On the RTE programme The Meaning of Life, recently deceased Terry Wogan quipped “I was born, I am living, and I will die,” resident Book reviewer, Paul That’s it.”
Yet no one would argue that Wogan embodied many of the human qualities that often lead to a meaningful existence: kindness, optimism, geniality, intelligence, open-mindedness, and so on.
Edward O Wilson, an eminent biologist and self-confessed eternal optimist, tackles what it means to be a human from an almost entirely scientific angle. He argues in this succinct book, The Meaning of Human Existence, that the unified knowledge of all the sciences has humbled us into knowing our place along the continuum of reality we call the universe. Our place, originally thought to be the divine end product of creation, is simply as one of the lucky by-products of earth’s biodiversity and of evolution by natural selection. Yet we have evolved to become the uniquely creative mind of that biosphere. And while we have destroyed eco-systems and wrought climate change upon the earth, we have the intellectual resilience to self-correct our behaviour. Evolution, Wilson states, is a fundamental process of the universe, not just in living organisms, but everywhere at every level. He believes that in our techno-scientific age, of exponentially increasing knowledge and processing power, that we are now entering an age of evolution by self-selection. We are becoming more free to choose our own destiny and alter our collective destiny.
Wilson’s speciality was in ant behaviour and a form of social evolution known as eusociality. There have only been 20 confirmed examples on land in the last 400 million years. In these advanced societies, there is division of labour, a controlled reproductive cycle, and at some stage a nest, from which some of the species forage and gather food and materials for the benefit of the whole group. Ant colonies and subterranean rodents form some of the eusocial groups, but the best known example is our own civilisation. There are two things we humans crave: a sense of belonging to a group and knowledge of others i.e. gossip. Many experiments in human psychology have shown that when groups are formed, from randomly selected strangers, a group identity will very quickly emerge. And more menacingly, group rivalry thrives with equally rapid speed. Millennia of this tribalism, with its distinct survival benefits, hangs over us like an original sin from the Paleolithic era, especially when it morphs into xenophobia, warfare and theories of racial purity. So, for this reason, Wilson argues that stronger connections between science and the humanities will create a deeper understanding of our origins, of our social behaviour and most importantly of our pivotal role as the creative mind of the earth’s biosphere, from which we have recently emerged with our fellow creatures. As fossil fuels deplete and we scramble desperately for sustainable energy sources, some scientists, and science fiction writers, believe we will leave our planet in search of other habitable solar systems. Wilson argues that if we have solved the profound problems associated with interstellar travel we will have already solved our energy problems. We have lived above our planet for thirty years now on various space stations and the indomitable spirit of human curiosity alone will push us towards the final frontiers of interplanetary exploration. While pondering other worlds he speculates brilliantly on a portrait of Extra Terrestials. Amongst ET’s characteristics : land-dwellers, biologically audiovisual, a distinct head located up front, high social intelligence and moral. Sounds familiar. The reasoning behind each of these traits is intriguing. For example, 99% of all species communicate through chemicals known as pheromones. Humans’ chemosensory capacity is almost zero in comparison. Instead we communicate, with great efficiency, on the tiniest sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, called light, and the equally narrow range of auditory communication, called sound. Most of what exists in our biosphere is missed by us! As Wilson says, “the evolutionary innovations that made us dominant over the rest of life also left us sensory cripples.” So if an ET does visit us, or vice versa, it seems logical it would be “biologically audiovisual.”
What does it mean to have a human existence on a cooling planet, revolving in a Goldilocks orbit around a star which will cannibalise us, in an average sized galaxy (Milky Way) which is on course for a head-on collision with a neighbouring galaxy (Andromeda) in a cold universe (averaging 2.7oC above Absolute Zero (-273oC)) which is expanding at ever increasing speeds since the Big Bang ?
Edward O. Wilson would contend that it means no more than the existence of any other animal or entity. We are alone in the universe, yet our art, humanities and our social intelligence mean we are never truly alone. We are not yet free of authoritarian creation stories nor political dogmas, yet there is every reason to believe we will, by ourselves, evolve into human beings free of the mind forged manacles of our ancient ancestors.
The next review is the memoir When Breath Becomes Air.