Edward O. Wilson and the Meaning of Existence

Luis Angel Francisco Arzola

Antonio Díaz, Luis Angel Francisco Arzola, 2014, photograph, 38 x 25.5 cm, courtesy of the artist, part of the exhibition 43 Reflections for Ayotzinapa.

Everybody remembers Douglas Adams’ joke at the expense of those who would fret about the meaning of life when, in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of novels, he has a supercomputer named Deep Thought ponder the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything and declare that the answer is 42. It is less often recalled that this is not actually the punchline. To understand the answer, you need to know the question. This turns out to be: ‘What do you get if you multiply six by nine?’

I inevitably thought of Adams’ joke while reading the new book by the distinguished evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, a slim volume with the modest title The Meaning of Human Existence (2015). No one could accuse Wilson, an entomologist who specialises in ants, of thinking small. His many books include On Human Nature (1978) – which earned him the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes – and Consilience (1998), which argued for the unity of all knowledge. His latest essay is an extension of his recent The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), but echoes Consilience in its call for a reconciliation between what C. P. Snow famously called the ‘two cultures’ of science and the humanities.

Wilson’s basic contention (with which, I should declare at the outset, I broadly agree) is that the concept of existential meaning cannot be based on the religious notion that there is some kind of purpose to the universe or higher power governing human existence. To the extent that we can legitimately talk about the ‘meaning’ of human existence, this meaning must take account of a scientific understanding of our position in the universe and an appreciation of our biological origins – how these define us, our relation to the environment, and indeed our relations to each other.

Much of the biological aspect of Wilson’s argument is quite fascinating. Human beings, he notes, are one of only twenty known species to have developed a complexly differentiated form of social organisation known as ‘eusociality’ (most of the other species are ants and termites, though there is also a particular type of shrimp and two species of African mole rat). What we call human nature – with all its imperfections and conflicts, its moral and creative impulses – is the product of the parallel evolution of our biology and our social intelligence, which has generated what Wilson sums up as ‘the inevitable and necessary conflict between the individual and group levels of natural selection’. The existence of altruism is sometimes raised by religious believers as a particularly thorny problem for evolutionary biology – Marilynne Robinson does so in Absence of Mind (2010), for example – but, as Wilson notes, the development of mutually beneficial social structures, in which there is delineation of individual roles, encourages altruistic and co-operative behaviour and, in the case of human beings, the development of individual conscience. Contrary to the Social Darwinist caricature, the evolutionary battle is not simply fought out at the level of individual against individual, but is a matter of the much more complex question of the survival of larger familial and social groups in the face of adversity.

There are some odd features of Wilson’s book, most notably a penchant for hypothesising about space aliens, which has a serious purpose but at times makes him seem weirdly like an adolescent 1950s-era sci-fi nerd. This extends to a chapter in which he speculates at some length about the likely biological makeup of extraterrestrials, which are at least statistically likely to exist given the enormous number of potentially habitable planets in the universe. The point of the chapter, it turns out (somewhat counterintuitively), is to argue that the idea of an interplanetary encounter or the possibility of human beings colonising other planets is an unlikely fantasy. Notwithstanding the whole logistics-of-intergalactic-space-travel issue, it seems that neither human beings nor hypothetical space aliens are likely to be able to survive for extended periods when removed from the specific bacterial environments that nurtured them. Wilson also worries at one point what will be left for humans to do once we have robots making all the decisions and doing all the work (can’t come fast enough, as far as I’m concerned).

But it is Wilson’s central contention that science and the humanities should cease to regard each other as separate or competing endeavours that turns out to be the weakest aspect of his argument. In principle, the idea is a good one, but his characterisation of the humanities is dismayingly reductive, and often condescending. His perspective is, in essence, a form of conventional humanism. He seeks to reaffirm the validity and the universality of Enlightenment rationalism, an idea that supposedly ‘ruled the Western intellectual world’ in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (that unequivocal yet highly contestable verb ‘ruled’ can be taken as a measure of Wilson’s simplistic interpretation of intellectual history), but which was knocked off course by the counter-revolution of romanticism, which sought meaning ‘in other, more private venues’.

Yet Wilson’s view of the arts is, in fact, a kind of naive romanticism that believes art is basically expressive, an extension of our social intelligence, concerned with what he characterises as the insular and narrow subject of human experiences and feelings. In the midst of a passage in which he argues that creative artists and humanities scholars are really just recycling ‘the same old story, with the same themes, the same archetypes, the same emotions’, he observes that our species, whose sensory limitations science has now allowed us to understand, also exhibits a ‘relatively small range of emotions’. (Relative to what, exactly?) What is missing from this view is a sense that art might have an active moral, political or intellectual purpose, that its meaning might be culturally or socially contingent, or have something to do with its ability to interrogate or even actively shape the society that produced it, as opposed to being a merely passive record of what various people have thought and felt at different times.

