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.













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