The Meaning of Human Existence - Book Review
Updated: Feb 18, 2021
As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.
About the Book: The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson was first published in 2014 and is just over 200 pages. Edward O. Wilson is a famous biologist, theorist, writer, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner— for his works On Human Nature and Ants. In this book, The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson sets out to tackle humanity's biggest question by examining our roots and our future branches—our past and our future destinations. Those who believe in God may take offense to Wilson's derision of religion, but he does so within the scope of understanding the biological need to believe in a higher power. In this review, our past, present, and future according to Wilson will be briefly examined.
Past and Present: Where did we come from, where are we today, and we where are we going? These are questions that from time to time, we all think about; and we do so either on an individual level, or collectively as a society. Most notably, these questions pique our interest in times of turmoil and force us to re-examine truths we took for granted. In The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson first looks at how life arose from the perspective of a biologist. As he notes, life spontaneously appeared through chance given the right conditions. This is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced as it grants our freedom. Instead of purpose being "vouchsafed" through a divine entity that we can neither see nor touch, we can determine our own meaning. As Wilson puts it:
Humanity, I argue, arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution. We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.
And a bit later:
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. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world.
What Wilson does point out is that in organic evolution, the unit of natural selection is not the person or the group, but instead the gene; and that humans are one of twenty species that have attained an "advanced social life" based on the altruistic division of labor. The other species mostly consist of insects; the rest include shrimp, African mole rats, and humans. According to evolution theory, "selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals." This is important to note as inside of us, we all have some level of inner conflict between being selfish and altruistic. Wilson also goes one additional step to predict that intelligent life may only be able to evolve given this internal struggle.
Given what is outlined above, Wilson does not make a concrete conclusion as to our purpose after outlining life's humble origins and miraculous evolution. Lkely because this in and of itself only helps us to better understand who we are rather than to provide answers to the meaning of life. Julian Baggini also pondered the question of our origins and how it relates to the meaning of life in his book What's It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. According to Baggini, our origins are not necessarily a predicate for our purpose. Wilson would likely agree, but would also add that understanding our ancestry gives us greater context, and banishes false Gods and demons.
Future: Wilson also cautiously considers our future. At times he hesitates as he veers into what may seem like science fiction. But one cannot begin to see that which is not yet here, without some degree of speculation, imagination, and creativity. What Wilson envisions however is relatively tame and is based mostly on limited extrapolations of current scientific knowledge.
For example, instead of conceiving of aliens like the ones in the recent movie Arrival...
Wilson instead paints a portrait of E.T. as having the following characteristics:
- fundamentally land-dwellers, not aquatic
- relatively large animals
- biologically audiovisual
- their head is distinct, big, and located up front
- possess light to moderate jaws and teeth
- have very high social intelligence
- have a small number of free locomotory appendages
- are moral
Unlike Stephen Hawking's warnings of aliens bringing about the apocalypse, Wilson argues that advanced civilizations which are capable of star travel are inherently altruistic. Otherwise, they would have survived, and he also reasons that it would not be in their favor to attempt to colonize a foreign planet from which they did not evolve. That is, all species have one planet, and one planet only for which they can live; due to the complexity of organic evolution and biospheres for which the species adapted. In short, aliens would should be incompatible with our current ecosystem. One would, however, wonder whether this would be true. After all, a civilization capable of space travel would likely to also be able to terraform a planet to meet their specific needs. At least in theory. In relation to our future, Wilson states the following:
Someday, perhaps in this century, we, or much more likely our robots, will visit these places in search of life. We must go and we will go, I believe, because the collective human mind shrivels without frontiers. The longing for odysseys and faraway adventure is in our genes.
Wilson also discusses the future of religion, and makes it clear that the Gods of yore are destine to live out their lives in history books. Yet, he realizes their origins and why we openly embraced them. He notes:
Religious faith offers enormous psychological benefit to the believers. It gives them an explanation for their existence. It makes them feel loved and protected above the members of every other tribal group... For ages no tribe could survive unless the meaning of its existence was defined by a creation story. The price of the loss of faith was a hemorrhage of commitment, a weakening and dissipation of common purpose.
Towards the end of the book, he relates religion to that of a parasite and concludes with the following getting us the closest will we get to an answer on meaning in this book:
We were created not by a supernatural intelligence but by chance and necessity as one species out of millions of species in Earth's biosphere. Hope and wish for otherwise as we will, there is no evidence of an external grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one. We are, it seems, completely alone. And that in my opinion is a very good thing. It means we are completely free.
So, although Wilson does not explicitly outline a path for us to follow in the future, he makes it clear that we are free to choose our own purpose, rather than having one vouchsafed from above. He does warn us that with the advance of science, we will have the capacity to change who we are through bio-engineering. But if we do this, then what is humanity? When do humans stop being humans? When does humanity stop being humanity and when must we call it something else? Wilson talks of the immortality of the species, but would this not be counterproductive to the evolutionary process in general? Nothing lasts forever, because after all, there are no things, only processes unfolding in space and in time.
Overall, Wilson writes a very good and thought-provoking book. It is an easy read that is not overly academic, but one rooted in the foundations of science. He does an excellent job at highlighting both the importance of humanities and of science; and emphasizes the power of conjoining the two. Those with religious backgrounds may at times be offended by his remarks equating religion to a parasite. Yet, it does not come off in an offensive way. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes. He has a particular grace to his system of writing.
Other notable quotes:
Most serious writers on religion conflate the transcendent quest for meaning with the tribalistic defense of creation myths.
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.
If our species can be said to have a soul, it lives in the humanities.
We rate the book the following:
Overall - 6
Meaning of Life Relevance - 5
Uniqueness – 7
What did we miss? If alien life is found, how will it change your beliefs?