Does humanity have a special place in the Universe? What is the meaning of our personal lives? For Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson, we have learned enough about the Universe and ourselves that we can begin to approach questions about our place in the cosmos and the meaning of intelligent life in a systematic way.
In The meaning of Human Existence, Wilson examines what makes human beings supremely different from all other species. Searching for meaning in what Nietzsche once called “the rainbow colors” around the outer edges of knowledge and imagination, he takes his readers on a journey, in the process bridging science and philosophy to create a twenty-first-century treatise on human existence—from our earliest inception to a provocative look at what the future of mankind portends.
What is the meaning of human existence?
Wilson suggests that it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become.
The advances of science and technology will bring us to the greatest moral dilemma since God stayed the hand of Abraham. 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 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. So—how about longer lives, enlarged memory, better vision, less aggressive behavior, superior athletic ability, pleasing body odor? As Wilson writes, the shopping list is endless.
We have enough intelligence, goodwill, generosity, and enterprise to turn Earth into a paradise both for ourselves and for the biosphere that gave us birth. We can plausibly accomplish that goal, at least be well on the way, by the end of the present century. The problem holding everything up thus far is that Homo sapiens is an innately dysfunctional species. We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society. We seem unable to stabilize either economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of a village. Further, the great majority of people worldwide remain in the thrall of tribal organized religions, led by men who claim supernatural power in order to compete for the obedience and resources of the faithful. We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious, and ideological struggles. There are other hereditary biases. Too paralyzed with self-absorption to protect the rest of life, we continue to tear down the natural environment, our species’ irreplaceable and most precious heritage.
While scientific knowledge and technology continue to grow exponentially, doubling every one to two decades according to discipline, the rate of increase will inevitably slow. Original discoveries, having generated vast knowledge, will ease off and begin to decline in number. Within decades, knowledge within the technoscientific culture will of course be enormous compared to that of the present, but also the same everywhere in the world.
What will continue to evolve and diversify indefinitely are the humanities. If our species can be said to have a soul, it lives in the humanities.
Science and the humanities, it is true, are fundamentally different from each other in what they say and do. But they are complementary to each other in origin, and they arise from the same creative processes in the human brain. If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.
Edward Osborne Wilson is recognized as one of the leading biologists in the world. Among the awards he has received worldwide are the U.S. National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the International Prize of Biology of Japan; and in letters, two Pulitzer Prizes in nonfiction, the Nonino and Serono Prizes of Italy, and the COSMOS prize of Japan. He is currently Honorary Curator in Entomology and University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University. He is the author of On Human Nature (Pulitzer Prize, 1979); The Ants ( Pulitzer Prize, 1991); Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge; The Future of Life or Letters to a Young Scientist, among other books.