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Posts Tagged ‘E. O. Wilson’

04 NOVEMBER, 2014

E.O. Wilson on the Meaning of Human Existence and the Meaning of “Meaning”


“The most successful scientist thinks like a poet … and works like a bookkeeper.”

Just as the fracturing of our inner wholeness ruptures the soul, a similar fissure rips society asunder and has been for centuries — that between science and the humanities. The former explores how we became human and the latter what it means to be human — a difference at once subtle and monumental, polarizing enough to hinder the answering of both questions. That’s what legendary naturalist, sociobiologist, and Pulitzer-winning writer E.O. Wilson explores with great eloquence and intellectual elegance in The Meaning of Human Existence (public library | IndieBound).

Three decades after Carl Sagan asserted that “if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed,” Wilson — a longtime proponent of bridging the artificial divide between science and the humanities — counters that “we’ve learned enough about the Universe and ourselves to ask these questions in an answerable, testable form.”

And that elusive answer, he argues, has to do with precisely that notion of meaning:

In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention, intention implies design, and design implies a designer. Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer. This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories. Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose. Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth. Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used and a very different worldview implied. It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning. There is no advance design, but instead overlapping networks of physical cause and effect. The unfolding of history is obedient only to the general laws of the Universe. Each event is random yet alters the probability of later events. During organic evolution, for example, the origin of one adaptation by natural selection makes the origin of certain other adaptations more likely. This concept of meaning, insofar as it illuminates humanity and the rest of life, is the worldview of science.

Whether in the cosmos or in the human condition, the second, more inclusive meaning exists in the evolution of present-day reality amid countless other possible realities.

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilmore. Click image for more.

The idea that we are a cosmic accident is far from new and, to the unexamined existential reflex, far from comforting. And yet, Wilson suggests, there is something enormously gladdening about the notion that out of all possible scenarios, out of the myriad other combinations that would have resulted in not-us, we emerged and made life meaningful. He illustrates this sense of “meaning” with the particular evolutionary miracle of the human brain, the expansion of which was among the most rapid bursts of complex tissue evolution in the known history of the universe:

A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly. That is the meaning of the web. The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web. Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense. But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.

Premier among the consequences is the capacity to imagine possible futures, and to plan and choose among them. How wisely we use this uniquely human ability depends on the accuracy of our self-understanding. The question of greatest relevant interest is how and why we are the way we are and, from that, the meaning of our many competing visions of the future.

Illustration from 'Evolution: A Coloring Book' by Annu Kilpeläinen. Click image for more.

Perched on the precipice of an era when the very question of what it means to be human is continually challenged, we stand to gain that much more from the fruitful cross-pollination of science and the humanities in planting the seeds for the best such possible futures. Like an Emerson of our technoscientific era, Wilson champions the ennobling self-reliance embedded in this proposition:

Humanity … 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.

That self-understanding, he cautions, necessarily requires both science and the humanities:

This task of understanding humanity is too important and too daunting to leave exclusively to the humanities. Their many branches, from philosophy to law to history and the creative arts, have described the particularities of human nature back and forth in endless permutations, albeit laced with genius and in exquisite detail. But they have not explained why we possess our special nature and not some other, out of a vast number of conceivable natures. In that sense, the humanities have not achieved nor will they ever achieve a full understanding of the meaning of our species’ existence.

The key to the great mystery of just what we are, Wilson argues, lies in “the circumstance and process that created our species,” which span millions of years of evolutionary history, long transcending the timeline of human civilization and “culture” — the substance of the humanities. Indeed, the very forces of natural selection that shaped our evolution are now gradually being replaced by a kind of “volitional selection” — directly, as we set out to redesign our biology and mold human nature to our wishes, and indirectly, by the biosociologically homogenizing effects of such forces as the global flux of emigration (I imported my own Eastern European genes into the American population pool) and the rise in interracial marriages (my best friend’s daughters are the glorious fusion of her own Korean heritage and her husband’s Irish-French-Lebanese genetic ancestry). Wilson writes:

The human condition is a product of history — not just the six millennia of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millennia. The whole of it, biological and cultural evolution, must be explored in seamless unity for a complete answer to the mystery.


The time has come to consider what science might give to the humanities and the humanities to science in a common search for a more solidly grounded answer than before to the great riddle of our existence.

