Edward O. Wilson’s The Meaning Of Human Existence

The Meaning Of Human ExistenceI have a certain bias to confess at the outset of this piece. There is, at present, a war of ideas being fought over the future of social studies. On the one hand are the self-styled “sociologists,” the current rulers of the roost, who have demonstrated an incredible recalcitrance in the face of scientific encroachments on their territory. On the other are the scientists themselves – biologists, chiefly, but also neuroscientists, anthropologists, zoologists, and many others – whose findings over the last half-century have tended to undermine or outright contradict some of the major tenets of modern sociology. This war was inaugurated by Charles Darwin, when his theory of evolution destined the study of mankind – our habits, manners and culture – to one day be subsumed by the field of biology, but the man who can be credited with dealing the first direct blow for science is Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard professor of biology and the world’s foremost authority on ants. His 1975 work Sociobiology, which coined the term, made the case for a biological understanding of human behaviour, earning him the predictable slanders from the predictable people. And yet here we are, four decades later, and the explosion in scientific knowledge made possible by, for example, the Human Genome Project, or advances in magnetic resonance imaging – to name just two major examples – have overwhelmingly tended to confirm his conjectures. My bias, if it can be called that, is that I believe the war has already been won, at least at the level of the evidence, and the stubborn dissenters argue from what Jonathan Haidt has called “motivated ignorance.”

The Meaning Of Human Existence is a (short) look at what humanity looks like through the sociobiological lens, beginning with Wilson’s important assertion that “history makes little sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes little sense without biology.” A synthesis, of the kind Wilson is after, would seek to understand human history in biological terms. What did our pre-human ancestors bequeath to us that might have biased our development along certain lines? His first example comes from our way of perceiving the world. Though human beings have the benefit of sight, sound, touch and scent, it is primarily through sight and sound that we orient ourselves in the world. Our relatively poor perception for smells – likely a consequence of our ancestors becoming bipedal – distinguishes us from many of the other creatures we share the planet with, and has shaped our culture enormously. Next, consider our brains, the most complex mechanisms in the known universe, and the wellspring of human thought and creativity. Contrary to the dictates of religion, “the human mind did not evolve as an externally guided progression towards either pure reason or emotional fulfillment. It remains as it has always been, an instrument of survival that employs both reason and emotion.” What we think of as “the human condition,” that miraculous assembly of contradictions that describes the joys and pains of our existence, is not the product of original sin, or merely the imprint of a malleable culture; it is our genetic heritage, unique, flawed and beautiful.

One of his better examples of innately programmed behaviour comes from sea turtles. The mother sea turtle emerges from the sea only once in her life, to lay eggs on sandy beaches. When the eggs hatch, the hatchlings make their way towards the water, as if guided by instinct, without the help of their mother. But what does this mean, to say that an instinct compels them towards the water? Through a little clever experimentation, biologists discovered that it is the bright lights reflected off the ocean waters to which the infant sea turtles are compelled. If you set up a far brighter light away from the sea, the baby turtles prefer it to the ocean. Human beings, too, have such instincts, programmed in our brains, that bias our behaviour. We have instincts to be social, to seek a mate, to avoid danger. We can gain clues as to which human behaviours have an instinctual basis by comparing these tendencies across multiple cultures and continents. If the tribespeople of Papa New Guinea, long severed from contact with other humans, bury their dead, divide labour between men and women and employ creation myths to explain their existence, it is a likely bet that there is some underlying genetic adaptation “biasing” these universal cultural traits. The sequencing of the genome or the investigation of our neurons are merely more sophisticated means of testing this hypothesis.

To this microscopic approach, Wilson adds the macroscopic, incorporating new findings from, for example, the Hubble Telescope, that convey some sense of the vastness of our universe and, very likely, our deep solitude within it. If the smallest things – neurons and DNA bases – can provide some foundation for constructing meaning, so too must cosmology.

I find his approach fascinating, and its potential explanatory power far dwarfs what his religious and social studies competitors have to offer. But – and here I must put aside my fealty to his paradigm – this book suffers immensely from a lack of cohesion. Perhaps the lofty subject proved too challenging to be adequately covered in a single volume, but Wilson nonetheless makes a valiant effort: there are whole sections devoted to environmentalism, the frightening potentials of gene therapy and his latest feud with Richard Dawkins – described as an “eloquent science journalist,” with some implied condescension – on the kin selection vs group selection theories of altruism (of which, if you’re interested, you may read an excellent overview here). His paradigm is one I ultimately endorse, and one I think will be increasingly vindicated by new research, but this book seems designed more to introduce a skeptic to the basic premises, and it’s too muddled, too loosely structured to do that effectively.