Sunday, June 26, 2016

EO Wilson and the Meaning of Human Existence

Image result for eo wilsonI recently finished reading the kind of atheist rant I enjoy: an eloquent, deeply human, and oh-so-wrong (yet not so long) tome by evolutionary biologist EO Wilson, entitled The Meaning of Human Existence.  I concluded that Wilson may be the best person in the world to talk about ants, but only among the top (say) billion in his insight into human beings.  Still, there's hardly a dull word in the book: it is a pleasure to read, even with false skeptical cliches increasingly clogging the flow of Wilson's prose towards the climax of the work.

Here are some initial reactions to Wilson's thoughts.  This is a preliminary and incomplete form: I may rearrange this into a review article later, adding additional material:

"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." (15)

But it seems free will is an illusion, so we have no power or understanding, either, just whatever thoughts (right or wrong, who can say?) that evolution has programmed into us.

Anyway, most of what Wilson says in this book against religion is mere assertion: he is in hurry, does not seem to anticipate many skeptics of his secular humanism to read it, and thus gives few, if any, reasons for rejecting "religion."  So why should anyone accept such dogmas as this from the world's leading authority on ants?

On the Humanities

"This task of understanding humanity is too important and too daunting to leave exclusively to the humanities." (17)

Wilson argues for a two-pronged approach to understanding meaning, which includes both science and a scientifically-informed humanities.  While a famous scientist himself, he thinks visiting aliens would find our humanities more unique and therefore far more interesting than our science, which they would see as rudimentary indeed.

On Human Social Nature

The key to human evolution, Wilson posits, is something he calls "eusociality."

Eusociality, the most advanced social system in Nature, arose among 19 separate species, Wilson argues, including termites, ants, and two kinds of African mole rats, a few kinds of shrimp, and preeminently human beings.  The key to this important advance is a protected nest, from which specialists emerge to forage: "risk-prone foragers and risk-averse parents and nurses."  Society thus begins with a "nested community:" a care-giver or mated pair, and one or more leaving the nest (or hearth, in the case of humans) to find food, from which eventually develops a more complex society.  A fully specialized community works wonders for the social insects, who constitute a small fraction of insect species, but half by weight, due to their success.  

(Isn't this why making women serve in the army is against our nature?  And why women think the world is too dangerous, and men think it is too safe?  Why should we now pretend that women and men must be interchangeable?  Isn't modern social dogma a triumph of dogma over human nature, "malsociality," if I can coin a word?)

The family is the basic structure, Wilson suggests, from which society emerges. (Are you surprised, Plato and Confucius?  Has evolutionary science really provided us with a new insight,here?)

"We are compulsively driven to belong to groups, or to create them as needed."  (24-5; True, as Aristotle pointed out, man is a political animal.)

Are humans intrinsically good or sinful?  "Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past 20 years, suggest that we are both of these things simultaneously.  Each of us is inherently conflicted."  So then we won't need Pascal to tell us that 400 years ago, describing this as a discovered of his much older faith:

"The more enlightened we are the more greatness and vileness we discover in man." 
Or Walker Percy, with his Pascalian dualities: "I am at once the hero and the asshole of the universe."

Or even Shakespeare's "What a piece of work is man!"  And the soliloquy that follows.

"All normal humans are geniuses at reading the intentions of others, whereby they evaluate, proselytize, bond, cooperate, gossip, and control." (30)

"Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals; but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals." (31)  

Wilson should read Don Richardson's Peace Child, and see how the Gospel of Jesus Christ can transform groups of selfish individuals within a single generation.

Creativity involves "inevitable and necessary conflict between the individual and group levels of natural selection." (37)
What makes (or made) us human is relationship. (75)  Here Wilson unconsciously echoes none other than Moses: "It is not good for man to be alone." 

"The meaning of human existence cannot be explained until 'just is' is replaced with 'just is, because.'" (81)

But Wilson can't do that.  He can only see a proximate not ultimate "because."  He sees the golf ball heading towards the hole , and tells us he knows the velocity and topography and wind speed -- but refuses to consider what set the ball rolling and why.