Illustration from 'You Are Stardust' by writer Elin Kelsey and artist Soyeon Kim. Click image for more.

One of Wilson’s most intriguing forays into the riddle has to do with the notion of good and evil in human nature, the perennial question at the heart of Tolstoy and Gandhi’s little-known correspondence and Richard Feynman’s contemplation. Wilson writes:

Are human beings intrinsically good but corruptible by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good?


We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites — not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

He illustrates our dual natures with a wonderfully vulnerable and self-aware personal anecdote:

When Carl Sagan won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1978, I dismissed it as a minor achievement for a scientist, scarcely worth listing. When I won the same prize the following year, it wondrously became a major literary award of which scientists should take special note.

Much of that duality, Wilson argues, is rooted in the eternal conflict between the two facets of the evolutionary force that shaped us — the individual and group levels of natural selection. He examines our “overpowering instinctual urge to belong to groups” and how it relates to our profound unease with solitude:

To be kept forcibly in solitude is to be kept in pain, and put on the road to madness. A person’s membership in his group — his tribe — is a large part of his identity. It also confers upon him to some degree or other a sense of superiority. When psychologists selected teams at random from a population of volunteers to compete in simple games, members of each team soon came to think of members of other teams as less able and trustworthy, even when the participants knew they had been selected at random.

The dark underbelly of this tendency is at the root of most bigotry — our tendency to judge and reject those who don’t fit the parameters of some tribe we feel we belong to. (Wilson, who grew up in the deeply racist Deep South in the 1930s and began his professional career during the sexist 1950s, brings to these scientific insights his profoundly human experience of having witnessed such group-selection-driven injustices in action.) Understanding the various levels on which natural selection operates, Wilson argues, is the key to understanding ourselves as a species and as individual moral agents:

Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue. So it came to pass that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of multilevel selection. They are suspended in unstable and constantly changing positions between the two extreme forces that created us. We are unlikely to yield completely to either force as the ideal solution to our social and political turmoil. To give in completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve society. At the opposite extreme, to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots — the outsized equivalents of ants.

More than a century after Nietzsche’s case for the creative value of turmoil and decades after Anaïs Nin’s memorable assertion that “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions,” Wilson argues that “a large part of human creativity is generated by the inevitable and necessary conflict between the individual and group levels of natural selection” and returns to the chance-nature of our nature:

The eternal conflict is not God’s test of humanity. It is not a machination of Satan. It is just the way things worked out. The conflict might be the only way in the entire Universe that human-level intelligence and social organization can evolve. We will find a way eventually to live with our inborn turmoil, and perhaps find pleasure in viewing it as the primary source of our creativity.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth, 1780, from 'The Book of Trees' by Manuel Lima. Click image for more.

That pleasure, Wilson suggests, is to be found in reconciling science and the humanities — two branches of knowledge that, despite their differences, “have risen from the same wellspring of creative thought.” Reflecting on the Enlightenment’s legacy, he considers the vitalizing value of reviving the quest for unification of science and the humanities and argues that it must begin with how we design education:

Studying the relation between science and the humanities should be at the heart of liberal education everywhere, for students of science and the humanities alike.

And yet the great enemy of that unification, specialization — something the quintessential polymath-generalist Buckminster Fuller vehemently opposed — is still king in how the education system structures its priorities. Wilson, a longtime Harvard professor, points to the revered university’s policy of seeking out faculty with “preeminence or the promise of preeminence in a specialty” and wryly laments the illusion that “the assembly of a sufficient number of such world-class specialists would somehow coalesce into an intellectual superorganism attractive to both students and financial backers.” With this, Wilson arrives at the crux of the matter:

The early stages of a creative thought, the ones that count, do not arise from jigsaw puzzles of specialization. The most successful scientist thinks like a poet — wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical — and works like a bookkeeper. It is the latter role that the world sees. When writing a report for a technical journal or speaking at a conference of fellow specialists, the scientist avoids metaphor. He is careful never to be accused of rhetoric or poetry… The language of the author must at all times be restrained and obedient to logic based on demonstrable fact.

