Book Review. The Meaning of Human Existence, by Edward O Wilson. 2014. Liveright Publishing, New York, 207pp. ISBN 978-0-87140-100-7.

I became acquainted with Edward O Wilson’s research back in the seventies, firstly as an undergraduate in Central Washington State College and then as a masters student at Oregon State University. Although Wilson is a zoologist and I was studying botany, his 1975 book Sociobiology made a big impression on me, as did his many research papers on the geographical distribution of insect species. Back in Brazil, Wilson’s Sociobiology stood out in my bookcase and it probably caught a few eyes, for I remember an instance when a zoologist from my institution asked me if I sided with Wilson or Gould (Steven Jay) in the ongoing polemic on how natural selection worked. After moving to England in 1995 I found myself with time to read and I was able to catch-up with the polemic and developments including Wilson’s other books likeOn Human Nature (1978) and Consilience (1998).

Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence is a concise text that claims to have the answer to the biggest question humanity has ever asked. It consists of fifteen short essays grouped into five chapters that do not seamlessly flow from one to another but require the reader to fill in the dots. I recognised several topics of the book that had already appeared elsewhere as acknowledged by Wilson himself, especially his own theory of multilevel selection that resulted from his observations of ants and other social animals. This book is a sweeping account with the obvious agenda of nature conservation. It is indeed astonishing that with so few words Wilson has managed to scan such a vast territory covering the origin of life on earth, the development of man and society, the Enlightenment, the twentieth century specializations, the two cultures, biodiversity, social animals and his own theory of multilevel selection.

In the first essay Wilson explores the connotation of the word ‘meaning’ used in the title. Although in its ordinary usage the word ‘meaning’ implies intention, which implies design and a designer, he used the word ‘meaning’ in the sense of the organic evolution of the adaptations that characterize man. He explains that random events led to such adaptations and that each event alters the probability of later ones. He also explains that meaning can be conscious or unconscious and that the representations that the human brain constructs are examples of conscious ‘meaning’. As an example of unconscious ‘meaning’ Wilson cites the meaning ‘to catch a fly’ of a spider’s web: the spider may not be conscious of this ‘meaning’ but it is still a valid one. He continues to explain that the evolution of the human brain followed the same regimen as the spider’s web, but once evolved, it created consciousness which gave an intentional sense to meaning. Finally, Wilson underlines what this book is about; that the meaning of human existence involves knowing how and why intentional sense came to exist, how it made us the way we are, and how it can help us to save the environment around us so that we can continue to exist.

In the second essay (a modification of a piece that appeared in The New York Times Opinionator, February 2013), Wilson argues about the best perspectives to solve ‘the riddle of man’. Evolution and our inner conflict is the title of the third essay, a snapshot of man showing the good and the bad. Wilson then goes on to explain that social evolution, including the evolution of high levels of cooperation, happened in many species of animals and not just in man. He also explains that natural selection works through pressure and that human beings are constantly under the pressure of conflict. He cites as an example the different measures individuals use to evaluate themselves and others. Wilson provides a personal example in the two ways he perceived the value of the Pulitzer prize: as a minor achievement when his colleague Carl Sagan won it for non-fiction in 1978, but as a huge accolade when he himself received the award the following year.

Wilson goes on to say that neurobiologists have connected human traits such as devotion to music to the release of dopamine within the brain’s striatum and that from this it can be inferred that devotion to music was been hardwired in the human brain through evolution. Having established the existence of a genetic connection to man’s devotion to music, neurobiologists asked if the same connection couldn’t also explain other human traits such as tribalism, devotion to religion and the yearning for spirituality. These are interlinked and ‘the instinctual force of tribalism in the genes of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality’. This plus the realization that the great religions have caused constant and unnecessary suffering to mankind makes the study of religion a priority in neuroscience research. That would include the readiness to accept dogmas, myths and absurdities, and the unreadiness to accept that some problems can never be solved. Mapping the human brain is a task that Darwin considered impossible but which is now becoming a reality. Gradually, other natural phenomena in man are being uncovered, causing various supernatural explanations of cause and effect to recede.

