My Rating: ★★★★☆
It is not often that you find a leading scientist writing on such abstract and philosophical matter as the meaning of human existence. But Edward O. Wilson, one of the leading biologists of the world, delves into this metaphysical subject, explains it with a scientist’s mind and makes it intelligible for lay readers like this reviewer with consummate ease.
Wilson begins with an exploration of the biological origins of human nature and shows how man’s creativity has evolved from the conflict between the individual and group levels of natural selection. He explains how science and the humanities have been symbiotic during the progress of the Western Enlightenment and why in our age they should form the core of liberal education.
The author probes deeper into the origin of the humanities and tells us that man’s creative endeavours in that field have primarily been due to his addiction to anthropocentricity — man’s fascination with his own self and the others of his kind. He predicts the future of science: the pace of scientific discovery will slow down. But humanities will continue to “evolve and diversify almost infinitely”.
The most interesting sections of the book deal with the sheer accident of evolution that brought the homo sapiens into existence and how successive evolutionary phenomena have made man the dominant species on earth. Yet humans have very limited chemosensory skills which, Wilson says, is one of those “humbling principles of biology”. It is this limitation that has rendered us “sensory cripples” and perhaps because of it, our ancestors have been so heedlessly destructive of the biosphere.
A very interesting species in that biosphere are the ants. When Wilson writes about the ants, it becomes a compelling read:
“….where we send our young men to war, ants send their old ladies. No moral lesson there, unless you are looking for a less expensive form of elder care.”
This scientist has a very subtle sense of humour and does not mince his words!
The author stresses the importance of taxonomic classification which, according to him, is still only at an early stage of its journey and is a neglected field of science in today’s world He asks how we can hope to preserve the earth’s biodiversity when we do not even know the majority of them.
Wilson writes candidly and scathingly about formal religion. After reading his chapter on religion a friend told me that “those who need faith and assurance of an afterlife would quake with fear that this is it, there is nothing more”. For me the most memorable lines are those where Wilson refers to the Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca the younger, who said that “religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful”.
Wilson believes, and this appears to be the central thesis of his book, that since man’s origin on this earth is not due to any supernatural intelligence but sheer chance and accident of evolution, since man’s habitation, this earth, is not even a speck compared to the wider cosmos and beyond, since only man has been gifted with the ability of grasping the reality of the living world, humanity should strive to be more humble and sympathetic and should have more concern about the living world.
Edward O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence is a thought-provoking book that is worth reading. It would make the reader aware of his place in the universe. The only weak spot is the Appendix where the author ventures to explain the ‘Inclusive Fitness Theory’ in a language that is not really for the uninitiated. For the non-specialists, like the present reviewer, that final chapter of the book may not make much sense.
The Meaning of Human Existence; Edward O. Wilson; Liveright, USA; 1st Edition; October, 2014]