EO Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, Part 4

Fourth 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, Part 3) One more post to follow.

Chapter 11 is about “The Collapse of Biodiversity”

This is a topic that most people, even those who think themselves relatively well-informed about science topics, are not generally aware of: the fact that the human race’s propogation across the planet in the past few centuries has resulting in a huge dying off of other species, an extinction event to rival the four or five others across the vast history of the planet Earth.

Wilson has addressed these issues in previous books Biophilia and The Diversity of Life and The Creation (subtitled: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth).

In this chapter, he notes the paradox that the more species humanity extinguishes, the more new ones scientists discover. The current estimate of *known* species is about 2 million, but the estimate of actual species on Earth is more like 5 to 100 million. There are three levels of biodiversity: ecosystems, species, and genes. The way species are lost is summarized by HIPPO: habitat loss; invasive species; pollution; population growth; over-harvesting.

The next three chapters of the book are grouped by the heading “Idols of the Mind”, and concern Instinct, Religion, and Free Will.

Chapter 12, “Instinct”, quotes the Vercors novel You Shall Know Them: “All of man’s troubles have arisen from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be.” The human mind emerged as an instrument of survival that employs both reason and emotion. As late as the 1970s, the prevailing view was that human behavior is entirely cultural; there was no such thing as ‘human nature’. This view has changed… [dramatically, I have noticed over the past decades].

Wilson reviews summaries of human traits that are present among *all* societies around the world — a key point made way back on his 1978 book ON HUMAN NATURE. To quote a selection of those traits here:

athletic sports, bodily adornment, decorative art, etiquette, family feasting, folklore, funeral rites, hairstyles, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, and the propitiation to supernatural beings.

Human nature, he concludes, is

the ensemble of hereditary regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.

And he gives one more memorable example (again from ON HUMAN NATURE), about the habitats in which people prefer to live. Adults prefer the kind of environment in which they grew up. But children, all around the world, not yet acculturated, when evaluating photos of alternative living situations, prefer choices with three factors: a vantage point on a rise looking down, a vista of parkland with grassland and trees, and a proximity to a body of water.

As Wilson notes, this archetype happens to reflect the actual savannas of Africa where our ancestors evolved over millions of years.

As humans converge into cities these preferences have not gone away.

As landscape architects and high-end real estate agents will tell you, the rich prefer habitations set on a rise that looks out over parkland next to a body of water. None of these qualities have practical value, but people with sufficient means will pay any price to have them.

[Actually, Wilson in that earlier book does explore what the ‘practical’ values of such a location might have been. Which is why those preferences evolved.]

And I have to say, while being aware of these biases ever since reading that 1978 book, I feel this motivation very strongly myself. That’s why I have for 11 years lived in a house with the view that it has — right up there at the top of my blog — and why Yeong and I are focused on finding a home in the Bay Area with a water view. Yeong’s ideal is to live by the ocean; my ideal is a view of the bay and the San Francisco skyline. Why is that so important to us? Even understanding this evolutionary tendency, this preference is not easily dismissed.

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