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Posts Tagged ‘science’

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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31 OCTOBER, 2014

Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time in 4,000 Years of Mapping the Universe


A visual catalog of our quintessential quest to understand the cosmos and our place in it.

Long before Galileo pioneered the telescope, antagonizing the church and unleashing a “hummingbird effect” of innovation, humanity had been busy cataloging the heavens through millennia of imaginative speculative maps of the cosmos. We have always sought to make visible the invisible forces we long to understand, the mercy and miracle of existence, and nothing beckons to us with more intense allure than the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Four millennia of that mesmerism-made-visible is what journalist, photographer, and astrovisualization scholar Michael Benson explores with great dedication and discernment in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time (public library) — a pictorial catalog of our quest to order the cosmos and grasp our place in it, a sensemaking process defined by what Benson aptly calls our “gradually dawning, forever incomplete situational awareness.” From glorious paintings of the creation myth predating William Blake’s work by centuries to the pioneering galaxy drawing that inspired Van Gogh’s Starry Night to NASA’s maps of the Apollo 11 landing site, the images remind us that the cosmos — like Whitman, like ourselves — is vast and contains multitudes. This masterwork of scholarship also attests, ever so gently, ever so powerfully, to the value of the “ungoogleable” — a considerable portion of Benson’s bewitching images comes from the vaults of the world’s great science libraries and archives, bringing to light a wealth of previously unseen treasures.

Illustration from Henry Russell’s 1892 treatise 'Observations of the Transit of Venus.'

Courtesy of The Royal Society

The book’s title is an allusion to Italo Calvino’s beloved Cosmicomics, a passage from which Benson deploys as the epigraph:

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.

Long before the notion of vacuum existed in cosmology, English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, which depicts multiple chaotic fires subsiding until a central starlike structure becomes visible amid concentric rings of smoke and debris. Even though Fludd believed in a geocentric cosmology, this image comes strikingly close to current theories of solar system formation.

Courtesy of U. of Oklahoma History of Science collections

Paintings of Saturn by German astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, a pioneering woman in science, from 1693–1698. Eimmart's depictions are based on a 1659 engraving by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, the first to confirm that Saturn’s mysterious appendages, which had confounded astronomers since Galileo, were in fact 'a thin flat ring, nowhere touching.' What makes Eimmart's painting unique is that it combines the observations of more than ten astronomers into a depiction of superior accuracy.

Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, Universita di Bologna

In 1845, Anglo-Irish astronomer William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, equipped his castle with a giant six-ton telescope, soon nicknamed the 'Leviathan,' which remained the largest telescope in the world until 1918. Despite the cloudy Irish skies, Lord Rosse managed to glimpse and draw the spellbinding spiral structures of what were thought to be nebulae within the Milky Way. This print, based on Lord Rosse’s drawing of one such nebula — M51, known today as the Whirlpool Galaxy — became a sensation throughout Europe and inspired Van Gogh's iconic 'The Starry Night.'

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

The project, which does for space what Cartographies of Time did for the invisible dimension, also celebrates the natural marriage of art and science. These early astronomers were often spectacular draughtsmen as well — take, for instance, Johannes Hevelius and his groundbreaking catalog of stars. As Benson points out, art and science were “essentially fused” until about the 17th century and many of the creators of the images in the book were also well-versed in optics, anatomy, and the natural sciences.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, envisions the creation of the Ptolemaic universe by an omnipotent creator.

Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

De Holanda was fascinated by the geometry of the cosmos, particularly the triangular form and its interplay with the circle.

Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

This cryptic and unsettling 'Fool’s Cap Map of the World' (1580–1590), made by an unknown artist, appropriates French mathematician and cartographer Oronce Finé’s cordiform, or heart-shaped, projection of the Earth; the world in this iconic image is dressed in a jester’s belled cap, beneath which a Latin inscription from Ecclesiastes reads: 'The number of fools is infinite.'

Public domain via Wikimedia

The book is, above all, a kind of conceptual fossil record of how our understanding of the universe evolved, visualizing through breathtaking art the “fits and starts of ignorance” by which science progresses — many of the astronomers behind these enchanting images weren’t “scientists” in the modern sense but instead dabbled in alchemy, astrology, and various rites driven by religion and superstition. (For instance, Isaac Newton, often celebrated as the greatest scientist of all time, spent a considerable amount of his youth self-flagellating over his sins, and trying to discover “The Philosopher’s Stone,” a mythic substance believed to transmute ordinary metals into gold. And one of the gorgeous images in Benson’s catalog comes from a 1907 children’s astronomy book I happen to own, titled The Book of Stars for Young People, the final pages of which have always struck me with their counterblast: “Far out in space lies this island of a system, and beyond the gulfs of space are other suns, with other systems: some may be akin to ours and some quite different… The whole implies design, creation, and the working of a mighty intelligence; and yet there are small, weak creatures here on this little globe who refuse to believe in God.”)

A 1493 woodcut by German physician and cartographer Hartmann Schedel, depicting the seventh day, or Sabbath, when God rested.

Courtesy of the Huntington Library

The Nebra Sky Disc (2000–1600 B.C.), excavated illegally in Germany in 1999, is considered to be both humanity's first-known portable astronomical instrument and the oldest-known visual depiction of celestial objects.

