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The Meaning of Human Existence

By Edward O. Wilson

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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.

The time has come, I believe, to make a proposal about the possibility of unification of the two great branches of learning. Would the humanities care to colonize the sciences?

How about replacing science fiction, the imagining of fantasy by a single mind, with new worlds of far greater diversity based on real science from many minds?

We are about to abandon natural selection, the process that created us, in order to direct our own evolution by volitional selection—the process of redesigning our biology and human nature as we wish them to be.

No longer will the prevalence of some genes (more precisely alleles, variations in codes of the same gene) over others be the result of environmental forces, most of which are beyond human control or even understanding. The genes and their prescribed traits can be what we choose.

To take this step in our journey, to get hold of the human condition, we need next a much broader definition of history than is conventionally used.

To grasp the present human condition it is necessary to add the biological evolution of a species and the circumstances that led to its prehistory.

When viewed across its entire traverse, the history of humanity also becomes the key to learning how and why our species arose and survived.

Human existence may be simpler than we thought. There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life.

Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based upon a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies.

Are we built to pledge our lives to a group, even to the risk of death, or the opposite, built to place ourselves and our families above all else?

Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past twenty years, suggests that we are both of these things simultaneously. Each of us is inherently conflicted.

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.

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.

People prefer to be with others who look like them, speak the same dialect, and hold the same beliefs. An amplification of this evidently inborn predisposition leads with frightening ease to racism and religious bigotry.

Then, also with frightening ease, good people do bad things.

Biologists have identified at the time of this writing twenty evolutionary lines in the modern-world fauna that attained advanced social life based on some degree of altruistic division of labor.

Most arose in the insects. Several were independent origins in marine shrimp, and three appeared among the mammals—that is, in two African mole rats, and us.

All reached this level through the same narrow gateway: solitary individuals, or mated pairs, or small groups of individuals built nests and foraged from the nest for food with which they progressively raised their offspring to maturity.

By no later than half a million years ago, however, groups of the ancestral species Homo erectus were maintaining campsites with controlled fire—the equivalent of nests—from which they foraged and returned with food, including a substantial portion of meat.

A conflict ensued between individual-level selection, with individuals competing with other individuals in the same group, on the one side, and group-level selection, with competition among groups, on the other.

Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.

So it came to pass that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of multilevel selection. They are suspended in unstable and constantly changing positions between the two extreme forces that created us.

To give in completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve society. At the opposite extreme, to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots—the outsized equivalents of ants.

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.

So what could the hypothetical aliens learn from us that has any value to them? The correct answer is the humanities.

To understand cultural evolution from the outside looking in, as opposed to the inside looking out, the way we do it, requires interpreting all of the intricate feelings and constructions of the human mind. It requires intimate contact with people and knowledge of countless personal histories. It describes the way a thought is translated into a symbol or artifact. All this the humanities do. They are the natural history of culture, and our most private and precious heritage.

For the next few decades, most major technological advances are likely to occur in what is often denoted BNR: biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics. In pure science the secular grails now sought along the broad frontier include the deduction of how life originated on Earth, along with the creation of artificial organisms, gene substitution and surgically precise modification of the genome, discovery of the physical nature of consciousness, and, not least, the construction of robots that can think faster and work more efficiently than humans in most blue-collar and white-collar labor. At the present time these envisioned advances are the stuff of science fiction. But not for long. Within a few decades they will be reality.

With more and more decision making and work done by robots, what will be left for humans to do? Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technology by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior? This choice would mean a sharp departure away from the human nature we have inherited, and a fundamental change in the human condition.

We are doing very well in science and technology. But let’s also promote the humanities, that which makes us human, and not use science to mess around with the wellspring of this, the absolute and unique potential of the human future.

What was the driving force in the origin of human social behavior? The prehumans of Africa approached the threshold of * advanced social organization in a manner parallel to that in the lower animals but attained it in a very different manner.

The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction—the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete, and from all these the deep warm pleasure of belonging to your own special group. Social intelligence enhanced by group selection made Homo sapiens the first fully dominant species in Earth’s history.

Humanities treat the strange properties of human nature by taking them as “just is.”The meaning of human existence cannot be explained until “just is” is replaced with “just is, because.”

It is true that we form societies dependent on cooperation, labor specialization, and frequent acts of altruism. But where social insects are ruled almost entirely by instinct, we base labor division on transmission of culture. Also we, unlike social insects, are too selfish to behave like cells in an organism. Almost all human beings seek their own destiny. They want to reproduce themselves, or at least enjoy some form of sexual practice adapted to that end. They will always revolt against slavery; they will not be treated like worker ants.

We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world, seen the beauty of nature, and given value to the individual. We alone have measured the quality of mercy among our own kind. Might we now extend the same concern to the living world that gave us birth?

The human mind did not evolve as an externally guided progression toward either pure reason or emotional fulfillment. It remains as it has always been, an instrument of survival that employs both reason and emotion. It emerged in its present form from a labyrinth of large and small steps, in a series that is one out of millions possible.

The particular conglomerate of reason and emotion we call human nature was just one of many conceivable outcomes Human nature is the ensemble of hereditary regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.

No scientific quest is more important to humanity than to nail the phantom of conscious thought.

The physical basis of consciousness won’t be an easy phenomenon to grasp. The human brain is the most complex system known in the Universe, either organic or inorganic.

What does the story of our species tell us? By this I mean the narrative made visible by science, not the archaic version soaked in religion and ideology.

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.

So, what is the meaning of human existence?

We have become the mind of the planet and perhaps our entire corner of the galaxy as well. We can do with Earth what we please.

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.

Our leaders, religious, political, and business, mostly accept supernatural explanations of the human existence. Even if privately skeptical, they have little interest in opposing religious leaders and unnecessarily stirring up the populace, from whom they draw power and privilege.

We need to understand ourselves in both evolutionary and psychological terms in order to plan a more rational, catastrophe-proof future.

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.