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.


May I recommend?

I confess to being an omnivorous reader and that my iPad has only abetted my hunger for new turf, now so easily accessed with the likes of Publisher’s Weekly, Goodreads, and the Huffington Post. On occasion, I’ve drawn on Fareed Zacharia’s recommendations on his GPS weekly telecast. I maintain links to all the nation’s foremost bookstores like Powell’s as well. And, of course, there is always that behemoth, Amazon.

This past week I was delighted to see two authors among those on the 2014 Long List for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
OsnosThe first is Evan Osnos, whose Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China I read several months ago following upon Zacharia’s counsel. It’s not my intent, however, to give a lengthy book review here. Besides, you can access copious online reviews with Google or at the Amazon site.

Anyway, Osnos is presently with The New Yorker after having been a roving correspondent in China for eight years. He went everywhere, interviewing citizens across the social-political-economic spectrum.

What amazes me is that he did so speaking fluent Chinese, acquired as a major at Harvard, obviously increasing his access enormously.

He’s also a polished writer exhibiting a lucid style along with cogent analysis.

I hadn’t done any sustained reading on China until Osnos, which–sadly– probably includes the vast lot of us, though China rivals the USA on the world stage.

Certainly, Osnos has his hands on that nation’s pulse.   Essentially, its communist government hasn’t changed in its dedication to controlling all aspects of daily life and maintaining its privileged status despite its seeming anomaly of encouraging a market economy so contrary to the legacy of Mao.

It does so, of course, to keep in check any democratic impulses among its citizenry.  Let them eat cake and they’ll overlook pressing for governmental reform. So far, it seems to have kept the lid on, though Osnos notes that many of the populace seethe underneath, as materialism cannot assuage their desire to be free to think and choose. Accordingly, a revival of interest in religion is also taking place, proving again “that man cannot live by bread alone.”

As a consequence, it’s a fine-balancing act for many Chinese, especially among its entrepreneurial classes, intellectuals, and artisans. The thought police are everywhere monitoring, especially the Internet.

The regime even goes so far as to downplay natural disasters that may point to government malfeasance.

Of course, the Chinese know this well to the point of using code terminology to circumvent the censors.

Osnos doesn’t neglect the full picture, however, as there is a growing emergence of rabid nationalism among some that could ultimately pose a danger on the world stage. In the short term, these zealots pose an additional threat to the cadre of brave dissidents at home.

I went away admiring the quiet heroism of many of the Chinese, and sadly, the hard lot of dissidents who have chosen to articulate their concerns for a more liberal China very openly, risking long imprisonment under harsh conditions and sometimes torture.

If you want to take China’s measure, then this is a book you’ll want to read.

wilsonThe second name among others in the 2014 Long List for Nonfiction is that of the renowned etymologist Edward O. Wilson for his The Meaning of Human Existence. I’m familiar with Wilson’s nimble acuity to persuasively and eloquently deliver a manifesto for nature and its myriad creatures under the duress of both man and global warming in his other books.

I’ve also just recently read his In Search of Nature, surely an environmental classic that explains in layman’s terms the complicated interplay between genetics and environment. Like all sociobiologists, Wilson seeks to unlock the biological origins behind human behavior.

In the Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson boldly asserts that no transcendental design is responsible for our existence. On the contrary, “Our species was created not by a supernatural intelligence, but by chance and necessity out of millions of species in Earth’s biosphere.”

No destiny or purpose is assigned to us, and no afterlife awaits us. Our human moment originates in “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.”

Creatures with a social intelligence predisposed for social action enhanced by natural selection, we require the humanities even more than the sciences to define the human condition and guide it into effectual relationships, not only among ourselves, but with earth’s other creatures, for surely our future, and our safety, depends upon biodiversity and its preservation.

Wilson’s view is a brave one, given that the religious instinct along with “tribalism” remain rampant with all their insularity and intolerance:

Human existence may be simpler than we thought. There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life….We are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world.

Accordingly, Wilson movingly pleads that humans in their unique social intelligence extend their embrace to include nature:

We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world…. 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?

As always, Wilson writes a reasoned, yet passionate prose, acute in its honesty, telling in its empathy for both man and his beleaguered companions.













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!











Our Survival at Stake: Do We Have a Future?

Sir Francis Bacon
Sir Francis Bacon

As much as we can do it, we should avoid living our lives on assumption that a belief is true simply because we’ve been told it’s so by family, government, religion, politics, economics, or the collective culture in which we’ve been raised.  The only fixed verities are those within the scope of natural law with its defined predictability confirmed by replication.  Our responsibility should be to explore those verities affecting our well-being and allow them fullest scope.  We never escape the inexorable operation of those laws, for whatever we do, there is always a consequence. But sometimes we get to choose.

There is no inherent purpose to life, though many moralists like Tolstoy have implied one in asking, How ought we to live?  Nature works through selection only, reinforcing those causal elements promoting regeneration.  Often it works with infinitesimal numbers, a million seeds to effect a single germination.  It has no ethics.  It is devoid of Mind.

We pride ourselves on our freedom, but we are overwhelmingly conditioned by biology and complex behavioral repertoires sanctioned or extinguished by environment.  It is not the future that shapes us, but what has happened to us that defines what we think and do.  Conversely, this defines our tragedy that may doom us on this earth.

We were not born into a preset regimen other than one genetically imposed, so Locke was right about the tabla rasa, or clean slate, notion of our infancy.  Preconditioning is what happens as we make our journey. It follows that each of us needs to recover that initial state; that what I believe or do should be based on immediate consequences rather than because I am told to do so by law,  government, religion or individuals.  We do need laws in a world of many to ensure equal access to the trough in the context of safety, but there is nothing sacrosanct about any law, belief or opinion that allows it to go unexamined.

One of the inherent drawbacks of the human condition is superimposing belief and practice on others.  History, accordingly, is often bloodied with the cruelties of absolutism forced on others, often in the context of religion or secular ideology.  This week, the Ukraine remembers its 3 million dead, starved to death in 1932-33 by a Stalinist regime bent on enforcing collectivization of that nation’s farmland.

Other than climate change, humanity’s greatest threat comes from Islamic extremists bent on returning to the way of the sword, or Jihad, in imposing their beliefs.  The danger lies in Islam’s not merely being a set of beliefs, but a whole way of life regulating every human behavior, codified ultimately in Sharia mandate.

I alluded earlier to the behavioral quirk in us that may cause our doom.  Conditioned as we are by immediate consequences, we often cede the future for the dividends of the present.  Such is our present circumstance with meeting the exigencies of global warming, declining resources, and burgeoning population. 

In short, unless we can render the future more palpable, allowing us to help shape it for those who come after; indeed, assure its livability with reasonable happiness, then we may be moving into our final chapter.  While altruism is a tenant within humanity and perhaps, in evolutionary vein, promoting survivability (see E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology, 1975), we too often exercise our limited freedom for the immediate.  Like the heroic soldier forfeiting his life on the battlefield to save the lives of his fellows, we need to emulate a consciousness of others that may often conflict with our personal happiness and achievement.

Evolution, paradoxically mindless, has always arbitrated for the future over the present as denominator of survivability and made you and me possible.

The Renaissance philosopher I’ve admired all my life, Francis Bacon, summed it all up in saying, “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.”  Do not base your life on the beliefs of others.  Live for the world of ideas and sort out those verified by the best science.  Live in the fullest moment of today, but not without regard for the future of your fellows.


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