On Reading E. O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence

wilsonI finished reading E. O. Wilson’s remarkable book, The Meaning of Human Existence, two weeks ago and am now finally getting to tell others why I like it so much.

For one thing, I admire its author, an eminent, cerebral champion of eco diversity given to candor that may arch the backs of some. Years ago, a member of the Marxist oriented Progressive Labor Party poured a pitcher of water on him for advocating the genetic origin of human behavior, a surely unpopular stance with today’s still entrenched view of social conditioning as the compelling factor in the ongoing nature vs. nurture debate.

The controversy once got so heated that it spilled over in 2001 into the front pages of the New York Times and Time Magazine, with some members of the science community dismissing Wilson as a misogynist and racist.

Of course, I learned long ago that scientists, just like the rest of us, are hardly free from biases that can prejudice challenges to accepted axioms rooted more in assumption–and sometimes, pecuniary interests–than objective research or the empirical.

And always there are the social ameliorists, who can be downright bullying in their evangelical intensity.

For me, Wilson makes a lot of sense. If we can take evolution into our own hands and genetically induce behavioral as well as physiological outcomes in animals such as canines, why would this not be true of evolution as a mechanism at large?

But Wilson has survived the controversy and, you name it, he’s won virtually every academic and journalism award, including two Pulitzers.

The novelist Ian McEwan aptly described Wilson as “an intellectual hero,” and that he didn’t “know of another working scientist whose prose [was] better than his. He can be witty, scathing and inspirational by turns. He is a superb celebrator of science in all its manifestations, as well as being a scourge of bogus, post-modernist, relativist pseudo-science, and so-called New Age thinking” (qtd. in The Guardian, 16 February, 2001).

This most recent book, in many ways a summation of his copious research across several decades, has been nominated for the National Book Award.

It’s far more than a tome on science, however. Replete with wisdom and concern for a diminishing biodiversity on which our survival depends, it ultimately addresses the human condition marred by tribalism, redundant in self-interest, and often (think today)   exhibiting a religious and political mindset:

The great religions are…tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, which makes good people do bad things.

In more secular societies, faith tends to be transmuted into religion-like political ideologies. Sometimes the two great categories are combined.

The Meaning of Human Existence pleads for the convergence of science and the humanities to not only confront human behavior but pursue its origin that we might remedy it.

The self-contained world of the humanities describes the human condition–but not why it is the one thing and not another. The scientific worldview is vastly larger. It encompasses the meaning of human existence–the general principles of the human condition, where the species fits in the Universe, and why it exists in the first place.

With resounding pathos, not unexpected in a man who loves Nature so fervently, Wilson   also laments our intransigent myopia that unwittingly plants the seeds of our own demise and, hence, betrays our future:

Too paralyzed with self-absorption to protect the rest of life, we continue to tear down the natural environment, our species’ irreplaceable and most precious heritage. And it is still taboo to bring up population policies aiming for an optimum population density, geographic distribution and age distribution.

I think Wilson is spot on. While the humanities can teach us how to behave, they cannot rid us of the conflicting dynamics of individualism versus altruism implanted by evolution.

And that is our tragedy. We must learn to conceive ourselves as unique offspring possessed of divided sensibilities, the finale of vast eons of time, that we might weave a more rational way of living.

Though it’s folly to suppose we can annul our fissure, we can do better. We do not have the gods to blame, nor a devil to curse. And if this frees us from a good deal of our tribalism, then so much the better.

It pains me to think this may be Wilson’s last book, since he will turn 86 next June. As is, he’s lost none of his mettle in provoking us to examine our assumptions and liberate ourselves.

In doing so, he reminds me of those Old Testament prophets that would, at great risk, prognosticate the calamitous fallout of an unheeded warning.


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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