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Evolutionary biologist says humans must look to themselves for salvation

The Meaning of Human Existence is a book title guaranteed to get one's attention, especially when written by one of the leading evolutionary biologists of our time.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

By Edward O. Wilson

Liveright Publishing Corp. / W.W. Norton. 208 pp. $23.95

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Reviewed by Richard Di Dio

The Meaning of Human Existence

is a book title guaranteed to get one's attention, especially when written by one of the leading evolutionary biologists of our time.

Is it profound or just pompous? Suggesting an answer to a seemingly unanswerable eternal question, the work itself may be satisfying on a spiritual level to some, but surely cannot deliver in a scientifically satisfactory way. Or can it?

Edward O. Wilson's latest effort provides a working example of how a synthesis between the two worldviews of spirit and science may be achievable - but only in the deft hands of an inveterate researcher, deep thinker, and provocative writer.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and member of Harvard's department of biology and zoology for almost 60 years, Wilson is best known for his defining work in communication among ants via pheromones, and his seminal roles in the fields of sociobiology and biodiversity. In The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson weaves together the many strands of his life's work and writings into a powerful look at how the driving force of natural selection has shaped the narrative of life on earth.

Opening with questions about humanity's special place in the universe and the meaning of our personal lives, Wilson answers with unabashed confidence in science's explanatory power: "I believe that we've learned enough about the Universe and ourselves to ask these questions in an answerable, testable form."

What follows is a series of connected essays illuminating the reasons behind Wilson's optimism. The explanations often stem from his own research, and this ownership gives him the confidence to present these core ideas as logical propositions leading to an inevitable conclusion.

Wilson begins with a scientific sleight-of-hand, asking the reader to contemplate the meaning of the word meaning. He describes two different usages. The first implies intention, and hence design and a godlike designer: we are on earth for a reason; this is why humanity and individuals have meaning. The second holds that "the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning . . . the unfolding of history is obedient only to the general laws of the Universe. Each event is random yet alters the probability of later events."

Wilson is adamant that this second reading is necessary in order to seek the meaning of our existence, claiming that the human condition will be understood only when one includes the "biological evolution of a species and the circumstances that led to its prehistory."

This Darwinian shift is clearly to Wilson's advantage, and he is able to apply the findings from his studies of ants, superorganisms, and the development of complex societies among animals and insects to an understanding of human social beings. This includes everything from our inner conflicts to religious beliefs, and ultimately our ability to imagine different usages of the word meaning.

Wilson stresses that any search for meaning must also include our narrow representation in the continuum of biodiversity on this planet. This has a parallel in our senses. Our vision, hearing, and smell sample an insignificant portion of the available sense data - the frequencies, and smells to which we are oblivious, yet which thousands of animal and insect species use to navigate their world. By natural selection we are well-adapted to only a very small slice of the continuum of life. Our species is indeed one of the "lucky lottery winners that stumbled their way through the labyrinth of evolution."

Though lucky, there remain big worries. The depletion of our planet's biodiversity is rapidly increasing. Of much greater potential impact will be the growth of human genetic modification, an abandonment of natural selection that will lead to our species' greatest moral dilemmas. In this, Wilson is a species conservative: we should not experiment with genetic modification that will throw into chaos the equilibrium we have reached after millions of years of evolution.

Inevitably, Wilson concludes that "humanity arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution. We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own."

This pronouncement, which will certainly provoke and perhaps depress many, is not the ultimate message of this book. Rather, it is Wilson's dream that the sciences and humanities, working together in what he calls the New Enlightenment, will validate his belief that "Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us . . . we have only this one planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold."