“Our behavior toward each other is the strangest, most unpredictable, and most unaccountable of all the phenomena which we are obliged to live,” said the American poet and physician Lewis Thomas. Indeed, we can live our whole lives without fully grasping and understanding human nature. By studying the sciences and humanities, we can study how we became human and what it means to be human—only then, if internalized deeply to the point where it changes the way we lead our lives, we can learn to be more compassionate, curious, and accepting.
This is what the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and biologist Edward. O Wilson explores in The Meaning of Human Existence—one of the most fascinating books that I’ve read on the biology and evolution of our species, the human condition, and most importantly, where we are going and why.
“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,” said Wilson in the introduction.
He starts off by giving two definitions of meaning, one viewed through religion, and the other viewed through science:
“In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention, intention implies design, and design implies a designer. Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer. This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories. Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose. Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth. Both humanity and individuals have meaning.
There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used and a very different worldview implied. It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning. There is no advanced design, but instead overlapping networks of physical cause and effect. The unfolding of history is obedient only to the general laws of the Universe. Each event is random yet alters the probability of later events. During organic evolution, for example, the origin of one adaptation by natural selection makes the origin of certain other adaptations more likely. This concept of meaning, insofar as it illuminates humanity and the rest of life, is the world of science.
Whether in the cosmos or in the human condition, the second, more inclusive meaning exists in the evolution of present-day reality amid countless other possible realities. As more complex biological entities and processes arose in past ages, organisms drew closer in their behavior to include the use of intentional meaning: at first there were the sensory and nervous systems of the earlier multicellular organisms, then an organizing brain, and finally behavior that fulfills intention. A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly. That is the meaning of the web. The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web. Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense. But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.”
To best answer, “What are we?” E.O. Wilson focuses and educates the reader on the evolution of the human brain so we can envision how the growth of our brain inspired new mechanics favorable for survival, connection, and tribal behaviors:
“The key to the great riddle lies in the circumstance and process that created our species. The human condition is a product of history—not just the six millennia of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millennia. The whole of it, biological and cultural evolution, must be explored in seamless unity for a complete answer to the mystery. When viewed across its entire traverse, the history of humanity also becomes the key to learning how and why our species arose and survived.
The time has come to consider what science might give to the humanities and the humanities to science in a common search for a more solidly grounded answer than before to the great riddle of our existence.
To begin, biologists found that the biological origin of advanced social behavior in humans was similar to that occurring elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Using comparative studies of thousands of animal species, from insects to mammals, we’ve concluded that the most complex societies have arisen through eusociality—meaning, roughly, the “true” social condition.
Eusociality stands out as an oddity in a couple of ways. One is its extreme rarity. Out of hundreds of thousands of evolving lines of animals on the land during the past four hundred million years, the condition, so far as we can determine, has arise only nineteen times, scattered across insects, marine crustaceans, and subterranean rodents. The number is twenty, if we include human beings.”
Eusociality bolstered the evolution of the species by encouraging behaviors that championed survival. Division of labor, child rearing, building nests, were all commonplace for insects and animals. Wilson continues [emphasis mine]:
“Once attained, advanced social behavior at the eusocial grade found a major ecological success. Of the nineteen known independent lines among animals, just two within the insects—ants and termites—globally dominated invertebrates on the land. Although they are represented by fewer than twenty thousand of the million known living insect species, ants and termites compose more than half of the world’s insect body weight.
The history of eusociality raises a question: Given the enormous advantage it confers, why has this advanced form of social behavior been so rare and long in coming? The answer appears to be the special sequence of preliminary evolutionary changes that must occur before the final step to eusociality can be taken. In all of the eusocial species analyzed to date, the final step before eusociality is the construction of a protected nest, from which foraging trips are launched and within which the young are raised to maturity. The original nest builders can be a lone female, a mated pair, or a small and weakly organized group. When this final preliminary step is attained, all that is needed to create a eusocial colony is for parents and offspring to stay at the nest and cooperate in raising additional generations of young. Such primitive assemblages then divide easily into risk-prone foragers and risk-averse parents and nurses.”
Once our species began sitting around campsites, assigning roles to members of the tribe, we began developing a bond and appreciation for others. This tribal behavior, which was inspired by campsites and hunter-gatherer dynamics, was the inception of our nature and played a profound role in the development of how we’re hardwired.
“The roles of both individual and group selection are clear in the details of the human social behavior: People are intensely interested in the minutiae of behavior of those around them. Gossip is a prevailing subject of conversation, everywhere from hunter-gatherer campsites to royal courts. The mind is a kaleidoscopically shifting map of others inside the group and a few outside, each of whom is evaluated emotionally in shades of trust, love, hatred, suspicion, admiration, envy, and sociability. We are compulsively driven to belong to groups or to create them as needed, which are variously nested, or overlapping, or separate, and in addition ranging from very large to very small. Almost all groups compete with those of similar kind in some manner or other. However gently expressed and generous in the tone of our discourse, we tend to think of our own group as superior, and we define our personal identities as members within them. The existence of competition, including military conflict, has been a hallmark of societies as far back in prehistory as archaeological evidence can be brought to bear.”
With this history of our human condition in mind, it begs the question: Are we hardwired to be good or bad, evil or honorable? It turns out we’re both.
“We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites—not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.
Within biology itself, the key to the mystery is the force that lifted prehuman social behavior to the human level. The leading candidate is multilevel selection, by which hereditary social behavior improves the competitive ability not just of individuals within groups but among groups as a whole.
I am convinced after years of research on the subject that multilevel selection, with a powerful role of group-to-group competition, has been a major force in the forging of advanced social behavior—including that of humans. In fact, it seems clear that so deeply ingrained are the evolutionary products of group-selected behaviors, so completely a part of the contemporary human condition are they, that we are prone to regard them as fixtures of nature, like air and water. They are instead idiosyncratic traits of our species.”
With the biological origins of human nature in mind, Wilson says with great eloquence:
“The eternal conflict is not God’s test of humanity. It is not a machination of Satan. It is just the way things worked out. The conflict might be the only way in the entire Universe that human-level intelligence and social organization can evolve. We will find a way eventually to live with our inborn turmoil, and perhaps find pleasure in viewing it as the primary source of our creativity.”
Human creativity, he says, “is generated by the inevitable and necessary conflict between the individual and group levels of natural selection.” To explain and understand this, we need to bridge the chasm between the humanities and sciences, which was caused by the Enlightenment period. Wilson says that “studying the relation between science and the humanities should be at the heart of liberal education everywhere, for students of science and the humanities alike.” My question is not a matter of if, but when?
To end with a bang, Wilson says at the end of this journey:
“To speak of the human existence is to bring into better focus the difference between the humanities and the science. The humanities address in fine detail all the ways human beings relate to one another and to the environment, the latter including plants and animals of aesthetic and practical importance. Science addresses everything else. The self-contained worldview of the humanities describe the human condition—but not why it is the one thing and not another. The scientific worldview is vastly larger. It encompasses the meaning of human existence—the general principles of the human condition, where the species fits in the Universe, and why it exists in the first place.”
And knowing why is worthy endeavor. Knowing how we became to be, how we’re hardwired, and how this knowledge helps us evolve in our own journeys is something that shouldn’t be left in our later years or entirely ignored. The understanding and compassion that can ensue by truly embracing this compiled knowledge of our world and ourselves is deeply enriching and humbling.
E.O. Wilson also explores how we’re hardwired for religion, storytelling, good versus evil, and so much more. The Meaning of Human Existence
, a daring title nonetheless, does a masterful job of not only explaining the meaning of existence but ultimately how our existence can be meaningful.