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'The Meaning of Human Existence' considers humanity's purpose and place in the grand scheme of things

Biologist Edward O. Wilson tackles mankind – our origins, our unique place in the universe, and what the future of the species holds – in about 200 pages.

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    The Meaning of Human Existence
    By Edward O. Wilson
    Liveright Publishing
    208 pp.
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In The Meaning of Human Existence, Edward O. Wilson tackles the puzzle at history’s heart: “Does humanity have a special place in the Universe? What is the meaning of our personal lives? I believe that we’ve learned enough about the Universe and ourselves to ask these questions in an answerable, testable form.”

Wilson isn’t a philosopher or a theologian, but a biologist who’s spent much of his life studying ants. At age 85, he now presides as an elder statesman of science and a popular explainer of it, following in the literary tradition of Loren Eiseley, Lewis Thomas, and Stephen Jay Gould. Wilson’s career defies easy category, and he likes it that way, arguing that academia’s insular disciplines overlook the central question of humanity’s role on Earth. “Scientists who might contribute to a more realistic worldview are especially disappointing,” he laments. “Largely yeomen, they are intellectual dwarves content to stay within the narrow specialties for which they were trained and are paid.”

That kind of myopia is especially troublesome, Wilson suggests, because science now seems advanced enough to sharply clarify what it means to be human. He begins his quest to explain the purpose of human existence by asserting what it’s not. We’re not here, he maintains, to serve a divine master and prepare for a heavenly afterlife. Religion developed early across humanity to strengthen social bonds, but Wilson concludes that it’s outlived its usefulness.  “The great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering,” he writes. “They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the world.”

Wilson traces human origins to a lucky series of biological developments that conspired to make us masters of the planet. The complex organization of human society invites easy comparison with ants – creatures that, in his other books, have inspired some of Wilson’s best prose. He includes a seemingly obligatory chapter on ants here, and there’s a marvelous passage in which he gently exhales into a colony of leafcutter ants and draws them out with his breath. “I admit that this observation has no practical use,” he concedes, “unless you like the thrill of being chased by really serious ants.”

Such moments of interspecies communion aside, Wilson cautions that the intensely nuanced interactions among humans have little in common with life on an anthill: “Almost all human beings seek their own destiny.... They will always revolt against slavery; they will not be treated like worker ants.”

Evolution wired humans to both compete and cooperate with each other, impulses that can be beneficial but obviously contradictory, says Wilson. “In a nutshell,” he writes, “individual selection favors what we call sin and group selection favors virtue. The result is the internal conflict of conscience that afflicts all but psychopaths....” Life would be much simpler if we could resolve this wrinkle, but Wilson warns against it: “The instability of the emotions is a quality we should wish to keep. It is the essence of human character, and the source of our creativity.... We must learn to behave, but let us never even think of domesticating human nature.”

He mentions another evolutionary trick complicating human destiny. Our refined brains and ability to walk upright make us lords of nature, but also distance us from it, a blind spot that inclines us to abuse the planet we need for our survival. To reach our fullest promise, Wilson proposes a grand partnership between science and the humanities. One reason that humans have thrived is because of our intense awareness of each other, a quality nurtured by the art, literature, music, and theater the humanities produce. Science can benefit from these insights, Wilson tells readers, even as science enriches the humanities, too. “The greatest contribution that science can make to the humanities,” he writes, “is to demonstrate how bizarre we are as a species, and why.”

"The Meaning of Human Existence" is itself something of the marriage between science and liberal arts, blending empirical observation with memoir to make its points. Even so, Wilson’s voice doesn’t register as intimately as in "Naturalist" or "A Window on Eternity," previous works in which his gifts as a literary artist shined brighter. "The Human Age," naturalist Diane Ackerman’s latest offering, ponders many of the questions addressed in Wilson’s new book, but her sentences seem more grounded in the kinds of precise observation that Wilson, at his best, has used to such good effect.

Wilson proves, as usual, a briskly economical writer; any commentator who can summarize the quandary of human existence in less than 200 pages deserves a gold star for brevity. Some of this concision is achieved, though, through a valedictory tone that flies high above the fray, unfettered by inconvenient details. He doesn’t fret, for example, over just how science and the humanities might deepen their connection, especially in a higher education climate where the liberal arts get such short shrift. His prediction of a mechanized future defined by windfalls of leisure time also sounds pie-in-the-sky. Aldous Huxley made the same forecast in 1932, and decades later, we seem busier than ever.

Like the subject it chronicles, "The Meaning of Human Existence" reads, perhaps necessarily, like a work in progress – a string of commencement speeches stitched together with thread: “Human existence may be simpler than we thought. There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life. Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance.... What counts for long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based on greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies.” One can almost see Wilson at the podium, shaded beneath a mortar board, as he offers this assessment of his fellow Homo sapiens.

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