The Meaning of Human Existence


Edward O. Wilson

If you’ve read both Consilience and The Social Conquest of Earth, you won’t find many new ideas in Wilson’s latest collection of essays. But you will find them expressed in new, more compact, and perhaps more accessible ways.

Like ConsilienceThe Meaning of Human Existence argues strongly that the humanities need science (in order to have something real about which to speak) and science needs the humanities (to offer some sort of human meaning to external reality).

Like The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson’s latest effort argues for the central importance of multilevel selection for the emergence and dominance of human civilizations: “individual selection based on competition and cooperation among members of the same group, and group selection, which arises from competition and cooperation between groups.”

Wilson makes both of these claims in an entirely material context. Early in the book, he states as clearly as he can that he rejects any supernatural explanation of the human story:

Humanity, I argue, arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution. We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above. We have only this one planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.

And the “one meaning” that we “unfold” has a central truth, an understanding of human nature that addresses both competition and cooperation:

We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites—not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

(Interestingly, I have also just finished reading British philosopher John Gray’s new book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. Famously skeptical, Gray makes the same core point, again and again, as he examines the writings of modern writers and thinkers. A separate review of Gray’s book will follow this review soon.)

Wilson mixes the humanities and the sciences when he provocatively characterizes the competition of individual selection as “sin” and the cooperation of group selection as “virtue.” Science labours to show us what we are, and the humanities strive to suggest what that means to us. But unlike religious struggles, there is no ultimate winner. Were either impulse to win entirely, Wilson warns, our civilization would perish:

So it came to pass that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of multilevel selection. They are suspended in unstable and constantly changing positions between the two extreme forces that created us. We are unlikely to yield completely to either force as the ideal solution to our social and political turmoil. To give in completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve society. … At the opposite extreme, to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots—the outsized equivalents of ants.

How to understand, how to live with our duality? How to comprehend its indelible roots in our biological origins? How to relate something so vast and so impersonal to our own experience of our own lives?

Unfortunately, Wilson delays the final answers to these questions for the great bulk of the rest of the book, during which he refights the long-running scientific argument about inclusive fitness (kin selection), group selection, and multilevel selection. If you’re familiar with this controversy, you can give this long recapitulation a quick skim, or even a skip altogether.

Near the end of the book, Wilson summarily reiterates the different roles of the humanities and the sciences. But by now, we appreciate that he’s not elevating one over the other. Rather, he’s highlighting their very different functions as the elaborators of our existence:

The humanities address in fine detail all the ways human beings relate to one another and to the environment, the latter including plants and animals of aesthetic and practical importance. Science addresses everything else. The self-contained worldview 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.

The Meaning of Human Existence has many well-expressed and provocative passages like this one. If it had even more of them, and less rehashing of old battles, it would be a very good book, indeed.

As it is, it’s just a  good book.




5 thoughts on “The Meaning of Human Existence

  1. I would differ here. My belief is that the world of words – those tokens of meaning we use to inform and influence each other – is key to our understanding of conscience. Biologists, such as Wilson exist in the discrete world where a word (or a snippet of DNA) has a rather specific sequence and content of letters. A bit of DNA can have multiple meanings depending on context similar to words. This is one side of the consilience gap. The other is based on physics and math where infinities rule.

  2. By the way, you mention Wilson’s position on group selection and inclusive fitness theory. I have actually come to agree with most of what Wilson has concluded on that topic and am really interested in it. Do you have an opinion on that debate?

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