Don’t let the title of Edward O. Wilson’s tough-minded little primer-cum-manifesto mislead you. He’s hardly a guru squatting atop a Himalayan mountain, ready to answer the age-old question that animates many a New Yorker cartoon.
No, this Wilson is the eminent entomologist (now 85 and retired from Harvard University), proponent of sociobiology, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. His recent books have addressed such varied topics as the crisis in biodiversity, the impact of science on society, and more comprehensive philosophical issues. “The Meaning of Human Existence” is not a new exploration along these lines but rather a summing-up of his ideas in compact and readable form.
As we might expect, Wilson begins with the premise that science in general and evolution in particular are the foundation stones for comprehending “the meaning of human existence.” He calls for science and the humanities to join forces, but clearly believes that the humanities deepen this understanding only if they accept the overarching authority of science.
Such a proposed New Enlightenment earns his praise, but outmoded religions and their fact-aversive adherence to creationism merit only blunt dismissal. “We were created not by a supernatural intelligence,” he writes, “but by chance and necessity as one species out of millions of species in Earth’s biosphere . . . [T]here is no evidence of an eternal grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one . . . 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.”
For millions of Americans — a century and a half after Darwin, alas — this is news. So beneath Wilson’s calm and measured prose lies, in effect, a battle cry. His aim is to win the culture wars that progressive thinkers believed were won long ago.
The meaning of human existence, in a nutshell, is this: Though we are an evolutionary accident, inextricably linked to the rest of the animal kingdom, we are now “the mind of the planet” with the ability to save or destroy it.
To understand who we really are, Wilson suggests, it’s necessary to see how Homo sapiens fits into the rest of the mix of living things, here on Earth and possibly elsewhere. Cooperation as well as competition are built into our genome. Natural selection for social interaction — “the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete, and from all these the deep warm pleasure of belonging to your own special group” — has hard-wired us with the tools to become Earth’s dominant creature.
Yet we are also a “dysfunctional species.” Our economic and political systems are fragile and unstable. The majority of the world’s people remain “in the thrall of tribal organized religions” and thus “addicted to tribal conflict.” (Wilson grants the possible existence of some sort of benign religious instinct, but does not really explore the issue.) We ravage the natural environment. We refuse to even discuss the “taboo” subject of population control in an overpopulated world.
Starting over on another planet, Wilson says, seems unlikely. The conditions necessary for life on Earth — proper temperatures, sufficient oxygen and hydrogen, etc. — are incredibly narrow. In the more than a hundred billion galaxies out there, odds are that some forms of “life” exist, though they would probably be so alien to what we know as to be unrecognizable.
Where does this grim analysis leave us? Well, Wilson might insist that his book isn’t so pessimistic after all. That we are “alone and free in the universe,” as his last chapter is titled, means that “we are completely free” to shape the future. “Laid before us are new options scarcely dreamed of in earlier ages,” he writes. “They empower us to address with more confidence the greatest goal of all time, the unity of the human race.”
I would argue, on the contrary, that this is a faith-based assertion, running counter to all the evidence the author has marshaled throughout the book. Could it be that Edward O. Wilson is a believer after all?
Dan Cryer is author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church.”