Axe for the frozen sea

The meaning of human existence

October 2, 2019

American Biologist E.O. Wilson is one of the foremost living scientists. Born in 1929, Wilson’s contributions span a wide spectrum of biology. Within biology itself, he is considered as the world’s leading expert on ants and father of socio-biology and champion of biodiversity. He has published numerous books and won almost all prominent awards in his area. Besides being a great scientist, he remained an astute communicator of science and was always the writer-scientist the world looked up to.  When he was 85,  he published “ The meaning of human existence” as his reflections on the big questions on the meaning of human life and what future awaits him. He also wanted to share his thoughts on the synthesis between science and humanities and in the book he advocates harmony between the two to understand the human story better.

The problem of meaning

In so many ways the human-animal is different from other animals. Though we know that all animals have their own language to communicate among themselves, human beings possess the unique written language which has helped it to conquer all other species.  The advanced brain of the human being made him aware of his mortality and also prompted him to search for the meaning of his existence. A majority of human beings find it difficult to imagine a life bereft of any meaning or purpose. Most of the religions and gods were born out of this desire for a unique purpose for human life and meaning.  For millions, life after death in one way or other is a must. When Wilson looks at life, it’s definitely from the angle of an ace biologist who appreciates the wonderful way in which human being evolved naturally.  Even when he invites us to that wonder, he realises fully well that man is not just a biological organism. But in his scheme of things, there is neither a supreme designer nor a  predestined purpose for the human being. But the absence of both does not prevent him from finding meaning in this life. He writes,

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.” 

Science and Humanities

An important probe for Wilson in this book is the harmony between science and humanities. The underlying principle is that science and humanities need not work in mutually exclusive domains but there is a need to bridge the gap between them. If science was struggling to understand the human species through its multiple specialities, humanities were kindling the human imagination in myriad ways.  There is an ever more important urge for an amalgamation between the two. The solutions to so many riddles of modern age perhaps lie at the intersection of science and humanities. When we have clashes between competing religions, world views and ideas about human destiny and wellbeing, we need the tools of humanities as well as science to negotiate between them. Wilson writes, “the creative writer tries to pass what he creates directly along the channel of human experience. He obeys a dictum ascribed to Picasso: 

art is the lie that shows us the truth.”

Instinct &Religion

How both these works in human beings are of particular interest to the author. When we think of the human-animal what we must remember is that the human mind is neither a steady progression towards pure reason nor emotional fulfilment. On the other hand, it employs both, in its quest for evolutionary survival. Wilson discusses the instincts of human beings in detail. Take the case of phobias. You will find the phobia towards spiders, snakes, wolves, running water or closed spaces etc as almost universal. According to Wilson, these were among the ancient perils of the pre-humans and early hunter-gatherers across millions of years. However, these things do not kill people in large numbers now. On the other hand automobiles, knives, guns and excessive consumption of dietary salt and sugar kill more people. However, no inborn propensities to avoid them have evolved. The likely reason is the lack of time for evolution and we can perhaps expect them after sufficient time. Similarly the instinct for stories, gossip etc is also universal and human beings always love to know about other people and that is the way we develop our social network.

Coming to religion, what matters to Wilson the biologist,  is the natural reasons for its evolution as something most universal. In almost all cultures you find religion in one way or other. The history of religion is as old as that of humanity itself.  Among the many plausible explanations for the origin of religion, there are many which appear very natural. Man needed to reconcile with his mortality and to forge groups in facing the harsh realities of everyday life. Religious life played a deeply satisfying nurturing role and it also helped to explain a number of natural phenomena before science arrived to explain most of them. For millions of people, the unreasonable suffering was better explained by religion as compared to cold reason and for many, religion is the comfort. But none can dismiss the untold suffering brought into this world by the clash of various religions and hatred, prejudice and violence it breeds in many parts of the world. Concluding his thoughts on religion, Wilson says that as far as religion is concerned we can only outgrow it. “ The truth is to accept the biological origins of human existence and in the nature of the human mind and what made us the evolutionary pinnacle.”  

The future of humanity

The future of biodiversity is a major concern for Wilson. As hundreds of species go extinct every year due to human involvement we have reasons to worry.  Human beings have evolved to be the most dangerous predators on the planet and the future of this earth is linked to the way we behave now. The earth does not need humanity but humanity need it to survive. As Wilson writes, since human beings have grasped the reality of the living world and seen the beauty of nature they have the responsibility to show mercy towards all living organism and to live in harmony with the rest. While concluding his book, Wilson invites us to ponder over the future of humanity. Echoing the sentiment of someone who has grasped the reality of human evolution,  he says that “ we are here by chance and necessity as one species out of millions. 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 .” According to Wilson,

this makes us completely free and hence responsible to ourselves to arrive at a proper self-understanding. Our future depends on the choices we make now.

We have intelligence and generosity to save this planet from perishing. However, we need to adapt ourselves to live in this highly evolved and networked techno-scientific society and rise above our selfish instincts. People find it hard to think beyond their immediate surroundings and limited lifespan. As Wilson says in the book, “ within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals but groups of altruistic beat groups of selfish individuals. “ This is profound and underlines the fact that only if we act collectively we have a future. Developing his theme of harmony between the disciplines, Wilson brilliantly concludes,

 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”.

” The meaning of human existence” is an important work. Coming from one of the giants of 20th-century science, the book helps us to understand the mind of a brilliant scientist regarding human condition and future. Apart from the philosophical probes on the meaning of human existence, he deals with the curious world of microbes and pheromones too.  It is very important that human beings understand their role in this vast universe and few others can enlighten us on such profound questions like Wilson.  Wilson is always a treat to read and “ The meaning of human existence”  is a real banquet.

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