In 2015, one of the world’s preeminent biologists and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson published a book with a broad and ambitious title: The Meaning of Human Existence
. Wilson has written this book in order to try and answer questions like, how did humans come to exist on Earth in the way we do? Does our species merit a special and elevated place? What will our future hold and why are we here? Although the fundamental question posed by the book’s title doesn’t really get addressed in the body of the text, the clear implication is that by sifting through what we understand about the universe and our place in it – by creating a bridge between the scientific and philosophical approaches to solving this conundrum – we are working toward creating meaning.
The fundamental thesis that underlies Wilson’s argument revolves around an idea that he has been instrumental for promoting for much of the 21st century: the concept of human eusociality, also known as multilevel selection. This view rejects the more narrow theory of kin or individual selection, which explains that creatures are at all times only concerned with the propagation of their own genes – or at most, the genes of their very close kin. Instead, Wilson argues, natural selection happens at the level of groups as well. While creatures are indeed trying to pass on their genes, they are also working to pass on genes that will create group cohesion and cooperation, since groups that can successfully resist outsiders have a higher chance of surviving than those that can’t. As soon as individual selection trumps group selection, the group is weakened and its continued existence is no longer assured, so it stands to reason that genes that promote the ability to put aside self-interest in favor of others have been selected for during the process of evolution.
According to Wilson, this age-old conflict between individual and group selection – and the twin and opposing impulses of selfishness and altruism that these drives imply – are responsible for the mismatch between the world our consciousness evolved to survive in and the reality of modern life. In other words, the traits and characteristics that were the result of our adapting well to Paleolithic life and primitive hunter-gatherer societies become obstacles rather than benefits in a globally interconnected, technically and scientifically advanced world.
We can see the negative effects of this genetic predisposition to group selection in human tendency towards tribalism. Because we remain so allegiant to what we perceive to be our in-groups and antagonistic to out-groups, humans are predisposed toward ideas like racism, the inability to lower or manage population growth, and the refusal to cooperate with others in order to try to correct our impact on the environment. Another outgrowth of these genetic traits is religion – which Wilson argues is also naturally selected for, since it is one of the best ways to glue a small group together and get it to cooperatively defeat other groups. Unfortunately, despite the good they bring to some believers, what religions have mostly created over the course of human history is unending conflict and suffering, as well as a dogmatic or reality-denying way of thinking that creates hindrances to solving many social and environmental problems.
But Wilson remains optimistic in the face of the issues he identifies. Comparing humans to ants, the species that he is most expert in, Wilson points out that we do not function solely on instinct like they do. Even though we may be genetically predisposed to tribal thinking, this doesn’t mean that it is our own possible mode. Rather, we have an expanded consciousness that allows us to exercise free will – to make choices about how we behave and react to the behavior of others. This means that solutions are just a decision away: choosing to have fewer children, choosing to accept the scientific reality of environmental degradation and changing consumption to ameliorate it, choosing to judge people by their character and not the color of their skin.
Projecting this optimism into our future, the book highlights the vast importance of measuring human achievement through the Humanities – the arts, literature, philosophy, and so on – and not simply through the sciences. Making this point in a whimsical way, Wilson argues that were aliens to come to Earth to learn about us, they would be much more interested in our arts than in our technical understanding. After all, the way we portray ourselves through our Humanities is a portrait of our species, whereas whatever science we know would be necessarily less advanced than that of the aliens who could travel through space.
After these speculative thoughts, Wilson ends the book with the sobering re-positioning of humans not at the center and top of existence, but instead deeply within its interconnected whole. Reminding us that in the grand scheme of things, the galaxy is actually ruled by microbes rather than complex organisms – there are so many orders of magnitude more of these microscopic creatures than there are of us. No matter how advanced our development, we are simply part of the life of the earth, rather than the point of it.The Meaning of Human Existence
was a Finalist for the National Book Award for its incisive and important argument. As the citation from the National Book Foundation put it when describing why the book won this prestigious award, “Wilson’s self-deprecating tone disguises a piercing, at times shocking argument that will spark productive dialogue among scientists and non-scientists, experts, and general readers alike.”