EO Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, Part 5 and last

Fifth and final 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, Part 4)

Chapter 13 is about “Religion”

This is a topic widely addressed in books by evolutionary psychologists over the past 20 years or more. The key insight is that ‘religion’ is not something external to human experience, it’s something *built in* to human experience, for evolutionary reasons. I.e., there seem to be genes for religiosity.

The brain was made for religion and religion for the brain. In every second of the believer’s conscious life religious belief plays multiple, mostly nurturing roles. All the followers are unified into a vastly extended family, a metaphorical band of brothers and sisters, reliable, obedient to one supreme law, and guaranteed immortality as the benefit of membership.


Throughout prehistory and most of history, people needed religion to explain the occurrence of most phenomena around them. Torrential rain and flooding, a lightning bolt streaking across the sky, the sudden death of a child. God caused it. He or She was the cause in the cause-and-effect required for sanity.

Science has brought understanding of the interrelation of natural phenomena, and replaced supernatural explanations, though the instinctive appeal of religion remains.

The great religions perform services invaluable to civilization—bringing solemnity to rites of passage and the cycle of life and death; churches presiding over centers of community life.

The great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering. They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular. From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with others who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code—preferably all of these but at least two or three for most purposes. It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.


At the core of the religious group is the creation story, and the teaching that God favors them, that other religions worship the wrong gods and follow the wrong rituals.

Faith is biologically understandable as a Darwinian device for survival and increased reproduction. It is forged by the success of the tribe, the tribe is united by it when competing with other tribes, and it can be a key to success within the tribe for those members most effective in manipulating the faith to gain internal support…


Obviously no two creation stories can both be true. All of those invented by the many known thousands of religions and sects in fact have certainly been false. A great many educated citizens have realized that their own faiths are indeed false, or at least questionable in details. But they understand the rule attributed to the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger that religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.

Should science politely avoid these issues? No, because religious tribalism is the motivating force behind most conflicts around the world, conflicts between those faithful to different myths.

Nowhere do people tolerate attacks on their person, their family, their country—or their creation myth.

In America, disparaging anyone’s creation myth, however absurd, is considered “religious bigotry”. (p155)

As Carl Jung once said, some problems can never be solved, only outgrown. … The best way to live in this real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods.


Chapter 14 is a short one, about “Free Will”

This is recently a contentious topic, with scientists/authors like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne taking diverse views, and challenging each other. (This is how science works.) On the one hand, the understanding of the physical basis of the mind seems to imply that ‘free will’ is an illusion; in some deep fundamental sense, everything is determined through the interaction of physical forces. On the other hand, the vast number of physical interactions that determine any particular decision is so incalculable, that for practical purposes, you might as well suppose that free will exists.

Wilson notes that humans frame everything in terms of stories, with causes and effects.

Conscious mental life is built entirely from confabulation. It is a constant review of stories experienced in the past and competing stories invented for the future. By necessity most conform to the present real world as best it can be processed by our rather paltry senses. Memoires of past episodes are repeated for pleasure, for rehearsal, for planning, or for various combinations of the three. Some of the memories are altered into abstractions and metaphors, the higher generic units that increase the speed and effectiveness of conscious thought.


And Wilson concludes,

So, does free will exist? Yes, if not in ultimate reality, then at least in the operational sense necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the human species.

In the final chapter, Chapter 15, Alone and Free in the Universe, Wilson summarizes the themes of this book that has in turn summarized themes from his many earlier books.

Wilson hopes that our recognition that we are one species among millions, with no demonstrable destiny or purpose, means we are free, free to pursue the unity of the human race.

What is the meaning of human existence? The epic of our species through evolution, prehistory, recorded history, and the potential for what we choose to become.

The humanities describe the human condition; the scientific worldview encompasses the meaning of human existence.

The problem holding everything up thus far is that Homo sapiens is an innately dysfunctional species. We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gathered existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society. We seem unable to stabilize economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of a village. Further, the great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for the obedience and resources of the faithful.


We possess a heredity myopia:

People find it hard to care about other people beyond their own tribe or country, and even then past one or two generations.

–a point precisely expressed, if a bit crudely, in the film Interstellar.

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.

Wilson discusses the idea of a ‘tolerable parasite load’, such as the bacteria that live inside our bodies. The parallel in human nature are these obsolete genetic adaptations, e.g. religion, which could be reduced by examining them objectively, or even challenging faith leaders to defend the supernatural details of their faiths in competition with other faiths. Another is the religion-based denial of organic evolution. About half of Americans, mostly Christians, believe no such process has ever occurred—

As Creationists, they insist that God created humankind and the rest of life in one to several magical mega-strokes. Their minds are closed to the overwhelming mass of factual demonstrations of evolution, which is increasingly interlocked across every level of biological organization from molecules to ecosystem and the geography of biodiversity. They ignore, or more precisely they call it a virtue to remain ignorant of, ongoing evolution observed in the field and even traced to the genes involved. Also looked past are new species created in the laboratory. To Creationists, evolution is at best just an unproven theory. To a few, it is an idea invented by Satan and transmitted through Darwin and later scientists in order to mislead humanity.

Why should we care what some people think?

Because it represents a triumph of blind religious faith over carefully tested fact. It is not a conception of reality forged by evidence and logical judgment. Instead, it is part of the price of admission to a religious tribe. … The explicit denial of evolution presented as a part of a ‘creation science’ is an outright falsehood, the adult equivalent of plugging one’s ears.

Wilson wraps it all up with his appeal to the consilience of the humanities and science. Last line:

If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.

This entry was posted in Book Notes, Culture, Evolution, Science. Bookmark the permalink.