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The Meaning of Human Existence

by Edward O. Wilson

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6012837,168 (3.85)15
In The Meaning of Human Existence, his most philosophical work to date, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson examines what makes human beings supremely different from all other species and posits that we, as a species, now know enough about the universe and ourselves that we can begin to approach questions about our place in the cosmos and the meaning of intelligent life in a systematic, indeed, in a testable way.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
I was really disappointed in this book. Wilson seems to suffer from the same problem a lot of economists display when they take on topics outside their own field - a failure to engage with the existing literature in the area. It seems as if Wilson thinks he is the only thinker concerned with the relationship between the sciences and humanities. I'm pretty sure he's wrong about that, but even if he thinks he's right, he should still explain the fact and outline the arguments of those who have come closest to what he's saying.

As a consequence, this is a just a book about what one person thinks without any useful clues as to where to look for similar or related arguments. It leaves the reader completely at a dead end, which is very disappointing.

The ideas themselves are fine, but don't seem particularly sophisticated. I will read some reviews of the book in the hope that one of them can lead me further into this interesting area. ( )
  robfwalter | Jul 31, 2023 |
Not the book I was expecting, based on both the title and the reputation of the author. The book praises modern technology, as if more of what is destroying Earth's ecosystems is a good thing. The book assumes that human means all humans. In this book he only talks about one culture of humans, the dominant culture based on the war-focused Indo-European cultures. Civilization has not turned out to be good news for future humans and non-humans. This book praises modernity, almost overlooking the ongoing destruction caused by this culture. He doesn't mention any other human culture, many of which are much wiser and live in balance with the living world. A disappointing book. I was hoping he was going to talk about listening to indigenous peoples of the world, and turning away from the cities and technologies that are causing great harm. ( )
  SonoranDreamer | Jul 8, 2022 |
Douglas Adams said, "The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42." :-)

Of course the writing of Douglas Adams and Edward O. Wilson are worlds apart in intent. I found this book interesting and informative, though it necessitates careful reading to appreciate all that E. O. Wilson says. I believe this book should be read by all that are interested in our futures. If you have read Richard Dawkins, it would behove you to also read this book to get a more balanced appreciation of the progress of evolutionary science.

In the following, I include paraphrasing of passages from the book to give you and inkling of what to expect, hopefully whetting your interest. To me, his writing is well organized, and is neither overly concise, nor rambling. Unless you have some familiarity with evolutionary biology though, you may need a dictionary or Wikipedia at hand.

As the lead in to this book states, history makes little sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes little sense without biology. Knowledge of prehistory and biology is increasing rapidly, bringing into focus how humanity originated and why a species like our own exists on this planet.

In setting the tone of the book, he explains that the ordinary usage the word "meaning" implies intention, intention implies design, and design implies a designer. There is a second, broader way the word "meaning" is used though, and a very different worldview is implied. It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning. In this broader use of the word "meaning" there is no advance design, but instead overlapping networks of physical cause and effect. During organic evolution, for example, the origin of one adaptation by natural selection makes the origin of certain other adaptations more likely. This concept of meaning, insofar as it illuminates humanity and the rest of life, is the worldview of science.

The French writer Jean Bruller (pen name Vercors) was on the right track when, in his 1952 novel You Shall Know Them, he declared, "All of man’s troubles have arisen from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be." Human nature is the ensemble of hereditary regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.

One important point I was happy to see, is his explanation of the fauna and flora of any ecosystem being far more than collections of species (which we don't know near the whole of). Ecosystems are complex systems of interactions, where the extinction of any species under certain conditions could have a profound impact on the whole, and ultimately ourselves. Extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times higher than before the global spread of humanity, and will increase with human induced climate change.

To my amusement, in one chapter he even delves into the inanity of our imaginative science fiction, but I doubt that will change our subjective alternate reality longings. One faulty perception is that of those who believe humanity can emigrate to another planet after using up this one. Those whose imagination ignores that two living worlds, ours and another, are in all probability radically different in origin, molecular machinery, and the endless pathways of evolution that produced the life-forms thereon. Thus the ecosystems and species of an alien world would be wholly incompatible with our own and the result would be a biological train wreck. H. G. Wells was at least on the right tract back in the 1890s with The War of the Worlds.

Another chapter dissects religion, and how it fosters much of the animosity in the world. The Founding Fathers of the United States understood the risk of tribal religious conflict very well, but we have regressed since to the point of the consequences we see today.

In yet another chapter he delves into what we think of as Free Will. Did you know that half of the twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand genes of the entire human genetic code participate in one manner or other in the prescription of the brain-mind system, and this amount of commitment has resulted from one of the most rapid evolutionary changes known in any advanced organ system of the biosphere. Philosophers have labored off and on for over two thousand years to explain consciousness (their job). Innocent of biology, however, they have for the most part understandably gotten nowhere.