The exact opposite is the case in poetry and the other creative arts. There metaphor is everything. The creative writer, composer, or visual artist conveys, often obliquely by abstraction or deliberate distortion, his own perceptions and the feelings he hopes to evoke — about something, about anything, real or imagined. He seeks to bring forth in an original way some truth or other about the human experience. He tries to pass what he creates directly along the channel of human experience, from his mind to your mind. His work is judged by the power and beauty of its metaphors. He obeys a dictum ascribed to Picasso: art is the lie that shows us the truth.

For all his timeless wisdom and unassailable genius, Wilson’s only point of datedness shows in his use of pronouns, an inherited linguistic tick burdened by a previous era’s bigotry — must the scientist or the poet always be a “he”? Somewhere, Leonard Shlain is smiling wistfully. But Wilson’s essential quest remains a noble one — to bridge our two most potent sensemaking mechanisms, science and the humanities, and fuse them into a more intelligent and inspired understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, and our best possible future.

In the remainder of The Meaning of Human Existence, he goes on to explore such facets of the quest as the power of instinct, the role of religion, the drivers of social evolution, and why microbes rule the world. Complement it with Dorion Sagan on why science and philosophy need each other and Manuel Lima’s visual history of mapping science and the humanities.

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17 JUNE, 2014

The Poetic Species: Legendary Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson in Conversation with Poet Laureate Robert Hass on Science and Poetry


“The social drive shaped the uses of imagination. It made it possible for humans to share their invisible inner worlds with each other.”

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge,” William Wordsworth wrote in 1798; “it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.” And yet, perhaps short of Diane Ackerman’s gorgeous poems for the planets and a few scientific papers published in stanzaic form as a prank, the interplay of science and poetry in the pursuit of human knowledge is far from obvious, let alone celebrated, in today’s culture.

One of the most beautiful celebrations of this invisible mutuality took place on December 6, 2012, when literary nonprofit Poets House and the American Museum of Natural History hosted an unusual and wonderful event exploring the intersection of science and poetry — a dialogue between legendary Harvard sociobiologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Their wide-ranging conversation is now collected in The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass (public library), titled after Wilson’s famous description of Homo sapiens as “the poetic species” on account of how heavily our cognitive infrastructure relies upon metaphor and associative thinking.

Since the conversation took place shortly after Wilson’s controversial — highly acclaimed and highly criticized — book The Social Conquest of Earth, Hass begins with a tongue-in-cheek question about how Wilson manages to get in so much trouble. The celebrated scientist answers with extraordinary elegance, speaking to the crucial role of science in opposing dogmas — a task never met without resistance:

Good scientists, like good innovators of any kind, are entrepreneurial, and they’re the ones that are most likely to get into trouble. And I’ve always enjoyed being in trouble. In science, trouble means progress.

Indeed, one need only look at Galileo’s troubles to appreciate the poignancy of this observation and to be reminded that ignorance, not knowledge, drives science.

One of the most fascinating and timelessly urgent inquiries the two discuss is one of equal concern to science and the humanities — the question of free will. Hass reflects:

On the literary and the philosophical side of things, this debate is about the question of free will, about the relation between human choice and the idea of fate. So many of the old stories are about fate being fulfilled or frustrated. It has always been an intense human fascination, how much freedom we have and whether we have any at all. I remember at a poetry reading in San Francisco once, during the question and answer period, an earnest young woman — she was quite pregnant, I remember—raised her hand and asked if there was such a thing as free will. The old poet Kenneth Rexroth looked at her as if he were a little ashamed of himself for having given the impression that he could answer such a question, and then said, very kindly, “We can’t know, and we have to act as if there is.” I thought that was a good answer.

Responding to Wilson’s assertion that “the deadly violence … seems to be a hallmark of our species” and “it’s our basic nature to be conflicted” — an assertion Stephen Pinker has famously defied — Hass echoes Alan Shlain’s exploration of how the invention of writing usurped female power in society and shares an observation:

For poets it’s always been interesting to notice that the culture that showed up when humans passed over the event horizon of writing was a male warrior culture.

