EO Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, part 2

Second 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)

Chapter 4, The Unity of Knowledge

[This was the theme of one of Wilson’s most essential books, CONSILIENCE (1998).]

Modern culture assumes (and endlessly probes) a presumed divide between the ‘sciences’ and the ‘humanities’, but the idea that the humanities and science share a basic foundation — that of cause and effect — was the basis for what Western culture called the Enlightenment, in the 17th and 18th centuries. The idea faltered in the early 1800s; science expanded rapidly but came nowhere near accounting for everything; thus the Romantics gave up and focused on private experiences of meaning, especially in poetry. Thus the split into the ‘two cultures’. Scientific specialties multiplied. But now, the author says, the quest for unification should be resumed. Many of the big problems of modern life depend on it.

The successful scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper… the opposite is true in poetry and other creative arts.
In a fundamental sense the creative arts and humanities scholarship are just the same old story – reflecting a boundless anthropocentricity, a fascination with ourselves. It’s a result of social intelligence.

We are devoted to stories because that is how the mind works—a never-ending wandering through past scenarios and through alternative scenarios of the future.


Whereas science

is totally committed to fact without reference to religion or ideology. It cuts paths through the fever swamp of human existence.

Science offers another property unlike the humanities: the idea of the continuum. Processes in one or more dimensions that occur continuously – temperature, pressure, spin, wave length. Of the variety of exoplanets. Of the continua of biodiversity. Of the evolutionary relationship of species.

The humanities do not appreciate how tiny our perceptions of these continua are—especially those of our senses. The range of light we can see, sounds we can hear; humans have one of the poorest senses of smell among all organisms on Earth. (The vast majority of animal species, Wilson notes, live their lives with their faces and noses much closer to the ground than do humans.) Science can explore all these continua in a way the humanities cannot perceive:

We are a very special species, perhaps the chosen species if you prefer, but the humanities by themselves cannot explain why this is the case. They don’t even pose the question in a manner that can be answered. Confined to a small box of awareness, they celebrate the tiny segments of the continua they know, in minute details and over and over again in endless permutations. These segments alone do not address the origins of the traits we fundamentally possess…


[[ Comment: the way the human mind filters and channels experience and perception into narratives, i.e. stories, echoes themes of David McRaney’s books (e.g. as summarized here). Re: Wilson: of all the humanities it is the literary genre of *science fiction* that attempts to step outside the comfortable boundaries of what is known, and imagine things outside the ordinary experience of human beings. (Here is the core of my interest and what I’m exploring in this blog.) ]]

Chapter 5, The All-Importance of the Humanities

Wilson makes the provocative point that, were ‘real’ aliens to show up in a first contact scenario, it is not our science they would be interested in — because they would already know the science, since it’s the same everywhere, the physics, the principles of evolutionary biology, and so on. What aliens would value from human society is… our humanities.

Human history has given birth to thousands of cultures, languages, religious beliefs, social practices. [[ This variation, I would say, is like art; endlessly variable perceptions of how to live within the unchanging fundamental reality of the world. ]]

Science, Wilson suggests, will eventually reach a mature size and complexity, and advances will slow. Science will be the same across all cultures, everywhere in the world. In the next few decades we can expect advances in BNR—biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics. We will be able to correct mutant alleles that cause hereditary diseases. The worldwide population will homogenize; how will we handle the decrease in genetic diversity? And as robots advance, what will be left for humans to do? These are issues for humanities to solve — which is why humanities, in the long run, will remain important.

Chapter 6, The Driving Force of Social Evolution

This chapter explores in more detail the idea of ‘eusociality’ brought up earlier, in Chapter 2 (see earlier post), and the conflict or balance between individual-level selection and group selection. Wilson gives the example of a thief, who may by his actions further the interests of his offspring, but at the same time weakens the rest of his group. Whereas a warrior who is killed in battle helps preserve his own group, even at the expense of his own offspring. Inclusive fitness has been shown to apply to only extreme situations, and its method of regressive analysis has been invalidated (p64). Wilson reviews the history of these ideas: Haldane, Hamilton; kin selection; Dawkins and the idea of the ‘selfish gene’.

The author says that within the past decade, the theory of inclusive fitness has been shown to be fundamentally wrong. Doubts became frequent by 2005. Author wrote 2010 paper with two others at Harvard advancing the alternate theory about group selection, which got a fair amount of criticism, including from Dawkins.

And so, author concludes, the driving force was the creation of groups.

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