Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Meaning of Human Existence

I just finished reading the book of the above title by Edward O. Wilson. He is my favorite science writer because he writes well, has the perspective of a naturalist, tends to be honest, and is willing to address big questions. There is little new here, and several of the chapters appeared earlier as separate essays. However, this is a good summary of his views on humanity if you're unfamiliar with them.

Wilson's primary competence is in entomology, and he is a world expert on ants. This led him to study social behavior in the animal kingdom, and eventually he connected his findings to humans. He has noted the evolutionary advantage held by eusocial species and how it relates to us. Eusocial insects make up most of the biomass of all living insects, and humans have similarly come to dominate the planet.

As a writer of popular science books, Wilson has a history of running into trouble with both the general public and the scientific community. He has been accused of overgeneralizing ever since the publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975, in which he first drew the connection between insects and humans. People don't like being told that they have instincts similar to ants or how they evolved to their present state. In the early years, he was a victim of political correctness. He was accused of supporting misogyny, racism and eugenics, none of which was true, and a protesting Marxist once poured a pitcher of water on his head. More recently he has been criticized by the evolutionary biology community for discarding their sacred principle of inclusive fitness and replacing it with what he calls group selection or multi-level selection. In the appendix of the current book he summarizes research that supports his position.

Some chapters are more convincing than others in this book. While it is sprinkled with interesting facts about various insect species, the main subject is humans. One of Wilson's more recent ideas is that people tend to be both good and evil in the traditional senses in a predictable eusocial way. We are usually altruistic when it comes to defending our group against other groups, but within our own group we may act out of self-interest. This seems somewhat plausible to me. For example, some people travel to distant regions where they will be killed thinking that they are defending their own country, while at home they may lie on job applications, cheat on their income taxes and steal their best friends' girlfriends. Within the U.S. itself there are sub-groups that compete, such as the Tea Party and the Democrats. Wilson places a great deal of emphasis on the role that group affiliation plays in behavior, and it rings true. Perhaps the most convincing passages, to me anyway, have to do with religion. I completely agree with Wilson, who says that religious groups, insofar as they engage in destructive activities, are currently one of the most disruptive forces in the world. Basically, most religious ideas regarding the nature of the universe represent utter stupidity in light of the findings of science. Here, Wilson hopes that the differences can someday be talked out, but that seems highly unlikely. He laments, as I do, that all political discourse in this country requires respect for conventional religious views, no matter how ridiculous they are.

Wilson's newest ideas aren't necessarily his best. He devotes a chapter to what he thinks intelligent extraterrestrials are like. In this vein he assumes that the chemical and biological processes of the habitable planets within a few hundred light years from here will produce intelligent beings, if they do so at all, that are quite similar to us. Those that we may eventually come into contact with will not be interested in our science and technology, and he seems to think that they will be cultural hobbyists who will derive pleasure from finding out about us. Colonization would not be on their minds, because of the risks on Earth associated with organisms and ecosystems to which they are not adapted. Furthermore, he does not believe that it is advisable, either to us or to aliens, to physically enhance ourselves to excess. It is possible that Wilson is right about this, but he is so speculative that I put little credence in his views here. We seem to be approaching evolutionary crossroads, and do not yet know whether some humans will turn themselves into superhumans, which would contradict Wilson's expectations. Similarly, I think it is quite possible that intelligent extraterrestrials may have no interest whatsoever in humans; they may not want to visit Earth, remotely or in person. I agree with Wilson, though, that they probably do exist.

Another point that Wilson brings up that is of interest to me is the current dichotomy between the sciences and the humanities. This was the main topic in his earlier book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. As a scientist, he is most charitable towards the humanities and thinks that they are our future, because scientific knowledge is accumulating so rapidly that it will soon slow down and become less relevant to our daily lives. However, he doesn't give a free pass to those who study the humanities either. He traces, correctly I think, a schism between the two domains that dates back to the Romantics in the early nineteenth century. They diverted the path of the Enlightenment and created the "two cultures" described by C.P. Snow in 1959. From Wilson's point of view, scientists need to round out their perspective by studying the humanities, and those in the humanities need to understand science better. Although I have interests in both camps, in recent years I have been deeply disappointed by the lack of engagement with the real world by practitioners of various disciplines in the humanities.

I have to say that Wilson is one of the few public intellectuals for whom I have great respect. Although he has and admits to weaknesses as a human being, he rose to his current sphere of influence through honest hard work and a genuine sense of curiosity. Frankly I don't see anyone comparable in the conventional cohort of public intellectuals, including the contributors to the NYRB. Most academics are comparatively worthless when it comes to discussing the big-picture questions and problems facing humanity. Considering that this type of discussion rarely occurs on TV, and never among politicians or well-known public figures, the state of affairs is scandalous. It is appalling to me that so few people attempt to address them. When Wilson, who is 85, leaves the scene, there may be no one to replace him.

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