Reflecting on Wilson’s extensive work on the evolution of culture, Hass adds to history’s greatest definitions of art by considering the creative impulse:

One of the interesting things about this idea is that it has so many echoes in art making. Artists almost always start with a kind of play based on elements that are fixed and variable, things that conventions express, set forms in music, set patterns in comedy, fixed rhythms in poetry, on the one hand, and, on the other, departures from those conventions that lead to new ways of seeing and feeling. In a way, it’s the same oscillation, between sensations that make us feel safe, part of the group, and sensations that make us feel free and on our own. The formal imagination in art — the half-conscious shaping that occurs when an artist is at work — is always working on this problem.

Wilson, who has long advocated for the importance of imaginative thinking in science and has previously argued for the cross-pollination of science and the humanities, speaks to the power of art in shaping the evolutionary history of culture:

The humanities, and especially the creative arts, are the natural history of Homo sapiens. The descriptions based on them describe the human condition and human nature in exquisite detail, over and over again in countless situations. When verbal descriptions are novel in style and obedient to the most basic principles of human nature, when they connect old memories, create new images, and stir emotions all together, we call that great literature. The important innovator produces a tableau of relationships in a story that describes not just the particularities of a place in time, but something that is true for humanity as a whole for all time.

Hass considers the social wiring of our brains and how the science of the social imperative, which Wilson has spent decades studying, feeds into the creative heart of our humanity:

The social drive shaped the uses of imagination. It made it possible for humans to share their invisible inner worlds with each other. I often think of this in relation to dreams. Once they could speak, humans could tell each other their dreams. They could find out that everybody has dreams, that there is this parallel world of meaning-making or traveling that goes on in the resting mind.

Wilson agrees, building an elegant bridge back to biology to illuminate the human paradox:

We dream together, and as a result the cultural products of human nature are vastly expanded and enriched. And approaching from the other side of the divide, biology progresses and connects with the humanities. What biology seems to be doing at the moment is to reveal the roots of ambiguity that define human nature. We’ve been talking, for example, about the eternal confliction of the human mind, between self-serving behavior for the individual and for its offspring, versus service to the group. This clash of evolutionary forces can never result in an equilibrium. If it goes too far toward individualism, societies would dissolve. If, on the other hand, it goes too far toward obedience to the group, the group would turn into an ant colony. So, we’re creatively conflicted, moving back and forth between sin and virtue, rebellion and loyalty, love and hate.

He then returns to the reconciliatory power of the humanities, but he echoes Rilke’s famous counsel to live the questions as he adds:

The creative arts are the sharing of our inner desires and humanity’s struggle. The humanities are our way of understanding and managing the conflict between the two levels that created Homo sapiens. The conflict can never be resolved. And we shouldn’t try too hard to reach a resolution. It defines our species and is the fountain of our creativity.

Hass makes a beautiful aside — then again, the entire conversation is a string of asides, which is precisely what makes it so enchanting — about the question of animal consciousness and how it first rattled poets’ belief in human exceptionalism, then enabled an embracing of science as a complementary celebration of the existential mystery:

The idea that every creature has its own reality scared poets at the beginning of the twentieth century, made some of them feel we were groping blindly — it in effect kicked us out of a comfortable anthropocentric community — but it also allowed some modern poets this sense of absolute mystery at the core of existence. It came of knowing that we would never know exactly what a bird’s experience is, or what an ant’s experience is. It has been an unhousing of the imagination, and it was brought on by the thrust of science to be at home in the world by understanding it. It said we move among great powers and mysteries and only glimpse their meanings, the meaning of what it’s like to be another creature, and therefore also the meaning of being a self, a person.

(For more on the history of this inquiry, see Joanna Bourke’s excellent What It Means To Be Human.)

Describing the powerful experience of seeing remarkably accurate 3,000-year-old carvings of birds and fish in the tombs of Cairo, Hass considers once again how science and the arts converge in our quest for meaning and sensemaking:

Science, partly by the kind of patient observation that noticed the hump on the Nile crow’s back and partly by leaps of imagination and by shared testing and dialogue, has made enormous progress in understanding certain things about the world, but the skill of those artists made me feel that we have always been pretty much in the same place with the same kind of knowledge and the same pull back and forth between ways of seeing.

