EO Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, part 1

Here’s the first of several posts about Edward O. Wilson’s book THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE, which as I described earlier both here on my blog and on Facebook, is a concise summary of this important scientist’s views on the big issues of science and philosophy, as elaborated in his many earlier books.

(Though this book is a finalist for this year’s National Book Awards, it’s hard to think of this as a great book unto itself, since it derives so much of its content from the author’s earlier works. Maybe that’s a plus?)

These are issues that have informed my own worldview for over 30 years, ever since reading his seminal book ON HUMAN NATURE (1979), which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. That Wilson has revised some of the ideas expressed in his earlier books — or rather, expanded and matured them on the basis of further evidence and analysis — is an example of the process of science and intellectual inquiry (as opposed to ideology and religion).

Chapter 1 is about “The Meaning of Meaning”. Wilson acknowledges that the ordinary use of ‘meaning’ is about intent and design. The broader definition of ‘meaning’, which he applies here, is that the accidents of history are the source of meaning; each event in the evolutionary past of the human race is random, yet each alters the probability of later events. Humanity’s existence is the consequence of adaptations amidst other potential possibilities that have driven us to our current existence, and those probabilities and consequences, as opposed to all the theoretical others, is a kind of ‘meaning’.

Wilson advises that we as a species approach a great moral dilemma: to what extent do we retrofit the human genotype, and direct our own evolution. The essays in this book invoke both proximate and ultimate causation, both as conditions for the ‘meaning’ of human existence. Humanity arose on its own:

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. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above. We have only this one planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold…

Chapter 2: Solving the Riddle of the Human Species

Here Wilson explores his latest, perhaps substantial, contribution to evolutionary theory, the idea of group or social selection. It’s an idea that’s been around for years and remains controversial, but one which according to Wilson has been validated by recent mathematical theorems and proofs. (Much more detail in his book THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH.)

His idea is that ‘eusociality’ is a principle that explains the advanced social behavior of human beings — as well as a small number of other species, only 19 others in the history of life on Earth in fact, mostly insects (termites and ants), a few rodents, and a few marine species.

“Eusociality” is the condition in which members of a group cooperatively rear their young across multiple generations. They also divide labor in a way that reduces the “reproductive fitness” of some members but that increases that of other members. [It’s the opposite of the far more common pattern in which a male and female mate and the mother subsequently raises the young on her own, sometimes with the assistance of the father, but never within a group of other parents and offspring. Think of dogs or cats in the wild, birds in the nests — almost but not quite the entire animal kingdom.]

This is a result of a competition, or balance, between individual selection and group selection, and it is this understanding that is key to the ‘meaning’ of human existence: that we have “adapted to live in a biological world”:

Human existence may be simpler than we thought. There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life. Demons and gods to not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based upon a greater independence of thought that that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies.

(page 26)

Chapter 3: Evolution and Our Inner Conflict

The understanding of those conflicting forces of evolution leads to this great insight.

Are human beings intrinsically good but corruptible by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good?

Wilson’s answer: We are both simultaneously, as a result of the multilevel selection that pits kin selection against group selection. The results of this multilevel selection are aspects of human nature that seem like elemental forces of nature, but are in fact idiosyncratic traits of our species.
One is our obsessive interest in other people, what they are thinking and what their intentions are.
A second is the instinctual urge to belong to groups.

Individual-level selection works among individuals of the same group. Group-level selection is about competition among groups, promoting altruism and cooperation of all members of a group, not just kin, leading to ideas of morality and conscience and honor:

Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altriuists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.


And so humans are forever conflicted by rival urges.

To give in completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve society. At the opposite extreme, to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots –- the outside equivalents of ants.

And to conclude:

The eternal conflict is not God’s test of humanity. It is not a machination of Satan. It is just the way things worked out. The conflict might be the only way in the entire Universe that human-level intelligence and social organization can evolve. We will find a way eventually to live with our inborn turmoil, and perhaps find pleasure in viewing it as the primary source of our creativity.


[[ Personal comment, not to be taken as any gloss on Wilson’s words, just my own ancillary thoughts as I was reading this book, and in the context of my themes of this blog. So: It is tempting to align the priorities of individual and group selection, as Wilson describes them, with the dualistic nature of human social and political tendencies, with ‘conservatives’ prioritizing fidelity to the family and small local groups, and ‘liberals’ prioritizing interactions and the health of larger groups. “It takes a family” to raise a child, one side says; “it takes a village”, the other side says.

In which direction does human society as a whole advance?

Without the more ‘advanced’ group priorities, there would be no society at all. ]]

More to follow.


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