E.O. Wilson on Human Existence

Via Andrew Sullivan, a passage from E.O. Wilson’s new book The Meaning of Human Existence, to be published October 6th, yet already on the long-list for this year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction [scroll down].

Sullivan quotes,

“In a nutshell,” he writes, “individual selection favors what we call sin and group selection favors virtue. The result is the internal conflict of conscience that afflicts all but psychopaths”

And then, from the book,

The internal conflict in conscience caused by competing levels of natural selection is more than just an arcane subject for theoretical biologists to ponder. It is not the presence of good and evil tearing at one another in our breasts. It is a biological trait fundamental to the human condition, and necessary for survival of the species. The opposed selection pressures during human evolution produced an unstable mix of innate emotional responses. They created a mind that is continuously and kaleidoscopically shifting in mood — variously proud, aggressive, competitive, angry, vengeful, venal, treacherous, curious, adventurous, tribal, brave, humble, patriotic, empathetic and loving. All normal humans are both ignoble and noble, often in close alternation, sometimes simultaneously.

The instability of the emotions is a quality we should wish to keep. It is the essence of the human character, and the source of our creativity. We need to understand ourselves in both evolutionary and psychological terms in order to plan a more rational, catastrophe-proof future. We must learn to behave, but let us never even think of domesticating human nature.

Wilson is one of the greatest scientist/authors ever, and in his advanced years (he is now 85), he seems to be ramping up his literary output, producing almost a book a year, as if to get it all out while he can. I look forward to this most philosophical of his recent books.

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