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The Meaning of Human Existence
Edward O. Wilson
Where did we come from, with our two-legged stance, horizon-scanning eyes and teeming brain? Human cultures have answered this question by telling stories - about gardens and gods, about sacred places and shaping spirits. For a century and a half, ever since Darwin published his distressing theory, biologists have been insisting that all those creation stories, however comforting and flattering, are false.
In our own day, no biologist has been more persistent or eloquent in correcting our misapprehensions about human origins than Edward O. Wilson. At age 85, author of more than 20 books, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, recipient of numerous major awards for science and public service, he could easily rest on his laurels. He might be content with having made pioneering contributions in the study of entomology, biodiversity, sociobiology, island biogeography and environmental psychology, along with having popularized the term 'biophilia' to describe our fascination with the living world.
Instead, Wilson tries yet again, in 'The Meaning of Human Existence,' to convince ordinary readers of the scientific view that humans have evolved, along with millions of other species, from earlier life forms, entirely by natural processes, without guidance from any supreme being. He has his work cut out for him. According to the most recent Pew Research Center poll, roughly two-thirds of Americans reject this view of evolution, which undergirds all of modern medicine and the life sciences.
Ironically, the religious faiths that are the chief source of this skepticism are themselves a product of evolution, Wilson tells us in this slender volume, which has been short-listed for this year's National Book Award in nonfiction. Following Darwin's lead, he argues that natural selection operates not only at the individual level but also at the level of groups. Throughout our evolutionary history, those groups that bonded most firmly against outsiders enjoyed greater reproductive success - and religion is the most potent binding force that human cultures have produced.
Wilson acknowledges the benefits that arise from religious faith, including moral codes that instruct believers to relieve suffering and care for the vulnerable. One of his previous books, 'The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth' (2006), took the form of a letter addressed to a Southern Baptist minister, seeking common ground in the effort to preserve biodiversity by invoking the stewardship ethic implicit in the Bible. In his new book, however, perhaps in response to the sectarian strife that engulfs so many nations, Wilson laments that 'the great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering. They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism.'
Tribalism is only one consequence of what Wilson calls the 'Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society.' Among other ways in which our genetic adaptations ill suit us for contemporary conditions, he notes our penchant for racism, our refusal to curb population growth, our failure to cooperate with one another on a scale commensurate with the challenges we face and our devastation of the natural environment.
Having become the dominant species on the planet, are we doomed to self-destruct? Calling himself 'at heart a congenital optimist,' Wilson answers with a qualified no. We can avoid undermining the natural conditions on which civilization depends by drawing on our 'social intelligence,' another legacy of our evolutionary journey. The abilities to communicate, collaborate through division of labor and behave altruistically within organized groups are traits that have arisen 'on only twenty known occasions in the history of life,' principally among insects, such as termites and ants.
While he draws parallels between the behavior of ants - on which he is the world's leading authority - and human social behavior, Wilson is careful to say that we are not slaves of instinct, as insects are. As he has done since his early and controversial book 'On Human Nature' (1978), he argues here that our 'behavior has a strong genetic component,' which shapes but does not determine our actions. Unlike insects, we can think about the consequences of our behavior and choose to act differently. We can choose, for example, to bring fewer children into the world, stop burning coal, plant trees faster than we cut them down, judge people by their character rather than by the color of their skin.
To posit such a power to choose, as Wilson does repeatedly in 'The Meaning of Human Existence,' raises a conundrum that he never squarely addresses, not even in the chapter titled 'Free Will.' He predicts that neuroscientists will soon identify the physical basis of consciousness, revealing the material processes that give rise to our emotions and thoughts. If what we call mind is only a side effect of material processes, which proceed from a skein of cause-and-effect that reaches back to the big bang, then the conscious 'self' may believe that it freely chooses how to behave, but that belief, Wilson implies, is an illusion.
'Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive,' Wilson argues. It protects us from fatalism. Reassured by imagining that we exert conscious control over our lives, we keep on reproducing our kind. But in a material universe governed entirely by physical laws, he concedes, free will does not exist 'in ultimate reality.' Then what is the point of exhorting readers to embrace the theory of evolution, to preserve the Earth's wealth of living things, to overcome bigotry and put an end to war? How could we, by conscious effort, change our actions or beliefs?
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Your new book, The Meaning of Human Existence, addresses a huge question. What inspired you to tackle it?
I think it's time to be audacious. The central questions of religion and philosophy are three in number: where do we come from, what are we and where are we going? Usually these are just the beginnings of long discussions, but that's no longer the case. We now have a pretty good picture of how humanity arose in Africa, what intermediate forms existed, the rate at which these forms evolved and the circumstances in which they evolved.
