Edward Wilson has earned the right to title his latest book The Meaning of Human Existence, which coming from almost any other author would sound laughably pretentious.
Wilson is one of the towering intellectual figures of our era, who transcended his specialty—the study of ants and other social insects—to become a leading investigator of human nature, defender of biodiversity and explorer of linkages between science and other realms of culture. [See this edited version of a profile of him that I wrote in the mid-1990s.]
His twenty-plus books, two of which have won Pulitzer Prizes, delve into the deepest questions of existence—scientific, philosophical, moral, spiritual--with extraordinary eloquence and erudition. The Meaning of Human Existence is no exception.
Wilson asks: Does humanity have a special place in the universe? Where are we going, and why? He answers by telling science's latest creation stories, and presenting a vision of the future both inspiring and plausible, not an easy feat to pull off.
The book has its flaws, especially Wilson's indulgence in several pet obsessions. Once again, he makes the case for group selection, the idea that natural selection operates not just at the level of genes and individual organisms but also of populations.
Richard Dawkins and other ultra-Darwinians (the slur is Stephen Jay Gould's) have hammered Wilson for this heresy. I suspect that we will someday look back on the fracas as a pseudo-debate, reflecting misunderstandings about definitions rather than something biologically substantive.
Once again, Wilson blames religion for many of the world's woes, while overlooking the harm done to humanity and the rest of nature by rapacious capitalism. (Wilson should check out Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything, which links capitalism to global warming and other threats to the environment.)
And once again Wilson yearns for a grand unification of the sciences with the arts and humanities, while characterizing the latter with almost comic condescension:
"Creative artists and humanities scholars by and large have little grasp of the otherwise immense continuum of spacetime on Earth, in both its living and nonliving parts, and still less in the Solar System and Universe beyond. They have the correct view of Homo sapiens as a very distinctive species, but spend little time wondering what that means or why it is so." (More recommended reading: novelists Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Powers.)
Okay, enough nitpicking. So what do I like about Meaning? First, Wilson's argument that free will, although possibly an illusion, is a necessary one, which neuroscience will never be potent enough to dispel.
"So does free will exist?" he asks. "Yes, if not in ultimate reality, then at least in the operational sense necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the human species."
I wish Wilson's version of free will were less qualified, but I'll take it, because it underpins his rejection of the notion that we were created to fulfill some sort of transcendent purpose.
"Hope and wish for it 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."
We are free, in other words, to choose whatever future we find meaningful.
And what future might that be? Wilson rejects, I'm happy to say, not only religious fantasies but also scientific ones, like those in which we transform ourselves into superhuman cyborgs. Warning against the unintended consequences of radical engineering of humanity, whether via genetics or brain implants, Wilson advocates "existential conservatism, the preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust."
He also knocks "space enthusiasts who believe that humanity can emigrate to another planet after using up this one." This hope has inspired countless science fictions, most recently the hokey film Interstellar. But Wilson is surely right that "there exists only one habitable planet, and hence only one chance at immortality, for the species."
The book's biggest payoff comes toward the end. Although I have criticized him for promulgating the notion that war is an innate, "hereditary curse," Wilson denies that we are doomed to destroy ourselves and the rest of nature.
"Human beings are not wicked by nature. We have enough intelligence, goodwill, generosity and enterprise to turn Earth into a paradise both for ourselves and for the biosphere that gave us birth. We can plausibly accomplish that goal, at least be well on the way, by the end of the century."
I love the irony of this great scientific figure embracing the term "paradise." I'm also thrilled by his insistence that we can attain paradise not in some hazy, remote future but soon. This century!
Robust, long-term trends justify Wilson's prophecy. As I have pointed out previously, over the past century humanity has become wealthier and healthier, more peaceful and more free. And due in part to Wilson's efforts, we are seeking ways to build on these accomplishments while also minimizing the harm we do to our fellow creatures.
Wilson is both a wild-eyed optimist and a hard-nosed realist. What more can we ask of a prophet?
Postscript: See also "My Modest Proposal for Solving the Meaning of Life Problem" and "The Meaning of Life: The Sequel."
Post-postscript: I talk with my friend George Johnson about Wilson's book (and other topics) on Bloggingheads.tv.