But the sameness of these fundamental ways of seeing is being threatened as these seemingly eternal objects of our fascination — the wild creatures that inspired artists and scientists alike to look closer, to gasp, to wonder — are facing a heartbreaking fate. Wilson addresses this with a naturalist’s cool rigor and a moral philosopher’s passionate conviction:

I am an extremist. I believe in wildernesses. I’ve been there. I’ve studied thousands of species living there, in ecosystems much the same as they were millions of years ago. I believe, I think, in reference to the species that we might still save — and a growing number of them are endangered — that we need parks, big ones, lots more of them. I think we should be thinking about giving a large part of the world’s surface to wild land. To do so is not just being a conservationist — not just saving species — we must hold on to the rest of life… I don’t mean to make a political statement. I’m making a moral statement. We have to develop a new and better ethic to save the rest of life.

And therein, perhaps, lies the great power of poetry as an ally to science — the power to mobilize people’s imagination and open up their hearts for “the rest of life,” for our intricate connection not only with one another but also with all of Earth’s creatures. Hass captures this capacity beautifully:

We have to work at it. Wonder is one place to start. I was asked to go to my granddaughter’s kindergarten class and to talk about poetry. And I didn’t know if I would know how to do it, but I brought the book I had with me—which was the collected Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, and there is a poem of hers called “The Fish,” and it begins, “I caught a tremendous fish.” So I opened the book and said to these little kids, “Just say this poem with me, okay? ‘I caught a tremendous fish,’” and this group of kids all on the floor looked up at me and said, “I caught a tremendous fish.” And — I simplified the imagery a bit — I said, “It was very old and its skin,” and they said, “It was very old and its skin,” and I said, “Looked like roses on old wallpaper.” And they said, “Ooh.”

And I thought, this is a cinch.

Indeed, this is the broader power of art. Riffing off pioneering modernist architect Louis Sullivan’s assertion that art doesn’t fulfill desire but creates it, Hass reflects:

The way in which art creates desire, I guess that’s everywhere. Is there anyone who hasn’t come out of a movie or a play or a concert filled with an unnameable hunger? … To stand in front of one of [Louis Sullivan’s] buildings and look up, or in front, say, of the facade of Notre Dame, is both to have a hunger satisfied that you maybe didn’t know you had, and also to have a new hunger awakened in you. I say “unnameable,” but there’s a certain kind of balance achieved in certain works of art that feels like satiety, a place to rest, and there are others that are like a tear in the cosmos, that open up something raw in us, wonder or terror or longing. I suppose that’s why people who write about aesthetics want to distinguish between the beautiful and sublime… Beauty sends out ripples, like a pebble tossed in a pond, and the ripples as they spread seem to evoke among other things a stirring of curiosity. The aesthetic effect of a Vermeer painting is a bit like that. Some paradox of stillness and motion. Desire appeased and awakened.

Wilson sums up with a beautiful — sublime, really — parting thought that captures the heart of the conversation:

Science and art having the same creative wellspring, which I believe can be expressed aphoristically: the ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper.

The Poetic Species is a wonderful read in its entirety, short yet infinitely simulating. Complement it with Wilson’s advice to young scientists and Dorion Sagan on why science and philosophy need each other.

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04 JULY, 2012

E.O. Wilson’s Advice to Young Scientists


“What is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications.”

In his recent TEDMED talk, legendary Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, regarded as one of the greatest scientists alive, offers a taste of his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Scientist. (A play, of course, on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.) Wilson touches on a number of points previously explored as essential in science and other creative and intellectual endeavors — the benefits of balancing expertise with broad, cross-disciplinary curiosity, the importance of embracing failure and the unknown, the role of intuition and the imagination, the idea that we’re wired for science.

In time, all of science will come to be a continuum of description, an explanation of networks, of principles and laws. That’s why you need to not just be training in one specialty, but also acquire breadth in other fields, related to and even distant from your own initial choice.

Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes.


In science and all its applications, what is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications. The ability to form concepts with images of entities and processes pictured by intuition. I found out that advances in science rarely come upstream from an ability to stand at a blackboard and conjure images from unfolding mathematical propositions and equations. They are instead the products of downstream imagination leading to hard work, during which mathematical reasoning may or may not prove to be relevant. Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.

Wilson’s most recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth (public library), came out in April and is absolutely fascinating, even if only for the unusual fact that Wilson changes his mind about a central element of evolutionary theory — a living testament to the idea that “real science is a revision in progress, always.”

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.