So I can say, right now, that of those three great questions, we have most of the answer for where we come from. And in this book I take up the question: what are we? We're starting to close in on that one. We need to know where we came from and what we are to have the self-understanding to sensibly plan where we're going. Right now, we don't have any idea where we're going.
Would you say there is a lot of denial about where humanity is heading?
Well, there's immense disagreement. One of my favourite quotations is from the late French author Jean Bruller, who wrote under the pseudonym Vercors. He said that all of man's problems derive from the fact that we do not know what we are, and cannot agree on what to become.
So will you examine humanity's future next?
I'm writing a trilogy. The first was The Social Conquest of Earth, which dealt with where we come from. The Meaning of Human Existence deals with what we are. And the final part, The End of the Anthropocene, will look at where we are going.
The major theme of that upcoming book will be that we are destroying Earth in a way that people haven't appreciated enough, and that we are eroding away the biosphere through species extinction, like the death of a thousand cuts. I want to examine the new ideology of the anthropocene – namely those who believe that the fight for biodiversity is pretty much lost and we should just go on humanising Earth until it is peopled from pole to pole; a planet by, of and for humanity. It sounds good, but it's suicidal.
Why is biodiversity loss suicidal for humans?
The biosphere is an extremely complex system, and razor thin: if you look at it from the side, from orbit, you can't even see it with unaided vision. That's where we live, and that's what produced us, plastered on the surface of our planet. We were not just created separately in some manner and then lowered into the biosphere. Everything about us – our minds, our bodies – is conditioned to exist in those exact conditions created by our biosphere.
The beautiful equilibrium of the living world is a result of all the species, plants, animals and microorganisms around us. As it is eroded away, the living world is almost certainly going to reach a tipping point where its equilibrium is going to decay and unravel. And when that happens, the whole thing collapses – and we collapse with it.
Why does our species seem to ignore scientific warnings about Earth's future?
I think primarily it's our tribal structure. All the ideologies and religions have their own answers for the big questions, but these are usually bound as a dogma to some kind of tribe. Religions in particular feature supernatural elements that other tribes – other faiths – cannot accept. In the US, for example, if you're going to succeed in politics, it's a prerequisite to declare you have a faith, even if some of these faiths are rather bizarre. And what they're saying is "I have a tribe". And every tribe, no matter how generous, benign, loving and charitable, nonetheless looks down on all other tribes. What's dragging us down is religious faith.
Is atheism the answer?
In fact, I'm not an atheist – I'm a scientist. Atheism is the belief that there is no god, and you declare there is no god: "Come, my fellow atheists, let us march together and conquer those idiots who think there is a god – all these other tribes. We're going to prevail."
I would even say I'm agnostic because I'm a scientist. Being an agnostic means saying, dogmatically, that we will never be able to know, so give it up. The important thing is that it appears that humans, as a species, share a religious impulse. You can call it theological, you can call it spiritual, but humans everywhere have a strong tendency to wonder about whether they're being looked over by a god or not. Practically every person ponders whether they're going to have another life. These are the things that unite humanity.
If humans have a built-in spiritual yearning, can we do anything about it?
This transcendent searching has been hijacked by the tribal religions. So I would say that for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths. But certainly not eliminating the natural yearnings of our species or the asking of these great questions.
You pioneered sociobiology and discovered pheromone-based communication. But is there a scientific conundrum that you wish you had been the one to crack?
I would like to have discovered the structure of DNA, but a couple of Brits and an American beat me to it. Everybody would like to make a discovery like that. But the question I most want answered now is whether or not there's life on other planets. I've just got to know!
From all these big questions to the smallest creatures... I cannot interview the world's best known ant expert without asking: do you have a favourite?
I do. It's an ant called Thaumatomyrmex. In all my travels, I've only seen three. They're very rare. It has teeth on jaws that look like a pitchfork. The teeth are extremely long, and when it closes the jaws, they overlap. In at least one species, the teeth actually meet behind the head. So what does this monster eat? What does it use those teeth for? I just had to know, so I sent an appeal out to younger experts in the field, particularly in South America, where these ants are found.
Eventually they discovered the answer: it feeds on polyxenid millipedes. These millipedes have soft bodies, but they're bristling all over like a porcupine. So the ant drives a spike right through the bristles and nails it. And what we hadn't noticed is that the ant also has thick little brushes [on some of its limbs], and members of the colony use these to scrub the bristles off – like cleaning a chicken – before dividing it up. That's my favourite.
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