Edward O. Wilson is simultaneously one of my intellectual heroes and someone who frustrates me enormously, and these conflicting feelings were once again stirred as I read his most recent book, The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). Wilson is a hero of mine because he stands as an iconic scientist who offers the world a big picture view of the human story. As a scientist, he is a world class entomologist, contributing enormously to the study of ants. As the founder of sociobiology, the precursor to modern evolutionary psychology, he made enormous contributions to our understanding of the evolutionary basis of animal (and human) behavior. And he is a visionary scientist-philosopher. As I read The Meaning of Human Existence, I recalled the excitement I felt reading Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge almost two decades ago, which left me with the deep sense that I held in my hands a book that outlined the whole of human knowledge, from the natural sciences to the social sciences and the humanities, in a form that was directly compatible with the Tree of Knowledge System I had recently developed.
The essence of Wilson’s message in this short tome is clear in his discussion of the meaning of meaning. Meaning for Wilson in this context, refers to understanding the essence of our nature (i.e., what kinds of creatures are we, where do we come from, and why) via history, especially evolutionary history. Evolutionary science is very clear on this point; Homo sapiens are a unique kind of great ape, one that is ultra-social, boarding on eusocial. This is the only reasonable scientific conclusion, and it is the picture of human nature that should be taught and embraced and it has deep implications for how we live our lives. It is the way in which Wilson champion’s this view, challenges traditional religious narratives, and does so in a way and a voice that reaches so many that I find heroic. Indeed, I offer a very similar grand meta-narrative in the final chapter of my book. It is crucial that this narrative be repeated often, as it remains a minority view in the public and is almost entirely absent in government.
My immense frustration with Wilson is that he is a natural scientist who fails to grasp both philosophy and human psychology. Although Wilson wants to adopt a big picture and wants to have an appreciation for how culture shapes the human mind and wants to build bridges between the sciences and humanities, he fundamentally cannot free himself from the mindset of a physical reductionist, where the true causes and effects are energy and atoms and genes and neurons. This is evident in his tendency to begin discussing the mind and immediately turn to neuroscience. Or dialoguing about what makes us human and referencing the size of our brain. Or to start to discuss culture and then immediately talk about how culture might create natural selection pressures for certain alleles. What he completely misses, in Consilience and again in The Meaning of Human Existence, is the recognition that the universe is an unfolding wave of Energy-Information. Behaviors at the bio/organic, animal/mental and human/cultural dimensions are fundamentally different that at the physiochemical level because of emergence as a function of different forms of information flow (genetic, neuronal, and linguistic).
This why the ToK graphic is so important. It helps represent that humans are as different from other animals as animals are from plants or as organisms are from inorganic matter. Consider that nowhere in this book about the evolved nature of human existence does Wilson clearly delineate why language transformed human behavior patterns in a qualitatively different way. Nor does Wilson articulate how language created the problem of social justification, which in turn shaped the human self-consciousness system as a reason-giving justification system. Wilson shows an appreciation that the self-consciousness system does have evolved design features when he explains, with humility, the story of how when Carl Sagan won the Pulitzer Prize the year before he did, he shrugged it off as minor accomplishment, yet when he won it the following year he embraced it as a major prize that more scientists should seek. This is an excellent example as to how the self-consciousness system is structured to develop justification narratives in accordance with one’s interests, yet Wilson seemed to be completely ignorant about how to directly connect the dots.
Nor does Wilson talk about how systems of justification are the first kind of explicit knowledge systems and why, especially with technology like writing, money, and now computers, we can store, transmit, and evaluate such knowledge systems. What makes humans unique is not that they are social or have big brains. It is that they have a verbal self-consciousness system that generates large-scale systems of belief which coordinates large numbers of individuals toward greater goals. If Wilson had an appreciation for this, he might have offered a much more palpable bridge between the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities.
If he had internalized this view, he would have also likely had a better appreciation for philosophy and the problem of value. For starters, one can think about philosophy as, at its core, studying the problem of justification. Consider that for many philosophers, “meaning” means “value”, as in that which is good. And, as philosophers have long pointed out, the problem with thinking about that which is good is that it is inherently positional, meaning that it depends on one’s perspective. Consider Wilson’s narrative about the meaning of our existence in light of a standard Christian version of reality. After I gave a public debate on Darwinian versus Creationists views of humanity, a group of teenagers came up to me and asked me why I behaved morally. After all, they argued, if we are just apes, then it really doesn’t matter what we did, so I mind as well have fun and do whatever I please. The point here is that their justification system was such that if we really were not God’s children and we really were not loved by Him because He was an illusion, then everything that held meaning in their lives would radically change. In other words, answering the question historically and scientifically that we are evolved apes basically would mean for them that ours is in fact a meaningless existence (i.e., lacking in relative value). Why? Because that is the essence of their system of justification, and their sense of meaning is dependent on the position in which they are embedded.
To really answer the question of the meaning of our existence, we need both a clearer understanding of our very unique natures (i.e., as the only animal that can justify its meaning) and understand what it is, in light of our scientific understanding, we ought to value as the good. (One recent book that tackles this question with depth and grace is Blaine Fowers’ The Evolution of Ethics.) The bottom line is that, as broad as Wilson’s knowledge is, it is not broad enough, and he has much to learn from experts in human psychology and ethical philosophy. Ultimately, though, Wilson has contributed much and deserves far more admiration than criticism in his life long quest to show the relevance evolutionary theory has for understanding the meaning of our existence.