Creatures of Chance

The Meaning of Human Existence
By Edward O. Wilson
W.W. Norton & Co., 2014, 208 pages

In Review

With his copy of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species firmly in hand, biologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson sets out in his new book to answer the loaded question posed by the title – The Meaning of Human Existence. In this slim volume, the veteran scientist (who is now 85) offers a thought-provoking treatise on the age-old question and other related issues – like super-organisms, religion, and free will – that have long occupied his mind.

The meaning of human life, Wilson believes, is firmly tied to the meaning of all life on Earth, and indeed, all life likely to be found in the universe. His is a scientific approach – based on the theory that we now know enough about the universe and ourselves that we can approach this question in “an answerable, testable form.” Wilson hopes to join science to the humanities to seek out the answers to this ancient question.

It should be noted that Wilson is not one of those people who attacks organized religion, though he does think great religions “are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.” Religion, he says, falls very short in answering these questions, in part because it lacks the rigor and evidence that biology brings to the table. He believes one needs no god to explain the human journey through time up to the present.

book cover thumbnail

“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,” he writes. Wilson is careful to construct this process as having happened through a series of accidents and happenstance. That is how evolution works, in fits and starts, based on constant genetic mixing and change, all of it unplanned and not directed by anyone.

What gives our lives meaning, then, is not what we have been given by a creator, but what we do with what we have been given by blind chance. If life is survival of the fittest, then, at least so far, humans seem to be pretty fit to survive. But we also have a responsibility to our own species and to the other species on Earth.

Natural selection, Wilson explains, is the basis for our human nature (both for good and for bad). We are gaining, each day, a better understanding of the origins of human behavior from our ape ancestors. But we cannot let our past needs dictate the future. We are beyond the point where we can blindly follow our personal needs based on animal behavior, especially when they are in conflict with the greater good of the human species and the planet itself.

Indeed, Wilson, like many biologists, is deeply concerned by our tendency to avoid the tough choices facing us, choices about how to deal with global warming, species extinction, war, and famine. There will be no miraculous presence, he says, that will save humankind from the hells of our own making. We must recognize that we are now “the mind of the planet” with the power to change our own species and the Earth’s environment, and we need to use that power responsibly.

In one section Wilson discusses the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial organisms. The process of natural selection is certainly at work on other worlds besides our own, he posits, so the flora and fauna of far planets may not fundamentally be all that different from our own. While I found this section interesting, I thought it was a bit of a diversion from the main topic. I suspect it will provide critics with an easy target to question the whole book.

Wilson believes the meaning of human existence comes out of the melding of science (the facts) with the humanities (the arts), and is expressed in ways unique to our species. Some of that expression, if we are not careful, leads to war, racism, and environmental disaster. But, in the other direction, with a melding of science and the humanities “human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.” While he calls for science and the humanities to join forces, Wilson clearly believes that it’s the humanities that is in need of a shot of science if we are to further our understanding of our species.

Nominated for the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction, The Meaning of Human Existence is a quick read, with many insights from one of the finest evolutionary scientists of our time. Highly recommended.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.