My own never ending interest in ideas leads to my own constant searching the ideas of others for help in lending expression and life to my own. And I have always been interested in the writings of the biologist and naturalist Edward Wilson. He began writing about ants, becoming the world’s foremost authority on their lives, but early in his career had much of interest to say about us, homo sapiens sapiens, human beings. His latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, continues this what seems to me anyway now dominant “human” thread in his work.
I’ve just started reading his new book and while I feel strongly that it ought to be read by everyone, for it has so much to say of interest and importance to all of us, it won’t be, of course, because as Wilson himself says in his new book most of the world’s peoples are still so deeply tied down to, or hung up by their tribal customs and beliefs that they have little or no interest in reading all that science, as well as the humanities, have to tell us about the meaning of our existence.
Anyway, I’m posting [without permission] the final chapter of Wilson’s new book here on my ParisTampaBlog. In this chapter Wilson answers the questions about life’s meaning pretty much as I would have liked to have answered them myself. In fact, he goes a long way in speaking for me, giving expression to my own thoughts, what I’d like to be able to say to my own grandchildren at the appropriate time, still to come, probably not yet here, especially when he says things like this:
We are, it seems, completely alone. And that in my opinion is a very good thing. It means we are completely free…. [free to address] with more confidence the greatest goal of all time, the unity of the human race.
Chapter 15 of Edward O. Wilson’s new book:
Alone and Free in the Universe
What does the story of our species tell us? By this I mean the narrative made visible by science, not the archaic version soaked in religion and ideology. I believe the evidence is massive enough and clear enough to tell us this much: We were created not by a supernatural intelligence but by chance and necessity as one species out of millions of species in Earth’s biosphere. Hope and wish for otherwise as we will, there is no evidence of an external grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one. We are, it seems, completely alone. And that in my opinion is a very good thing. It means we are completely free. As a result we can more easily diagnose the etiology of the irrational beliefs that so unjustifiably divide us. Laid before us are new options scarcely dreamed of in earlier ages. They empower us to address with more confidence the greatest goal of all time, the unity of the human race.
The prerequisite for attaining the goal is an accurate self-understanding. So, what is the meaning of human existence? I’ve suggested that it is 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, it is also what we will choose to become.
To speak of human existence is to bring into better focus the difference between the humanities and science. 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.
Humanity arose as an accident of evolution, a product of random mutation and natural selection. Our species was just one end point out of many twists and turns in a single lineage of Old World primates (prosimians, monkeys, apes, humans) of which there are today several hundred other native species, each a product of its own twists and turns. We might easily have remained just another australopith with an ape-sized brain, collecting fruit and grabbing at fish, eventually to suffer extinction like other australopiths.
For the four hundred million years that large animals have occupied the land, Homo sapiens has been the only one to evolve intelligence high enough to create a civilization. Our genetically nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, today represented by two species (the common chimpanzee and the bonobo), came closest. The human and chimpanzee lineages split from a common stock in Africa about six million years ago. Roughly two hundred thousand generations have passed, plenty of time for natural selection to force a series of major genetic changes. The prehumans possessed certain advantages that biased the direction of their subsequent evolution . These included, at the beginning , a partly arboreal life and free use of the forelimbs that went with it. This archaic condition was then altered to a primarily ground-dwelling life. Also in place as biasing conditions were large-brained ancestors and an immense continent with a mostly equitable climate and extensive grassland interspersed with open dry forest. In later years the favoring preconditions included frequent ground fires that promoted fresh growth in herbaceous and shrubby plants. Also and more importantly, the fires made possible an eventual dietary shift to cooked meat. This rare combination of circumstances during the evolutionary run-up, combined with luck (no devastating climate change, volcanic eruptions, or severe pandemics), rolled the dice in favor of the early humans.
Godlike, their descendants have saturated a large part of Earth, and altered to varying degree the remainder. We have become the mind of the planet and perhaps our entire corner of the galaxy as well. We can do with Earth what we please. We chatter constantly about destroying it— by nuclear war, climate change, an apocalyptic Second Coming foretold by Holy Scripture.
Human beings are not wicked by nature. We have enough intelligence, goodwill, generosity, and enterprise to turn Earth into a paradise both for ourselves and for the biosphere that gave us birth. We can plausibly accomplish that goal, at least be well on the way, by the end of the present century. The problem holding everything up thus far is that Homo sapiens is an innately dysfunctional species. We are hampered by 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. We seem unable to stabilize either economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of a village. Further, the great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for the obedience and resources of the faithful. We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious, and ideological struggles. There are other hereditary biases. 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 people density, geographic distribution, and age distribution. The idea sounds “fascist,” and in any case can be deferred for another generation or two— we hope.
Our species’ dysfunction has produced the hereditary myopia of which we are all uncomfortably familiar. People find it hard to care about other people beyond their own tribe or country, and even then past one or two generations. It is harder still to be concerned about animal species— except for dogs, horses, and others of the very few we have domesticated to be our servile companions.