On Francis Bacon

1620 Bacon "Empire of Man" (38) was the greatest forerunner of the Enlightenment, which proposed that "entirely on their own, human beings can know all that needs to be known."  But what Bacon actually said, was that shallow science frog-marches one towards atheism, but deep study of science draws one back to Christ.

On the Humanities

"Metaphor is everything" in the humanities.  That will be news to historians, even to psychologists, heck even to a writer like George Orwell or J.R.R.Tolkien.

Chapter 5 "The All Importance of the Humanities."  The humanities which we as humans create are unique: an alien visitor would know our science better than we do ourselves, he would stay to read Shakespeare and listen to the Blues.  And now, individual scientists can discover much less than when Wilson was young, ten researcher co-authoring reports together.

Wilson expends a great deal of ink attacking a rival theory of evolution called Inclusive Fitness Theory, and kin selection.  He does not try very hard to prove the relevance of the topic to his book, which seems odd, since the topic of the book is great and the page count small.  But this does make for interesting "creative rivalry" with Richard Dawkins, especially.  And it is interesting to hear so committed an atheist echoing complaints Dawkins' Christian rivals have made about Darwinian selection mores for years:

On Fremont

Image result for fremont center of the universe signThe discoveries of astronomy "affirm that Earth is not the center of the Universe."

Actually every point is at the center, modern astronomy postulates.  (C.S. Lewis appeared to recognize, or anticipate, this astronomical insight already in the speeches he gave his heroes at the end of Perelandra).

But physical centrality is itself a mere metaphor for importance.  If you set a baby in her crib in the corner of the room, does that make the stuffed bear she throws out of the crib into the geographical center of the room more important than the child?  The actual center of the Earth is volcanic nickel and iron, not the choicest real estate on the planet.  Nor is the brain at the center of the human body.  Placement does not entail importance.

On Evolutionary Bigots

"By 2005, they had gained enough strength represented in the anonymous peer review system to hinder publication of contrary evidence and opinions in leading journals." (71)

Well fancy that!

When Wilson and two like-minded colleagues published a rebuttal in a 2010 edition of Nature Magazine, the following year 137 biologists signed a response, and Mr. Dawkins suggested hurling Wilson's book against the wall with the usual violence.  Dawkins responded, in Wilson's words, "with the indignant fervor of a true believer." 

Wilson had best be careful, or he will give comfort to Intelligent Designer proponents who have been calling Dawkins and his ilk "fundamentalists" for years, to much scoffing among his fellow skeptics.

On Cool Ants

Humans are limited, Wilson notes, to a narrow range of vision and sound, and miss out on the rich word of chemical smells.  "Ants are possibly the most advanced pheronmenal creatures on earth." (87)  Aside from ten or twenty different pheromes they use, the meaning of those scents further depends on dose, combinations, and context -- creating an entire chemical language.

Wilson then proffers a full chapter on ants, and why humans should respect but not copy them. ("Admire their stripes but avoid their claws" as Chesterton said of tigers.)

On Clever Microbes

He then praises the flexibility of microbes.  Life arose quickly after the Earth had cooled a bit, and microbes have learned to thrive in diverse biomes.  Wilson suggests this proves that life could arise easily elsewhere.  But the adaptive power of DNA is not relevant to how easily DNA-based life could first arise, anymore than the many uses computers can be put suggests they can be casually manufactured.  That life arose quickly is at best very weak evidence that chance creates life easily, since we do not know that chance created it this time, and it may be that (from an anthropic perspective) microbes required billions of years to build up soil and to fix minerals, so if they had NOT arisen quickly, we would never know our loss.


Image result for spock
Watch out for those fingertips
Wilson's chapter on ET offers fascinating speculation - he lives on land, depends on eyes and ears like us, has sensitive fingertips.  Wilson is here conspiring with physicists and astronomers to pour cold beer over the bar scene in Star Wars, indeed on most space fiction in general.  Even if we could travel between planets, which is highly unlikely, when we got to an occupied one, not only would the locals not speak English and fall in love with Captain Kirk, their microbes would kill him and all the crew almost immediately, as in War of the Worlds.

