We somehow feel that we are distinct from Nature, lifted from the Garden in a Fall of our own making. We are depicted in literature and art and myth as being at odds with the natural world, trying to tame those forces which seem determined to destroy us as a species. Or, equally adversarial, utilizing the resources of the natural world without regard to limits or consequences. We tinker with Mother Nature, hoping to improve her, alter her patterns and basic structures to our advantage, whether to prevent disease and pestilence, increase production of crops, eliminate uncertainty, or simply to remake who we are and the role we seem destined to play.
We see ourselves as having a moral compass when Nature appears to make no distinction between life and death, right and wrong, war and peace. We think in terms of goals and direction and raise questions that we believe must have answers. We are certain there must be universal laws and theories that account for everything and which we must obey. We see time in terms of past, present and future. We look for meaning and a reason for our being. The natural world does not. It simply, and elegantly, just is. Beyond time, beyond place, beyond meaning, beyond explanation, it has an order and balance which we envy and seem determined to disrupt.
Ever since I read about E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Meaning of Human Existence, which is on my holiday wish list, I’ve been tossing these thoughts around in my head. To be more honest, I’ve had these thoughts for most of my adult life. Wilson ratchets them up a notch, however, by reminding me that “…we are about to abandon natural selection, the process that created us, in order to direct our own evolution by volitional selection— the process of redesigning our biology and human nature as we wish them to be. No longer will the prevalence of some genes (more precisely alleles, variations in codes of the same gene) over others be the result of environmental forces, most of which are beyond human control or even understanding. The genes and their prescribed traits can be what we choose.”
In the excerpt cited in WBUR’s Here and Now, Wilson goes on to say: “Humanity… arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution. We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above. We have only this one planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold.” I will comment on his argument once I read the book, I am sure, but for now I hope it’s not presumptuous to say that Wilson isn’t likely to address whether there are multiple universes peopled by other beings alien to us or whether this world we inhabit is merely the stuff of dreams. Instead, I presume, he argues that this is what we have and what we know, and if there is to be meaning we have to accept responsibility for what we create.
His remarks raise the old existential questions that every generation must face: in a nutshell, “to be or not to be.” If life is absurd and there is no purpose to being, no final goal, no explanation for who we are and why we are here, then why bother to be at all? I assume Wilson will lay the burden of that question upon each one of us, but give it 21st century clothes by saying that we need no longer be the victim of meaningless environmental and genetic forces. We will soon be able to choose our fate. No doubt you can see all kinds of issues and questions at work here, but I look forward to hearing Wilson’s experienced guidance and thoughtful answers.
I have always believed that we are the eyes of the Universe. In the words of Alan Watts, “through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.” The implication here is that we are not distinct from Nature, but are very much Nature which somehow has the uncanny ability to observe itself as it unfolds, much as we do with our own lives. Of course, what we see is surely through a glass darkly, clouded by assumptions and limited by our crude tools.
I see the human species as Nature’s handiwork. Whether we discover the ability to unmake who we are or redesign our essential being, we are still Nature exploring possibilities in a never-ending quest to be. Life, to repeat myself, is a verb, not a noun, and an intransitive verb at that. Like Nature, we create and destroy with equal equanimity. We shift and play and improvise: do whatever it takes to survive, always with the potential to fail. We may yet prove to be the beast that consumes its own tail, despite our ability to manipulate our genes. I love Wilson’s optimism, however. If the desire for meaning is what drives us as a species, surely his latest book will give us inspiration and make clear the trail.