“Only three or four books in a life time,” Proust said through his character Swann in Remembrance of Things Past, “give us anything that is of real importance.” While Edward O. Wilson, author of The Meaning of Human Existence, is biologist, naturalist, professor emeritus at Harvard, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he is also a Humanist, a student of human nature and human affairs. And he states without hesitation that to understand human existence, we must seek it through both Science and the Humanities. In the book’s 15 essays over 187 pages, with a further explanatory Appendix, Wilson lays out the story of our origins and then discusses what and where we are today as a species and social animal. And he warns us, accurately I believe: “only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.” It is for this reason, gaining self-understanding, through Wilson’s lucid, succinct reasoning, along with his story-telling, that I believe his book is without peers and should be read by all who are curious about our origins and eager for the knowledge and thinking necessary for our survival.
As Science, since Darwin, has increasingly evinced, our biological components originated in the deep history of this planet and evolved physically over hundreds of millions of years. More physical complexity and greater sensitivity to environments evolved through those many ages. Eventually that sensitivity expanded to include reading the intentions and moods of others. Yet despite the millions of species which have come and mostly gone over this planet’s 4 billion year history, only one, homo sapiens, has evolved into the complex, self-aware, capable animal that can now alter, and repair, the biosphere on which it depends. And this has happened not through intention or design, Wilson contends, but through the “accidents of history” and the “overlapping networks of physical cause and effect.” Our civilizations began to develop when human self-understanding and general knowledge allowed us to imagine possible futures and then to realize them. And all of this evolved through chance genetic mutations that permitted improved survival. While most species did not survive Earth’s periodically shifting environments, the few that did happened upon changes which permitted them not only to survive but to flourish through the altering of their capabilities and improving reproduction.
“As more complex biological entities and processes arose in past ages, organisms drew closer together in their behavior to include the use of intentional meaning: at first there were the sensory and nervous systems of the earliest multicellular organisms, then an organizing brain, and finally behavior that fulfills intention.”
From the story of our origins, Wilson moves on to discussion of our behaviors, individual and social. Noting that scientific knowledge has been and will be doubling every 10 to 20 years, for a time anyway, Wilson tells us that we have recently discovered evidence that social behavior in humans was similar to that occurring elsewhere in the animal kingdom, and that there was one social behavior pattern that permitted its users to dominate. “Using comparative studies of thousands of animal species, from insects to mammals, we’ve concluded that the most complex societies have arisen through eusociality – meaning, roughly, the ‘true’ social condition,” wherein groups cooperatively rear their young across generations and share labor.
Scientists noted, however, two oddities about eusociality. One is that it’s extremely rare. Of all the living animals that have evolved over the last 400 million years, only 19 have left any evidence of eusociality. No. 20 is Man.
In addition, eusocial species “arose very late in the history of life.” There is no evidence of them “during the great Paleozoic diversification of insects, 350 to 250 million years ago.” The first creatures to exhibit this behavior were termites and ants, and while they now include a mere 20 thousand of the million known insect species, together they compose more than half of the world’s insect body weight.
How was it that man’s ancestors came to adopt this beneficial behavior? Wilson draws on evidence that a half a million years ago, in Africa, those ancestors changed from vegetarian tree-dwellers to meat-eating scavengers and hunters living on the African grasslands. This change resulted in a sudden increase in protein consumption. Perhaps those living on the plains discovered and ate animals killed by wildfires or other animals. This added protein led to increased brain size, (from the early 600cc, slowly in stages, to today’s 1400cc) and this in turn led to hunting and to more complex social relationships, including cooperation and competition. Wilson writes that “The process was ceaselessly dynamic and demanding,” and it “far exceeded in intensity” anything before, as living in groups now required a good memory, to evaluate past and present, along with the ability to read intention in fellow camp dwellers for purposes of bonding, mating, and dealing with rivalries. With growing brain size, also came the telling of stories about oneself and others, which further tied groups together, making them more successful hunters and parents. Wilson states several times that, “The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction – the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete, and from all of these, the deep, warm pleasure of belonging to your own special group. Social intelligence enhanced by group selection made Homo Sapiens the first fully dominant species in Earth’s history.”
But Wilson is also interested in the behavior of individuals. Are we, individually, intrinsically good but corruptible, or “innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good?” The conclusion he has arrived at, through biology and psychology, is that we are both simultaneously. “Each of us is inherently conflicted.” Yet the second “overpowering instinctual urge,” to belong to groups, has led to more cooperative behavior because it makes cooperative groups stronger than individually-focused groups. From this benefit also came the tendency to prefer to be with others who look like, speak like, believe like, us. (A gene selection that in the modern, interconnected world has less benefit and will become less prevalent.)
Given our duality – that we are “saints and sinners” – Wilson finds that Science alone can never “touch what people deeply feel and express.” Only the creative arts can do that. For that reason, he suggests “the most successful scientist thinks like a poet – wide-ranging and sometimes fantastical – and works like a bookkeeper.”
Throughout this book Wilson offers many such analogies, which are startling, fun to encounter, and thought-provoking. While he acknowledges that most scientific writing should be based on fact, he explains that in a book like this, part Scientific, part Humanistic, he must be free to explore and expound on those aspects of human existence that fall outside traditional approaches. By doing so, he and the reader benefit from his wide-ranging discussion of Human History and Biology woven together with other realms of thought and theory, including: philosophy, astronomy, climatology, psychology, and the arts – the latter arising ironically from our comparatively limited senses: vision, smell, and hearing – all much less acute than possessed by other animals. The very richness and complexity of his subject is compelling evidence that the self-understanding he urges us to grasp is not a simple quest, but is, cooperatively, within our reach.