absurd. To disparage anything in someone else’s sacred creation myth is “religious bigotry.” It is taken as the equivalent of a personal threat. (154-155)

Wilson says “that faith has hijacked religious spirituality.” (155) Religions have come to be dominated by myths, rituals, and gods who oppose homosexuality, contraception, female clergy, abortion, evolution, etc. The founding fathers of the United States recognized that tribal religious conflict was abhorrent. But today politicians must profess a religious faith, almost always Christianity, however little they actually believe in it or how ridiculous that faith is.

Serious Christian thinkers don’t accept creation myth or miracles literally, but tend to think of them as insightful myths nonetheless.

Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battling on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C.S. Lewis, and other persuaded, after deep thought, that there must be Something Out There. They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject. (156-157)

But all Christian compromisers face what Kierkegaard called the Absolute Paradox—that the infinite, eternal truth could become finite in time. (Other religions face a similar paradox.) For how can a perfect deity have human-like emotions like “pleasure, love, generosity, vindictiveness, and a consistent and puzzling lack of concern for the horrific Earth-dwellers endure under the deity’s rule. To explain that ‘God is testing our faith’ and ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ doesn’t cut it.” (157-158)

Wilson is doubtful the religious problem can be solved, it can only be outgrown.

The problem is not in the nature or even in the existence of God. It is in the biological origins of human existence and in the nature of the human mind, and what made us the evolutionary pinnacle of the biosphere. The best way to live in this real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods. (158)

Wilson next tackles free will. He doubts that free will exists in an absolute sense, but admits that our ability to explain consciousness is limited. This allows many to go on believing in free will which, he says, “is a very fortunate Darwinian circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the conscious mind, at best a fragile dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism.” (170) A belief in free will seems necessary for our sanity.

In Wilson’ final chapter, “Alone and Free in the Universe,” he brings his beautiful book together. What is the story of our species, he asks? It is the story, not of divine creation, but of biological evolution. And what is the meaning of our lives? Wilson tell us: “… it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.” (174)

Wilson proceeds to tell the story with vigor. We are a single lineage of Old World primates, who easily could have been something else, or not been at all. Humans are not necessarily wicked, but they are dysfunctional.

We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society. We seem unable to stabilize either economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of a village. Further, the great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for obedience and resources of the faithful. We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious, and ideological struggles.  (176-177)

And there is more—we destroy the environment at an alarming rate. People, including our so-called leaders, care mostly about themselves or their own family or tribe. Few speak for the species or the environment. The cause of all this is that our brains are poorly wired, infected with mental parasites. A creation myth is a mental parasite, but it is hard to dislodge. Believers fight challenges to their mythology, although Wilson hopes that we might one day put the dignity of the believers above the dignity of the beliefs.

In an especially prescient passage Wilson says: “It might eventually be possible to hold seminars on the historical Jesus in evangelical churches, and even to publish images of Muhammad without risking death. That would be a true cry of freedom.” (182) And the argument applies to dogmatic political ideologies as well.

The same practice might be adopted for dogmatic political ideologies … The reasoning behind these secular religions is always the same, a proposition considered to be logically true followed by top-down explanation and a handpicked checklist of evidence asserted to be supportive. Zealots and dictators alike would feel their strength diminished if they were asked to explain their assumptions (“speak clearly, please”) and verify their core beliefs. (182)

Religious opposition to evolution is a particularly virulent parasite. Such ignorance is:

a triumph of blind religious faith over carefully tested fact. It is not a conception of reality forged by evidence and logical judgment. Instead, it is part of the price of admission to a religious tribe … The cost to society as a whole of the bowed head has been enormous. Evolution is a fundamental process of the Universe … Its analysis is vital to biology, including medicine, microbiology, and agronomy. Furthermore psychology, anthropology, and even the history of religion itself make no sense without evolution … The explicit denial  of evolution … is an outright falsehood, the adult equivalent of plugging one’s ears … ” (184)

Still science doesn’t explain everything; we also need the humanities. “If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.” (187) I would summarize Wilson like this. We must grow up, and accept our role as the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. Making life more meaningful is the meaning of our lives.

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