Matthew Southey half-baked half-thoughts    About    Archive    Feed

Pop-book: The Meaning of Human Existence

The title of E.O Wilson’s book, The Meaning of Human Existence, is a massive exaggeration. The meaning of human existence is not contained within the book (damnit), nor is there a sustained analysis of how such meaning could be derived. However, the book is good – it is good despite it’s overstated title. The book is largely concerned with biology and it’s relationship to human values and when it diverges from this it suffers.

The book is divided into five sections: 1) a rough discussion of human evolution, 2) a discussion of the humanities and its integration with the sciences, 3) how other organisms perceive and are embedded in the world, 4) perfunctory essays on subjects like religion and free will, 5) the conclusion. The book is very short (I read it in a day) and there is not much in the way of a bibliography for further reading. However, there are many interesting nuggets scattered through it’s pages. There are also many bad moments in the book, with the chapter on religion being particularly terrible. Wilson does not seem to realize the massive complexity and diversity among religious movements; he seems to think all religious movements are similar to the most indefensible forms of fundamentalist Christianity (strawmanning). He then criticizes his hastily constructed strawman of religion and claims that it should be done away with entirely. His other essays in section five, on free will and “instinct”, are similarly simplistic.

I enjoyed section three which contains descriptions of organisms with drastically different embodied experiences. Wilson begins by discussing how human beings are largely audio/visual while most other organisms rely on the dimension of smell - this is a fascinating world filled with nuanced relationships to specific chemicals. He then goes on to describe superorganisms like ants or bees, and how the individuals function as cells rather than as individuals. Wilson says that human beings do not compose a superogranism since we act as individuals with a complex array of instincts and reactions. Ants, on the other hand, have a limited capacity for individual response. The next two chapters on extraterrestrial intelligence, is interesting but limited in it’s imagination. Wilson is not bothered by Fermi’s paradox, claiming that our world is of no use to aliens - but this is still a problem - I have no use for anthills and I probably step on a few daily.

Wilson discusses “eusociality” which is when an organism develops a complex society based on altruistic division of labor:

The final evolutionary steps prior to the human-level singularity, that is, altruistic division of labor at a protected nest site, has occurred on only twenty known occasions in the history of life. Three of the lines that reached this final preliminary level are mammals, namely two species of African mole rats and homo sapiens – the latter a strange offshoot of African apes. Fourteen of the twenty high achievers in social organization are insects. Three are coral-dwelling marine shrimp. None of the nonhuman animals has a large enough body, and hence potential brain size, needed to evolve high intelligence (111)

The most interesting idea that Wilson discusses is that virtue or altruism is beneficial for groups while sin or selfishness is beneficial for the individual. Wilson’s maxim is “selfish members win within groups, but groups of altruists best groups of selfish members” (63) or “individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue” (33).

Wilson is also a proponent of existential conservativism, “the preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust”(60). This is poorly defined and doesn’t really make sense considering that the humanities is based around one of the most fundamental technologies – writing. We are Andy Clark’s natural born cyborgs, and the point at which human nature is “changed” is as ill defined as Unger’s heap.

The book was enjoyable – despite it’s simplicity on many subjects. Its short form and wide ranging subject matter served as good thought-prompt. However, I think that each of these thoughts can be pursued more effectively elsewhere.