Continuing his groundbreaking examination of our "Anthropocene Epoch," which he began with The Social Conquest of Earth, described by the New York Times as "a sweeping account of the human rise to domination of the biosphere," here Wilson posits that we, as a species, now know enough about the universe and ourselves that we can begin to approach questions about our place in the cosmos and the meaning of intelligent life in a systematic, indeed, in a testable way.Read more...
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Continuing his groundbreaking examination of our "Anthropocene Epoch," which he began with The Social Conquest of Earth, described by the New York Times as "a sweeping account of the human rise to domination of the biosphere," here Wilson posits that we, as a species, now know enough about the universe and ourselves that we can begin to approach questions about our place in the cosmos and the meaning of intelligent life in a systematic, indeed, in a testable way.
Once criticized for a purely mechanistic view of human life and an overreliance on genetic predetermination, Wilson presents in The Meaning of Human Existence his most expansive and advanced theories on the sovereignty of human life, recognizing that, even though the human and the spider evolved similarly, the poet's sonnet is wholly different from the spider's web. Whether attempting to explicate "The Riddle of the Human Species," "Free Will," or "Religion"; warning of "The Collapse of Biodiversity"; or even creating a plausible "Portrait of E.T.," Wilson does indeed believe that humanity holds a special position in the known universe.
The human epoch that began in biological evolution and passed into pre-, then recorded, history isnow more than ever before in our hands. Yet alarmed that we are about to abandon natural selection by redesigning biology and human nature as we wish them, Wilson soberly concludes that advances in science and technology bring us our greatest moral dilemma since God stayed the hand of Abraham."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-06-30
- Reviewer: Staff
In his typically elegant style, two-time Pulitzer Prize–winner Wilson (Letters to a Young Scientist) cannily and candidly probes the nature of human existence. Wilson ranges from natural selection and eusociality to extraterrestrial life and the “all-importance of the humanities,” observing that the “origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction.” He explores the conundrum of nature versus culture, pointing out that the two levels of natural selection—individual and group—always oppose each other. Human nature, he argues, 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.” According to Wilson, “human existence may be simpler than we thought. There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life... we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world.” Given this freedom to recognize our relationship to nature and to act accordingly, Wilson pleads that we show tolerance to our fellow humans and mercy to the world around us: “We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world.... 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?” (Oct.)
A biologist's captivating call to action
At the age of 85, Edward O. Wilson, one of our foremost evolutionary biologists (and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner), has written a provocative book that is so fascinating it nearly lives up to the stunning ambition of its title.
Wilson’s project is partly to inspire “a new Enlightenment” through a closer collaboration between science and the humanities. The need for such a collaboration is urgent, Wilson argues, because “we are entering an era of volitional evolution,” a time when advances in biotechnology mean we are no longer subject to the processes of natural selection, while at the same time our species is running roughshod over the intricate web of interrelationships among life forms on Earth, with unknown consequences to the survival of life on Earth. “Exalted we are,” Wilson writes, “but we are still part of Earth’s flora and fauna, bound to it by emotion, physiology and, not least, deep history.” A union of science and the humanities, he suggests, will put “pride and humility in better balance.”
Wilson is always a beguiling writer, illustrating his points with captivating examples from his field work and his broad knowledge of biodiversity and evolutionary history. For example, he devotes a wide-ranging, joyously detailed section of this book to comparing our species to other life forms on Earth, “to demonstrate how bizarre we are as a species, and why.”
The point for Wilson is that the history we need to understand for our survival is biological and cultural. “We are not predestined to reach any goal,” he writes. “Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.”