One thing he focuses on at various points of this writing is recombining the humanities and science, as began in the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), but faltered in the 19th century Romantic transition (feelings through creative art). For the next two centuries and to the present day, science and the humanities went their own ways. This to me, the eclipsing of objective thinking in the broader populace with subjective perspectives, yet how can we have one without the other? The greatest contribution that science can make to the humanities is to demonstrate how bizarre we are as a species, and why, but understanding that as yet takes more fortitude and forthrightness than we seem to be able to muster in too many. The meaning of human existence cannot be explained until “just is” (Romanticism) is replaced with “just is, because” (Enlightenment). Only then can we begin to understand and compensate for our self-destructive proclivities. It was only after eons of time, during which millions of species had come and gone, that one of the lineages, the direct antecedents of Homo sapiens, won the grand lottery of evolution. The payout was civilization based on symbolic language, and culture, and from these a gargantuan power to extract the nonrenewable resources of the planet—while cheerfully exterminating our fellow species.

All of the points he focuses on lead to a final section and chapter entitled "A Human Future," which I found well examined. ( )
  LGCullens | Jun 1, 2021 |
An interesting perspective on the typically philosophical idea/question of "why are we here? what does life mean? what is our purpose" by a biology scientist. Although biased (obviously) due to that, he does make a few fair points about combining the sciences and the humanities.

Ultimately though I think the book is pretty thin and there's not a whole lot "there", and its just a little meat with a lot of filler to try and beef it up. Some good points that get drowned out or kind of go nowhere and peter out. Still worth a check-out and read though for any people particularly interested in answering the age-old question of "what is our purpose?" (spoiler: there is no answer). ( )
  BenKline | Jul 1, 2020 |
In this superb book, Wilson attempts to trace the evolution of life, determine why we are the only species that possesses consciousness and predict the future of human development. On top of that, he draws conclusions regarding the likelihood of sentient life elsewhere in the universe and the morphological form that life would take. That’s quite an undertaking but masterfully done.

Yet, this book is not for everyone. Wilson is firmly committed to examining The Meaning of Human Existence in the context of the immense body of scientific evidence amassed across the decades. Readers looking for a science fiction approach will find little of interest here. Aliens can’t visit Earth in faster than light machines, communicate via telepathy, or transport themselves instantly from one physical location to another.

Those inflexibly committed to a religious point of view may find the solid, dispassionate analysis of scientific data to be irritating or upsetting. Wilson concludes that “Humanity arose as an accident of evolution.” (p174). “We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.”

Still, even those who are unwilling to reexamining their belief system may be interested in some of Wilson’s conclusions. Take Wilson’s effort to explain what sentient life-forms on far-flung galaxies will look like. In morphology, somewhat similar to us. I found that answer to be somewhat surprising but carefully reasoned and plausible. I’ll not say “convincing” because I’ll still hold out the possibility of a more exotic form.

Here’s another interesting question. What provides a useful “model” of the human body? Answer: An ant colony.

Okay, that’s as close to a spoiler as I’m going to come. You’re going to have to read the book to find the rationale underlying the answers to these and other interesting questions addressed by Wilson.

In contrast to the above, Wilson effort to unite science and the humanities is not convincing. In truth, the topic receives scant attention, emerging primarily at the end when he attempts to prognosticate the future of humanity.

However, anyone interested in a thoughtful consideration of the meaning of human existence will find an interesting, dispassionate, review based that pulls in knowledge from disparate fields. ( )
1 vote Tatoosh | Apr 23, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
In our own day, no biologist has been more persistent or eloquent in correcting our misapprehensions about human origins than Edward O. Wilson.... we should be grateful that Wilson, so late in his illustrious career, still appeals to reason and imagination in hopes of enlightening us about our nature and inspiring us to change our destructive ways.
added by danielx | editWashington Post, SR Sanders (Nov 1, 2014)
Since TLS reviews are behind a paywall, but I retain the copyright, I’ve decided to post it here
In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson sets out to explain what makes us human, and to answer the fundamental questions of where we come from, what we are and where are we going. He is clear on where the answers lie: not in philosophy or the humanities, and certainly not in religion, which he sees as purveying “unsupportable claims about supernatural causes of reality”. No, the answers must come from biology, since, to Wilson, human nature is essentially a product of evolution. And he sees the most critical aspect of human nature to be our conflicted status as both selfless and selfish creatures. While we may intercept bullets to save our loved ones, co-operate to build houses for the homeless and drop money in a beggar’s cup, we also cheat on our spouses and our taxes, and battle with others for money and status. How can evolution explain these contradictions?
Wilson argues that these conflicting tendencies result from fundamentally different forms of natural selection.
"Mr. Wilson’s slim new book is a valedictory work. The author, now 85 and retired from Harvard for nearly two decades, chews over issues that have long concentrated his mind: the environment; the biological basis of our behavior; the necessity of science and humanities finding common cause; the way religion poisons almost everything; and the things we can learn from ants, about which Mr. Wilson is the world’s leading expert." The point of this story is, in a way, the point of this entire book: “We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites — not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.”
added by danielx | editNew York Times (pay site)
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In The Meaning of Human Existence, his most philosophical work to date, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson examines what makes human beings supremely different from all other species and posits that we, as a species, now know enough about the universe and ourselves that we can begin to approach questions about our place in the cosmos and the meaning of intelligent life in a systematic, indeed, in a testable way.

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