Public domain via Wikimedia

One of the phases of the moon from Selenographia, world's first lunar atlas completed by German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1647 after years of obsessive observations. Hevelius also created history's first true moon map.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

Beginning in 1870, French-born artist and astronomer Étienne Trouvelot spent a decade producing a series of spectacular illustrations of celestial bodies and cosmic phenomena. In 1872, he joined the Harvard College Observatory and began using its powerful telescopes in perfecting his drawings. His pastel illustrations, including this chromolithograph of Mare Humorum, a vast impact basin on the southwest side of the Earth-facing hemisphere of the moon, were among the first serious attempts to enlist art in popularizing the results of observations using technology developed for scientific research.

Courtesy of the U. of Michigan Library

Étienne Trouvelot's 1872 engravings of solar phenomena, produced during his first year at the Harvard College Observatory for the institution's journal. The legend at the bottom reveals that the distance between the two prominences in the lower part of the engraving is one hundred thousand miles, more than 12 times the diameter of Earth. Despite the journal's modest circulation, such engravings were soon co-opted by more mainstream publications and became trailblazing tools of science communication that greatly influenced public understanding of the universe's scale.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

What makes Benson’s project especially enchanting is the strange duality it straddles: On the one hand, the longing to make tangible and visible the complex forces that rule our existence is a deeply human one; on the other, the notion of simplifying such expansive complexities into static images seems paradoxical to a dangerous degree — something best captured by pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell when she marveled: “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Unable to seize the infinite, are we fooling ourselves by trying to reduce it into a seizable visual representation? At what point do we, like Calvino’s protagonist, begin to mistake the presence or absence of “signs” for the presence or absence of space itself? It calls to mind Susan Sontag’s concern about how photography’s “aesthetic consumerism” endangers the real experience of life, which the great physicist Werner Heisenberg channeled decades earlier in a remark that exposes the dark side of visualizing the universe:

Contemporary thought is endangered by the picture of nature drawn by science. This danger lies in the fact that the picture is now regarded as an exhaustive account of nature itself so that science forgets that in its study of nature it is studying its own picture.

Plate from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise 'An Original Theory,' depicting Wright's trailblazing notion that the universe is composed of multiple galaxies.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

And yet awe, the only appropriate response to the cosmos, is a visceral feeling by nature and thus has no choice but to engage our “aesthetic consumerism” — which is why the yearning at the heart of Benson’s project is a profoundly human one. He turns to the words of the pioneering English astronomer and mathematician Thomas Wright, whose 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe Benson considers “one of the best-case studies of scientific reasoning through image.” Wright marvels:

What inconceivable vastness and magnificence of power does such a frame unfold! Suns crowding upon Suns, to our weak sense, indefinitely distant from each other; and myriads of myriads of mansions, like our own, peopling infinity, all subject to the same Creator’s will; a universe of worlds, all decked with mountains, lakes, and seas, herbs, animals, and rivers, rocks, caves, and trees… Now, thanks to the sciences, the scene begins to open to us on all sides, and truths scarce to have been dreamt of before persons of observation had proved them possible, invade our senses with a subject too deep for the human understanding, and where our very reason is lost in infinite wonders.

Illuminated solar eclipse prediction tables by German miniaturist Joachinus de Gigantibus, from the 1478 scientific treatise 'Astronomia' by Tuscan-Neopolitan humanist Christianus Prolianus.

Courtesy of Rylands Medieval Collection, U. of Manchester

NASA's 1979 geological map of the south polar region of the moon, part of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Courtesy of USGS/NASA

Illustration from G. E. Mitton’s 'The Book of Stars for Young People,' 1907

Courtesy of AAVSO

Artist-astronomer Étienne Trouvelot's drawing of the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878, in Wyoming.

Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Cosmigraphics is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with a tour of parallel facets of humanity’s visual imagination, Umberto Eco’s atlas of legendary lands and Manuel Lima’s visual history of tree-like diagrams, then revisit the little-known story of how Galileo influenced Shakespeare and this lovely children’s book about space exploration.

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29 OCTOBER, 2014

Evolution: A Coloring Book


A die-cut history of how the dinosaurs became birds and humans rose from the sea.

We were once amoebae, and here we are today, singing opera and typing on iPhones with opposable thumbs. That alone is enough marvel to put the petty nuisances of everyday life in perspective and fill our human hearts with humility.

As a lover of unusual coloring books and of science-oriented children’s books, especially ones that replace myth with science, I was instantly smitten with Evolution: A Coloring Book (public library | IndieBound) by London-based Finnish illustrator Annu Kilpeläinen — the best thing since Darwin’s graphic biography.

This simple yet imaginative primer on science via art explores natural selection, continental drift, what killed the dinosaurs, how birds descended from them, and all the other processes and phenomena that took us to where we are today. Die-cut delights add an element of interactive playfulness to the classic coloring-book experience.

One particularly apt application of the die-cut technique is a series of pages which, through strategically placed cuts, invite an exploration of how human facial features evolved.

Complement Evolution: A Coloring Book with Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality, then revisit the wonderful science primers You Are Stardust and Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space.

For a fascinating grownup take on evolution, see the science of how bees gave Earth its colors.

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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.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

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.