Friday, November 25, 2016

Edward O Wilson tackles "The Meaning of Human Existence"

After completing a trilogy of Edward O Wilson books I would like to quote from the last paragraph of the final book.  "...we are the mind and stewards of the living world.  Our own ultimate future depends upon that understanding."

Edward O. Wilson is a scientist who has specialized in the study of ants.  Might seem an almost insignificant start for universal truths, but in reality it is as good as any other study.  Previously I blogged on "The Social Conquest of Earth" which in layman's terms outlined our evolution in physical and cultural terms.  It explores our past and future and gives thought to our purpose.  Some might be put off by comparisons with ants and termites, but they are apt.

"The Meaning of Human Existence" seems like a meaty title and it is.  Near the beginning he writes that meaning implies intention, intention implies design and in turn implies a designer, but he doesn't see it that way.  He feels the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer are the source of meaning.  Each event is random, but alters the probability of later events.  A key to human evolution was to reach a stage he called "eusociality" that involves child rearing and sacrificing self interest for the good of others.  A very few other species have reached this stage such as ants and termites.

Altruistic individuals will almost always lose to selfish individuals, but altruistic groups can beat selfish groups.  Science is a continuum and we are not at the centre.  He deals with the big question of free will and I believe reaches a practical compromise.  Science tries to explain the known and religion tries to explain the unknown.  Wilson suggests we are becoming designers.

For such a high level scientist he has a great deal of respect for the humanities seeing them as another side of the same coin.  In the earlier book he quotes Picasso; "Art is the lie that shows us the truth."

"Half Earth" just published in 2016 is the culmination of the trilogy.  His main contention is that earth is threatened by diminishing bio-diversity.  The title comes from his belief that mankind in order to survive must reserve half of the earth as natural conservations areas.

Approximately 65 millions ago the earth was hit by a meteorite with such ferocity that 70% of all species disappeared after attacks of volcanoes, earthquakes, acid rain, heavy waves and blocking sunshine to stop photosynthesis.  Altogether scientist have determined there have been 5 periods of mass extinction and they are anticipating a 6th, but this one man made.

Some of the forces include habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population growth and over-hunting.  Global warming/climate change is accelerating pressures.  Life has survived in a Goldilocks equilibrium (not too close or too far from the sun) for millions of years but is now facing new man made challenges.

The inter-relation of species is little understood.  Starting with the human body millions of microbes help us function while others fight invaders.  Bacteria breaks down and secretes organic material, cleans toxic waste and captures and collects energy from the sun.  We have much to discover within our own bodies, but just as much about the environment that has nurtured the earth for eons of time.

At present there is a little less than 15% of land and 2.8% of ocean set aside to protect bio-diversity and that is not enough to halt the acceleration of species extinction.

Wilson has a few suggestions to turn the situation around.  He feels we would appreciate nature more if in the protected areas were placed cameras whose views could be accessed easily by computers.  He also sees synthetic biology as a solution which may frighten many, but he thinks is mostly positive.  Wilson also regards artificial intelligence quite differently than depicted by Hollywood.  The only purpose of artificial intelligence is to extend human capability.  The human brain has been thought to be the most complex system in the universe, but Wilson thinks the individual natural eco system and the collectivity of eco systems comprising Earth's species-level biodiversity are more complex.

Taking a philosophical look at evolution the author notes that groups with individuals willing to sacrifice for the group were favored.  Groups naturally get bigger, starting with the family, the tribe, nation, humankind and beyond to the biosphere.  What we need more of he calls biophilia, love of the living process.  Earlier he quoted a French writer Jean Bruller before WWII, "all of mankind's troubles are due to the fact that we do not know what we are and cannot agree on what to become."

It is difficult to explain his concepts in a relatively short blog, but his books are well worth exploring. As he implies before you can better deal with the future you need to better understand the past and present reality.  Keep up to date with his thinking at

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