The Meaning of Human Existence

meaningThe Meaning of Human Existence
by Edward O. Wilson
2013 / 208 pages
read by Jonathan Hogan 5h 6m
rating – 8.5  / nonfiction – science philosophy
(I both read and listened to this one)

Read for the All-Nonfiction reading group I was certainly not sure what I was getting into when I started this book.  I started reading the Kindle version but realized I could probably  listen to it and use the Kindle as back-up for little missed places or to clarify or whatever.  It worked quite nicely – I do a read/listen every so often.

So what is this  very interesting book about?  Well – I could rephrase that somewhat ambiguous title to   “Why Do Humans Exist?”   and it might get closer to the ambiguity.  The question of  why humans exist has two ways of answering. We have the “why” in the sense of  “for what purpose?”     And we have the “why” as in the “how did this come about?”   Wilson’s purpose is to answer the latter question – and he answers it well  – tackling a little tiny piece of the “for what purpose” part,  and I’m not sure he really gave an answer to that.  I think that in his mind,  there is no ultimate “purpose,”  most certainly there is no “divine purpose.”   But it’s certainly convincing about “how” we came to exist as we are (including free will, etc.)

Wilson is a Pulitzer winner and deservedly so,  imo, the book is exceptionally well organized,  clear, informative and interesting.  The 15 Chapters are divided into 5 parts – 1. The Reason We Exist; 2. The Unity of Knowledge; 3. Other Worlds; 4. Idols of the Mind; and 5. A Human Future.

And in those chapters he has all sorts of interesting tidbits of knowledge re biological and cultural evolution –  In the first Chapter,  “The Reason We Exist” (p. 15) he says as a kind of overview/introduction to the book:

In the essays to follow, I’ve addressed the second, broader meaning of our species. Humanity, I argue, arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution. We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.


South American Leafcutter ants

But he gets a bit distracted by the argument between “inclusive fitness” and “natural selection.”  The inclusive fitness folks include Richard Dawkins and many others but Wilson has kind of backed away and,  with new information and thinking,  supports the old “natural selection” by itself again – Chapter 6,  “The Driving Force of Social Evolution” plus the Appendix consisting of his paper called “The Limitations of Inclusive Fitness.”

Other than that,  he’s basically finding preferences,  creativity and imagination,  the stuff of the humanities,  in the “inevitable and necessary conflict between individual and group levels of natural selection.”  (p. 37)

South African driver ants

South African driver ants

In Chapter 11 – The Collapse of Biodiversity – Wilson touches the animal world and habitat loss including how monkeys are most curious about other monkeys,  (p. 42), how East African driver ants go on food hunts as groups,

Driver ants on YouTube: 


California Sea Otter

California Sea Otter

Leaf cutter ants from the American tropics at:

And Sea Otters and


The evolution of the Stickleback Fish –

baby sea turtle

Baby Sea Turtle on its way –

Baby sea turtles hatching from eggs buried in the sand of a beach by their mothers who emerge from the sea to lay the eggs there.


Chapter 12 is about instinct and Chapter 13 is about music and religion (and Wilson is very hard on organized religion as well as faith,  but, like Dawkins,   he doesn’t distinguish or use gradations).
And although this is a book about the evolution of humanity  (the title notwithstanding), he explores evolution and the idea of Free Will without totally discounting it.

Bottom line – Wilson says our “meaning” is whatever we want it to be. ??

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