EO Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, part 3

Third 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. (Part 1, Part 2) There will be one or two more.

I mentioned before that since this book is largely a summary and consolidation of Wilson’s early books, over the past 30+ years, it’s hard to consider this a substantial book on its own, or an award-worthy book — it was a nominee (it did not win) for this year’s National Book Awards. But I would update that comment to say, for anyone who has not read all of Wilson’s earlier books (including me!), and who would appreciate an elegant, precise summary of the current scientific stance on the big issues of evolution, instinct, religion, free will, and as the title says the “meaning of human existence”, this is an excellent primer, and highly recommended.

Chapter 7 is about how humans experience only a tiny part of the world through our senses, compared to 99% of the species across the earth who depend on chemicals (pheromones), for interaction among others of their species. Humans, like few other species, are primarily audiovisual. It’s because we evolved into a species whose heads are farther from the ground, and from the other species who live there, than most others.

Chapter 8 discusses ‘super-organisms’, like ants, termites, etc., in which each individual plays a role in a larger ‘organism’, without being aware of that role. The way ants live has nothing to suggest about how humans should live, Wilson advises. (Wilson is an expert on ants, and won a Pulitzer Prize for an enormous book about them — The Ants, Belknap Press, 1990.) The current collapse of honeybees around the world may be due to the vulnerability of such complex, fragile, organisms.

Chapter 9 concerns the potential of life on other planets, and the likelihood of microbes everywhere, even in extreme environments on Earth, and what the discovery of life on other planets would entail — primarily, solving the puzzle of whether their genetic code is the same as that of life on Earth, or different.

Chapter 10 is “A Portrait of E.T.” in which Wilson speculates — based on his understanding of the range of animal species across the Earth — the characteristics of a hypothetical intelligent species of extra-terrestrials. He concludes that such a species would be: land-dwellers, not aquatic; relatively large animals; biologically audiovisual; with a big, distinct head, located up front; with light to moderate jaws and teeth; with very high social intelligence; with a small number of appendages, with segments, and with one pair that has sensitive tips for touch and grasping; and who are moral (in the way he explains). p117

A final section of this chapter explains why aliens could never successfully invade Earth (or for that matter why humans could never successfully settle an alien planet), an insight that undermines thousands of science fiction stories (and films). (p120)

All E.T.s have a fatal weakness. Their bodies would almost certainly carry microbiomes, entire ecosystems of symbiotic microorganisms comparable to the ones that our own bodies require for day-to-day existence. … The reason is that the two living worlds, ours and theirs, are radically different in origin, molecular machinery, and the endless pathways of evolution that produced the life-forms then brought together by colonization. The ecosystems and species of the alien world would be wholly incompatible with our own.

The result would be a biological train wreck. The first to perish would be the alien colonists…

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