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.


Jung, Archetypes, and A Parrot: The Legacy of Nature’s Genius

Dr. Joanna Burger
Dr. Joanna Burger

I’ve just finished Joanna Burger’s The Parrot That Owns Me: The Story of a Relationship. Funny, I had this book sitting on my shelf, unread, for twelve years. Looking for something to read while eating my breakfast, I pulled it down and started what turned out to be a fun read.

I also learned a great deal about birds and, especially about parrots, surely one of the most intelligent of animal species, though we normally think of primates (gorillas, chimps, orangutans, etc.), dolphins, elephants and pigs as honorary Mensa candidates among our animal kin.

Burger, one of the world’s leading ornithologists and Rutgers University prof with over twenty books to her credit, tells how Tiko, her Red-lored Amazon, practices a repertoire of tonal warnings to distinguish varied predators, most notably, hawks, cats, and snakes.

She writes that “when Tiko gave his hawk call, Mike (her husband) and I would invariably spot a Red-tailed, Sharp-shinned, or Cooper’s Hawk flying overhead or perched in a nearby tree. Tiko’s response was so consistent that there was no question that he recognized hawkdom” (167).

Likewise, Tiko doesn’t like snakes, one of which Burger kept for a while, much to Tiko’s dismay. Only when the snake went into hibernation could he be content in the same room.

But how does Tiko pull this off?   After all, he seems to possess a genetic memory of jungle predators, even though he’s been totally reared in captivity and has never had any interaction with hawks or snakes?

Years ago I had started reading Jung, who has impressed me more than Freud as being on the mark when its comes to the seminal sources lurking behind human behavior. Jung proposed the theory of archetypes, or “primordial images” (Man and his Symbols, 67), reflecting instinctual urges of unknown origins. They can arise in our consciousness suddenly and anywhere apart from cultural influence or personal experience. Often they take shape in our consciousness through fantasy, symbol, or situational pattern.

And so with Tiko as well as ourselves, the instinctual responses perpetuating survival have become wired in the brains of sentient creatures. Untaught, they’re automatic.

Today, science overwhelmingly confirms the accuracy of Jung’s prescience. Take, for example, the eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson, who attests that monkeys “raised in the laboratory without previous exposure to snakes show the same response to them as those brought in from the wild, though in weaker form (In Search of Nature, 19).

The explanation, of course, lies in evolution’s conferring differential survival value through natural selection. Those who learn to respond to fear quickly simply pass on more of their offspring with their response mechanisms.

Wilson goes further, arguing that human culture itself is considerably biological in origin, or genetically prescribed, supported by analytical models (123-24).

A Jungian at heart, I found Tiko’s innate capacity to respond to elements of danger another in a long line of evidence supporting Jung’s pioneering perspective; on this occasion, by way of one of the world’s most astute animal behaviorists, Joanna Burger.

Nature never ceases to amaze me!











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