At the very end of his book, Wilson distinguishes between the human condition, which is described by the humanities, and human existence, which is explained by science, thus separating that which he seeks to unite. In his view, the former must take account of the  discoveries of the latter; there is no suggestion that understanding might flow in the other direction. ‘Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us,’ Wilson argues – by which he means a proper understanding of the biological origins of our nature. And he holds to a sanguine view that demonstrable scientific truth can eventually triumph over superstition, falsehood and tribalism, that a scientifically enlightened humanity might yet make sensible decisions about its collective future, daring to speak in his final chapter of ‘the greatest goal of all time, the unity of the human race’. I admire his optimism, but a great deal of literature would suggest a contrary view – that we have a tendency to be tragically blind to the consequences of our actions, that hubris begets nemesis, that folly and cruelty are ubiquitous, that the problem of self-understanding is far thornier than Wilson seems to credit. Who, having read Middlemarch, could doubt that even very smart people are capable of making very stupid decisions?

Science, Wilson observes, ‘is totally committed to fact without reference to religion or ideology. It cuts a path through the fever swamp of human existence.’ This is true. The trouble is that the fever swamp of human existence is where we all have to live, and the commitment to facts that are free from the influence of religion and ideology (and by extension all cultural narratives that give meaning and purpose to our lives, and thus come to define our individual and collective identities) suggests that science is defining itself in opposition to precisely the kinds of necessary ‘meanings’ that the humanities seek to address, and which Wilson himself argues are intrinsic to our nature. In other words, understanding the meaning of human existence, as Wilson scientifically defines it, does not necessarily help us with the immediate and practical question of the meaning of life, which remains something we have to create for ourselves. The answer could well be 42 – or perhaps the conclusion to Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is as good a solution as any:

Well, it’s nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

Simple, really. Strange that it should be so difficult to put into practice.

This week Sydney Review of Books features an essay by Jeff Sparrow, in which he reviews Inside Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws and Trials by Andrew Lynch, Nicola McCarrity and George Williams, a book that Sparrow observes will likely become ‘the definitive popular guide to our new legal landscape’. In ‘Not entirely innocent’, Sparrow considers the implications of the raft of anti-terror laws that have been introduced in the years following 9/11. The authors of Inside Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws and Trials argue that these laws allow people to be convicted on the basis of what they call ‘pre-inchoate liability’ and, as Sparrow observes, when the laws are viewed collectively, they represent a substantial reshaping of the legal landscape:

This is by no means a radical book, but rather a measured and methodical account of the anti-terror regime in theory and practice, written by legal academics. That gives it a certain rhetorical power as an authoritative summation of where we are now. The authors move slowly and cautiously from the laws on financing terrorism to the use of control orders, and at almost every stop on the journey they uncover legislation that gives authorities sweeping and ill-defined powers.

Our second essay looks at the work of Abe Kōbō, one of the most brilliant Japanese writers of the twentieth century. In ‘Beyond the skin’, Andrew Fuhrmann examines Abe’s philosophical views, the influence of European literature on his work, and draws an illuminating contrast with Abe’s great literary rival Yukio Mishima. Taking issue with the conventional critical view of Abe, which has celebrated him for the universality of his vision, Fuhrmann argues for a more nuanced understanding of Abe’s art:

Abe is always described – and not only in the West – as a Kafkaesque writer. In his novels, plays and stories, metamorphoses and bureaucratic absurdities abound. And of course he is obsessed by images of confinement, disorientation, marginal identity and sexual inadequacy. But for Abe himself, Kafka is more than just an icon of estrangement and alienation. He is the pre-eminent poet of the ruined state – wandering Jew, army deserter, wastrel hippie of Shinjuku, hopeless nomad going nowhere. He is the exemplary figure of the artist who says no to the state and defies its doctrine of power. Kafka is the ‘No! in thunder’, which is also Bartleby’s ‘I would prefer not to’. He refuses to participate, to accommodate, to believe.

From the Archives this week looks at Miriam Cosic’s ‘Dare to Know!’, an extended review of Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters. Any account of the Enlightenment, Cosic argues, must take account of ‘the contradictions, the about-faces, the progressions and regressions, the many and varied strands of argument and implementation’.

Our image this week comes from the exhibition 43 Reflections for Ayotzinapa. The exhibition comprises of a documentary and 43 photographs, each of which is titled with the name of one of the 43 student teachers who were forcefully disappeared by the municipal police in Igual, Mexico. The Mexican government claims that the students were murdered and incinerated at the hands of the police and narco gangs but because there is no physical evidence the parents of the missing students do not accept this account and continue to search for their children. The exhibition highlights the broader indignation at the levels of corruption and impunity in Mexico where Ayotzinapa has come to stand for over 25 000 disappeared or missing people whose cases have never been investigated or prosecuted.