Our leaders, religious, political, and business, mostly accept supernatural explanations of the human existence. Even if privately skeptical, they have little interest in opposing religious leaders and unnecessarily stirring up the populace, from whom they draw power and privilege. Scientists who might contribute to a more realistic worldview are especially disappointing. Largely yeomen, they are intellectual dwarves content to stay within the narrow specialties for which they were trained and are paid.
Some of the dysfunction of course comes from the youthful state of global civilization, which is still a work in progress. But the greater part is due simply to the fact that our brains are poorly wired. Hereditary human nature is the genetic legacy of our prehuman and Paleolithic past— the “indelible stamp of our lowly origin” as identified by Charles Darwin, first in anatomy (The Descent of Man, 1871 ) and then in the facial signals of emotion (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872). Evolutionary psychologists have pressed on to explain the role of biological evolution in gender differences, child mental development, status ranking, tribal aggression, and even dietary choice.
As I’ve suggested in previous writing, the chain of causation runs yet deeper, extending all the way to the level of the biological organization on which natural selection works. Selfish activity within the group provides competitive advantage but is commonly destructive to the group as a whole. Working in the opposite direction from individual-level selection is group selection— group versus group. When an individual is cooperative and altruistic, this reduces his advantage in competition to a comparable degree with other members but increases the survival and reproduction rate of the group as a whole. In a nutshell, individual selection favors what we call sin and group selection favors virtue. The result is the internal conflict of conscience that afflicts all but psychopaths, estimated fortunately to make up only 1 to 4 percent of the population.
The products of the opposing two vectors in natural selection are hardwired in our emotions and reasoning, and cannot be erased. Internal conflict is not a personal irregularity but a timeless human quality. No such conflict exists or can exist in an eagle, fox, or spider, for example, whose traits were born solely of individual selection, or a worker ant, whose social traits were shaped entirely by group selection.
The internal conflict in conscience caused by competing levels of natural selection is more than just an arcane subject for theoretical biologists to ponder. It is not the presence of good and evil tearing at one another in our breasts. It is a biological trait fundamental to understanding the human condition, and necessary for survival of the species. The opposed selection pressures during the genetic evolution of prehumans produced an unstable mix of innate emotional response. They created a mind that is continuously and kaleidoscopically shifting in mood— variously proud, aggressive, competitive, angry, vengeful, venal, treacherous, curious, adventurous, tribal, brave, humble, patriotic, empathetic, and loving. All normal humans are both ignoble and noble, often in close alternation, sometimes simultaneously.
The instability of the emotions is a quality we should wish to keep. It is the essence of the human character, and the source of our creativity. We need to understand ourselves in both evolutionary and psychological terms in order to plan a more rational, catastrophe-proof future. We must learn to behave, but let us never even think of domesticating human nature.
Biologists have created the very useful concept of the tolerable parasite load, defined as onerous but not unbearable. Almost all species of plants and animals carry parasites, which by definition are other species that live on or inside their bodies and in most instances take some little part of the hosts without killing them. Parasites, in a phrase, are predators that eat prey in units of less than one. Tolerable parasites are those that have evolved to ensure their own survival and reproduction but at the same time with minimum pain and cost to the host. It would be a mistake for an individual to try to eliminate all of its tolerable parasites. The cost would be too great in time and too disruptive to its own bodily functions. If you doubt this principle, think about what it would take to exterminate the almost-microscopic demodex mites that may (roughly 50 percent probability) live at this moment at the base of your eyebrow hairs. Also, consider the millions of unfriendly bacteria dwelling alongside the friendly ones in the nutritionally rich liquids of your mouth.
Destructive inborn traits of social life can be viewed as a parallel of the physical presence of parasitic organisms, and the cultural diminishment of their impact as the lessening of a tolerable dogma load. One obvious example of the latter is blind faith in supernatural creation stories. Of course in most parts of the world today, moderating the dogma load would be difficult, even dangerous. The stories are harnessed to both tribal rule by means of subordination of the faithful and their assumption of religious superiority over believers of rival creation stories. To examine each of the stories in detail objectively and to spell out their known historical origins would be a good start, and one that has begun (albeit slowly and carefully) in many scholarly disciplines. A second step, granted an unrealistic one, would be to ask the leaders of each religion and sect, assisted by theologians, to publicly defend the supernatural details of their faiths in competition with other faiths and aided by natural-cause and historical analysis.
It has been the universal practice to denounce such challenges to the core doctrines of particular faiths as blasphemous. Yet it would be far from irrational in today’s better-informed world to reverse the practice, and charge with blasphemy any religious or political leader who claims to speak with or on behalf of God. The idea is to place the personal dignity of the believer above the dignity of the belief that demands his unquestioning obedience. It might eventually be possible to hold seminars on the historical Jesus in evangelical churches, and even to publish images of Muhammad without risking death.
