Looking for meaning in E. O. Wilson’s latest book

shadowsAs promised, I read E. O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence over the holidays. I was looking for some sense of direction about the rules of natural selection, where it might be taking us, whether we will indeed be able to design “our biology and human nature as we wish them to be,” and whether Wilson’s idea of meaning satisfies our need to know who we are and why we’re here. The book delivered on several fronts, but ultimately disappointed me. I wanted more than perhaps Wilson could give in a mere 187 pages. Or, more likely, I wanted answers to questions for which there are none.

For the uninitiated layman, the book is a fascinating glimpse into the complexities of modern science (specifically entomology and biology), and in particular the fertile mind of one of its great thinkers and writers. In clear, sometimes exhilarating prose, Wilson takes the reader on a journey from the origins of our species to the realities of our current place in the Universe, all in an effort to answer the universal questions “where are we going” and “why.“ Meaning along this journey, Wilson argues, is not a function of intention or design. Humanity does not exist for a purpose. Instead, “it is the accidents of history (overlapping networks of physical cause and effect), not the intentions of a designer” that are “the source of meaning.”

For me, there is much to enjoy here. I love, for example, the effortlessness with which Wilson characterizes the place Earth holds in the Universe: “The tiny blue speck we call home is proportionately no more than… a mote of stardust near the edge of our galaxy among a hundred billion or more galaxies in the universe… (analogous to) the second segment of the left antenna of an aphid sitting on a flower petal in a garden in Teaneck, New Jersey, for a few hours this afternoon.” I love his depiction of the coordinated movements of driver ants rising out of the nest to feed: “They are excited, fast, mindless, a river of small random furies… (resembling) a twisting, writhing bundle of ropes.” I love the language he uses to express mankind’s limited sensory skills (“…we are chemosensory idiots”) and his detailed overview of the “more dense, complex, and fast-moving” world of pheromones and allomones, which is “the real world of Earth’s majority biosphere.”

His portrait of what “human-grade aliens on Earth-like planets” might look like is equally fascinating, as is his clear and compelling argument that they will not choose to visit or colonize this Earth because of the risks of contamination and disease, and the fact that they would have no food to support them. As Wilson puts it, “They would correctly assume that every native species of animal, plant, fungus, and microorganism on Earth is potentially deadly to them and to their symbionts.” Moreover, he adds, they might “have long since engineered their own genetic code in order to change their biology,” but likely not “enlarge their personal memory capacities and develop new emotions while diminishing old ones,” thereby changing their very nature. They will, like us, opt to correct disease-causing mutant genes, but recognize that it would be “suicidal” to alter the “uniquely messy, self-contradictory, internally conflicted, endlessly creative” mind that sustains them.

footsteps With so much to like, why then was I disappointed by the book in the end? Foremost among my complaints is the fact that, despite the title, Wilson doesn’t really give a satisfactory definition of the “meaning of human existence.” He argues that “the accidents of history are the source of meaning,” distinguishes proximate how and why explanations from ultimate causation, then says that he will focus on the second (namely, why we are hard-wired to engage in certain activities as opposed to others). But explaining that we are who we are as a result of an accidental series of natural selections, not by some divine intention, seems to beg still the question of meaning.

The closest he comes to a palatable definition is that it is “our capacity to decide” who we will be, and “why that capacity came into being,” together with the consequences that followed,” which are the basis of a scientific meaning. The basis, yes, but still, what is the meaning? I would argue that Wilson wants to say there is no meaning beyond what we give to our lives on this Earth. He wants to say there is no final reward, no divine hidden agenda, that we alone make up the rules for what will have meaning and last, but even all that will eventually be swept away by time, as will our species and ultimately our Universe.

He can’t say those things, however, because his real intention in this book is to give the reader a sense of hope and destiny, to challenge him or her to recognize the very real choices that lie before us as a species (particularly in terms of redesigning our genetic structure, preserving our resources, maintaining our ecological balance, and finding ways to cooperate to tackle common problems). Implicit here is the further intention to warn us of the real dangers that might lead to our evolutionary demise as a species, namely that in remaking our genome we lose our humanity and the source of our creativity, which strangely lies in the conflict between our animal instinctual selves and the rational conscious beings we have become.

tracksWilson wants to talk about meaning, but he gets mired down in a discussion of concepts like inclusion fitness and kinship as a basis for natural selection, when ideally he should be helping us understand why, even if everything in our lives is eventually turned to dust, the lives we lead and the legacies we build, the joy we find and the love we discover, why these still matter. In addition, I would favor some speculation about how to understand the nature of reality and “why there is something rather than nothing.” I wonder whether Wilson allows for parallel universes and the possibility that our senses and instruments are so limited that we can never know who or what we are. Maybe this is the job of the humanities and why Wilson calls for a necessary unification of them with the sciences. If so, I would ask that he devote more time to what it is he thinks the humanities have to offer and how this unification might work. Science, it seems, is good at determining the how of things. Maybe the humanities might be able to add to the why.

In truth, the book sometimes reads more like a summary of past articles and speeches than it does a structured analysis. It spurs thought and peaks interest. It provokes discussion and gives us reason for optimism, but leaves the reader wondering “where is the beef?” His diatribe against religion (in particular as it relates to tribalism and sectarian violence), just as an example, might find many a sympathetic reader, particularly in his call for no longer “bowing the head” in blind obedience to some divine authority, but when he asks for greater Self awareness and responsibility, he founders on his own assertion that truly what we call the Self is nothing more than the central character in our memory banks and free will an illusion “necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the human species.”

If we are to take charge of our destiny, make wise decisions about the human genotype, abandon natural selection “in order to direct our own evolution by volitional selection,” at the very least Wilson should give us reason to believe that the Self doing so is real.