Wilson explains that philosophy related disciplines traditionally attempted to study human condition in order to answer the question of where we come from. However, the latter have only been able to answer ‘what’ type questions for in order to find answers to ‘why’ type questions we need science. In other words, only science has the key to explain why we possess our special nature – listing the five scientific disciplines that hold the answer: evolutionary biology, palaeontology-archaeology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence and robotics.

In the fourth essay entitled The New Enlightenment, Wilson states that we should embrace the Enlightenment’s idea of the cosmos as a space-time continuum that ranges from the microscopic to the macroscopic. Carrying on with his narrative Wilson explains that in order to attain the measure of the dimensions of the real cosmos we must explore a multitude of continua. Wilson also defends liberal education, although he prescribes that it must have the relation between science and the humanities at its core. He also suggests that liberal education and creative thought are connected: ‘the early stages of creative thought do not arise from jigsaw puzzles’ specialization’ and that ‘the most successful scientist thinks like a poet – wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical – and works like a bookkeeper’. Another main subject of this essay is biodiversity. Given that thousands of new species are discovered every year, the total number of species on earth is likely to be much larger than the two million known species of plants, animals, fungi and microbes. In the fifth essay Wilson underlines two special roles for the humanities: providing a view of cultural evolution ‘from the outside looking in’ and as critics of the growing number of social dilemma.

Discovering how instinctive social behaviour evolved is treated in the sixth essay. In it, Wilson explains his own theory and that of his opponents. He explain that his theory of social organization stems from the theory of population genetics developed in the 1920s and the synthesis of evolutionary theory developed in the 1930s. It is based on these three principles: (i) that the gene is the unit of heredity, (ii) the gene normally acts as part of a network, and (iii) the trait prescribed by the gene is the target of natural selection. At the heart of the contention in Wilson’s theory is the so-called ‘group selection’. To quote:

‘A gene for a trait that affects a group member’s longevity and reproduction relative to other members in the same group is said to be subject to individual-level natural selection. A gene for a trait entailing cooperation and other forces of interaction with fellow group members may or may not be subject to individual-level selection.’ … ‘Because groups compete with other groups, in both conflict and their relative efficiency in resource extraction, their differing traits are subject to natural selection. In particular, the genes prescribing interactive (hence social) traits are subject to group-level selection’.

Wilson also describes the competing theory which is named ‘inclusive fitness’:

‘The theory of inclusive fitness’ … ‘treats the individual group member, not its individual genes, as the unit of selection. Social evolution arises from the sum of all the interactions of the individual with each of the other group members in turn, multiplied by the degree of hereditary kingship between each pair. All the effects of this multiplicity of interactions on the individual, both positive and negative, make up its inclusive fitness’.

Recapping, Wilson’s ‘multilevel selection’ theory operates both at the individual level and at group level, while the opposing ‘inclusive fitness’ theory considers the individual rather than the gene as the unit of selection and rejects group selection altogether. In 2010 Wilson and two mathematical modellers published a report in Nature stating that the inclusive fitness theory was unsound. Wilson discloses in this book that some 137 biologists signed a protest in Nature against his report and restates his case countercharging that no one has refuted the mathematical analysis in it. The report in question marked the start of the animosity between Wilson and Richard Dawkins, which I find to be counter productive as well as distasteful for two eminent scientists. After all, mathematical models are simply representations of reality which may not be proved or refuted. Wilson uses the Appendix to continue to argue against the ‘inclusive fitness’ theory of the late Steven Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and Richard Dawkins.

Wilson is a scientist and a polymath with an exceptional capacity to cross effortlessly into the arts & humanities. When he published Sociobiology and On Human Nature he was heavily criticised by social scientists for trespassing into their territory. However, with The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson went much further, taking on philosophy together with the entire realm of science and the arts and humanities. He claims to have done it in the belief that solving our existential problem will set us free to focus on the future. Even when done by a world-renowned scientist a claim of this magnitude should sound alarm bells. I have no problem with this book’s agenda to save the planet as we are all responsible to preserve our planet and its biodiversity. The agenda I am worried about is the one that is not explicit, regarding ‘how the planet should be saved’. Is Wilson making the case for a religion of environmentalism, a scientist king, or perhaps both?

Jo Pires-O’Brien is a translator and editor of PortVitoria, an electronic cultural magazine for Portuguese and Spanish speakers. She is a former botanist and an environmental consultant (www.portvitoria.com).

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