That would be a true cry of freedom . The same practice might be adopted for dogmatic political ideologies, of which we have altogether too many around the world. The reasoning behind these secular religions is always the same, a proposition considered to be logically true followed by top-down explanation and a handpicked checklist of evidence asserted to be supportive. Zealots and dictators alike would feel their strength draining away if they were asked to explain their assumptions (“ speak clearly, please”) and verify their core beliefs.
Among the most virulent of all such cultural parasite-equivalents is the religion-based denial of organic evolution. About one-half of Americans (46 percent in 2013, up from 44 percent in 1980), most of whom are evangelical Christians, together with a comparable fraction of Muslims worldwide, believe that no such process has ever occurred. As Creationists, they insist that God created humankind and the rest of life in one to several magical mega-strokes. Their minds are closed to the overwhelming mass of factual demonstrations of evolution, which is increasingly interlocked across every level of biological organization from molecules to ecosystem and the geography of biodiversity. They ignore, or more precisely they call it virtue to remain ignorant of, ongoing evolution observed in the field and even traced to the genes involved. Also looked past are new species created in the laboratory . To Creationists, evolution is at best just an unproven theory. To a few, it is an idea invented by Satan and transmitted through Darwin and later scientists in order to mislead humanity. When I was a small boy attending an evangelical church in Florida , I was taught that the secular agents of Satan are extremely bright and determined, but liars all, man and woman, and so no matter what I heard I must stick my fingers in my ears and hold fast to the true faith.
We are all free in a democracy to believe whatever we wish, so why call any opinion such as Creationism a virulent cultural parasite -equivalent? Because it represents a triumph of blind religious faith over carefully tested fact. It is not a conception of reality forged by evidence and logical judgment. Instead, it is part of the price of admission to a religious tribe. Faith is the evidence given of a person’s submission to a particular god, and even then not to the deity directly but to other humans who claim to represent the god.
The cost to society as a whole of the bowed head has been enormous. Evolution is a fundamental process of the Universe, not just in living organisms but everywhere, at every level. Its analysis is vital to biology, including medicine, microbiology, and agronomy. Furthermore psychology, anthropology, and even the history of religion itself make no sense without evolution as the key component followed through the passage of time. The explicit denial of evolution presented as a part of a “creation science” is an outright falsehood, the adult equivalent of plugging one’s ears, and a deficit to any society that chooses to acquiesce in this manner to a fundamentalist faith.
Granted there are positive consequences to blind faith. It binds groups more strongly, and provides comfort to their members. It promotes charity and law-abiding behavior. Possibly the dogma load is made more tolerable by these services. Still, the ultimate force driving blind faith is not a divine afflatus. It is instead certification of membership in a group. The welfare of the group and defense of its territory is biological, not supernatural in origin. Except in theologically repressive societies, it has proved easy for individuals to shift religion, marry across religions, and even drop them entirely without loss of morality or, of equal importance, the capacity for wonder.
There are other archaic misconceptions outside religion that have weakened culture, albeit with a more logical and honorable rationale. The most important is the belief that the two great branches of learning— science and the humanities—are intellectually independent of each other. And more, the farther apart they are kept, the better.
I’ve argued here that while scientific knowledge and technology continue to grow exponentially, doubling every one to two decades according to discipline, the rate of increase will inevitably slow. Original discoveries, having generated vast knowledge, will ease off and begin to decline in number. Within decades, knowledge within the technoscientific culture will of course be enormous compared to that of the present, but also the same everywhere in the world. What will continue to evolve and diversify indefinitely are the humanities. If our species can be said to have a soul, it lives in the humanities.
Yet this great branch of learning, including the creative arts and their scholarly criticism, is still hampered by the severe and widely unappreciated limitations of the sensory world in which the human mind exists. We are primarily audiovisual and unaware of the world of taste and smell in which most of the millions of other species exist. We are entirely oblivious to the electrical and magnetic fields used by a few animals for orientation and communication. Even in our own world of sight and sound we are relatively close to blind and deaf, able to perceive directly no more than minute segments of the electromagnetic spectrum, nor the full range of compression frequencies that surge past us through earth, air, and water.
And that is just the start. Although the details of the creative arts are potentially infinite, the archetypes and instinct they are designed to exemplify are in reality very few. The ensemble of emotions that produce them, even the most powerful, are sparse— fewer in number than, say, the instruments of a full orchestra. Creative artists and humanities scholars by and large have little grasp of the otherwise immense continuum of space-time on Earth, in both its living and nonliving parts, and still less in the Solar System and the Universe beyond. They have the correct perception of Homo sapiens as a very distinctive species, but spend little time wondering what that means or why it is so.
Science and the humanities, it is true, are fundamentally different from each other in what they say and do. But they are complementary to each other in origin, and they arise from the same creative processes in the human brain. If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.