The Meaning of Human Existence

The Meaning of Human Existence

by Edward O. Wilson


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National Book Award Finalist. How did humanity originate and why does a species like ours exist on this planet? Do we have a special place, even a destiny in the universe? Where are we going, and perhaps, the most difficult question of all, "Why?"

In The Meaning of Human Existence, his most philosophical work to date, Pulitzer Prize–winning biologist Edward O. Wilson grapples with these and other existential questions, examining what makes human beings supremely different from all other species. Searching for meaning in what Nietzsche once called "the rainbow colors" around the outer edges of knowledge and imagination, Wilson takes his readers on a journey, in the process bridging science and philosophy to create a twenty-first-century treatise on human existence—from our earliest inception to a provocative look at what the future of mankind portends.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780871401007
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 10/06/2014
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 831,412
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Edward O. Wilson is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Social Conquest of Earth and Anthill: A Novel, as well as the Pulitzer Prize–winning On Human Nature and (with Bert Hölldobler) The Ants. For his contributions in science and conservation, he has received more than one hundred awards from around the world. A professor emeritus at Harvard University, he lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Table of Contents

I The Reason We Exist

1 The Meaning of Meaning 11

2 Solving the Riddle of the Human Species 17

3 Evolution and Our Inner Conflict 27

II The Unity of Knowledge

4 The New Enlightenment 37

5 The All-Importance of the Humanities 53

6 The Driving Force of Social Evolution 61

III Other Worlds

7 Humanity Lost in a Pheromone World 79

8 The Superorganisms 92

9 Why Microbes Rule the Galaxy 102

10 A Portrait of E. T. 110

11 The Collapse of Biodiversity 123

IV Idols of the Mind

12 Instinct 135

13 Religion 147

14 Free Will 159

V A Human Future

15 Alone and Free in the Universe 173

Appendix 189

Acknowledgments 203

Index 204

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The Meaning of Human Existence 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book, short, nicely written and with some extremely complex (and in some cases controversial) issues explained thoughtfully and persuasively. His chapters on the evolutionary origins of tribalism and religion are worth reading even if you skip the rest of the book. But every chapter in the book is filled with insights rarely found in the scientific literature available to the average reader. Wilson has studied the natural world for many decades (he is an expert on ants which are a dominant life form on our planet) and from that has developed an understanding both of the human condition (the domain of the humanities) and the real world (the domain of science.) He views humans as greatly handicapped when it comes to understanding reality as revealed through scientific inquiry). Humans have the poorest combination of sensory capabilities of almost any living thing on earth and so are unable to lead a truly reality-based existence. For example, about 90% of all plants and animals (and creatures like viruses that fall somewhere in between the two) are too small to be seen with the unaided human eye. We hear almost none of the sound around us. Our sense of smell is terrible when compared with almost all animals. Even plants make better use of a sense of smell as a communications tool than do humans. So how have we not just survived but even prevailed in an environment of Darwinian struggle? We have learned to subdivide our labor skills (only two other mammals, both species of rats, have learned to do that) and we have evolved memory capability which enables us to recall (imperfectly) these memories and project them into the future. Add to that the fact that, although our memory is not very accurate and is sometimes too slow to be of immediate use, we fill in the blanks and gaps in our memories to create stories about what has (and will) happen and from those confabulations create heuristics (rules of thumb) that have enabled us to win the Darwinian race to the top despite all of our other shortcomings and sensory limitations. Whether or not the victory is permanent is a different question. Wilson deals with this too (spoiler alert: he is optimistic). Five star without hesitation.
fox4gib More than 1 year ago
Although this is not an "light read" by any means, it was still a "page turner" for me. I'd like to think I fully grasped about 60% of it, but it was still fascinating and certainly expanded my view of the world. While I originally read it from our local library, I am now going to purchase it as a book so that I can reread and reference whenever I want.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For a person with a only a passing knowledge of genetic and evolutionary theory, I could not follow the more detailed discussion of selection, but I found it an interesting and logical view and explanation of the brain lock effect of dogma and superstition. The scientific story of the evolutionary emergence and development of life free from providence and magic makes sense. I accept the idea of an unavoidable inner conflict, question, doubt in being human.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Imagination is not science!! WW2: one man claimed he knew it all and was God (emperor of Japan), one country pushed there is no God (Communist Russia) and one man professed survival of only his fittest (Nazi Germany/Hitler) 52 million died as a result-more than all other wars in history COMBINED! See Holy Bible for how to live and why we are here-all others are idol making machines! Would make a good sci fi movie ?