Wilson is not satisfied with being a second second Adam (by naming the animals) or a new and better Solomon (considering the ants), he also takes up Noah's cause of saving our fellow earthlings.  While I doubt climate change alone has driven anything extinct, generally speaking Wilson adopts a lofty air, writes eloquently and insightfully on the environment.  "We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world, seen the beauty of nature, and given value to the individual.  We alone have measured the quality of mercy among our own kind." (132) Wilson is a genius at describing nature, but can be a darn good preacher, too.

Unlike Adam, Solomon, Noah, Pascal, or Moses, Francis Bacon is not only echoed by Wilson, he is named as among Wilson's heroes, indeed a whole chapter nods to Bacon by being entitled "Idols of the Mind."

"Some writers have tried to deconstruct human nature into non-existence.  But it is real, tangible, and a process that exists in the structures of the brain." (141)

On Music

"Our loving devotion to (music) has been hard-wired by evolution in the human brain." (147)

Odd, that evolution would choose just one species to do this with (birds do not chirp just for fun, nor compose), and that so recently.

On Religion

"A religious instinct does indeed exist." (148)

Yes.  So do angels. 

"The brain was made four religion and religion for the human brain." (150) 

Here Wilson should be cited at length, to get a feeling for both sides of his insight:

"The great religions "perform services invaluable to civilization.  Their priests bring solemnity to the rites of passage through the cycle of life and death  They sacralize the basic tenets of civil and moral law, comfort the afflicted, and take care of the desperately poor.  Inspired by their example, followers strive to be righteous in the sight of man and God.  The churches over which they preside are centers of community life.  When all else fails, these sacred places, where God dwells imminent on Earth, because ultimate refuges against the iniquities and trajedies of secular life.  They and their ministers make more bearable tyranny, war, starvation, and the worst of natural catastrophes." 


"The great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering  They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.  Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism.  The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality . . . It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things."

While there is much truth, there is also much confusion in this second paragraph.

Does "pure religion" have moral tenets and humanitarianism?  Wilson observes humans so more cavalierly and simplistically than ants.  Were the Aztecs not religious?  Their religion was not humane.  Why assume that all religions or "great religions" (which means "big") are equally human in their pure form?  That is simply to toss aside the scientist's curiosity, the empirical call of Bacon which always results in empirical differentiation, and escape hard reasoning and the inevitable complexity of any set of concrete realities, by positing a silly equivalence.

God is not the center of "pure" Buddhism, anymore than the Aztecs were driven by humanity.  And tribalism, Wilson has already pointed out, was a force upward in evolution.  And was the Good Samaritan told by a mere tribal leader?  Or Mozi's (let me paraphrase) "God is love, so man ought to model his own actions on the love of God?")

But Wilson has a theory, and ignores such complications.  Religions define themselves by their creation stories, "the supernatural narrative that explains how humans came into existence."  (Actually, they often do no such thing.) "The core belief assures its members that God favors them above all others."  "There is no way around the soul-satisfying but cruel discrimination that organized religions by definition must practice among themselves.  I doubt there ever has been an imam who suggested that his followers try Roman Catholicism or a  priest who urged the reverse." (151)

Actually, there have been, but like Wilson, they were mostly heretics.  And the reason is one Wilson, of all people, should understand.

We Christians believe that Christianity is true, as Wilson believes materialism is true.  He does not advise people to believe what he thinks to be a lie.  Why should he?  Neither do we.  This is not "cruel" or "soul-destroying" (and Wilson does not believe in the soul anyway-- has he forgotten?) -- it means treating other people with the dignity that allows one to say, "You are wrong."

Wilson says philosophy is on the endangered list, thanks to the insights of science.  Of course the truth is, this is itself largely a book of philosophy.  Though to give Wilson credit, if that's all the better modern, science-fed teachers can do when it comes to philosophy, maybe it is, indeed, in danger of going extinct.

But I like Wilson.  He is a graceful, intelligent writer, and seems a graceful and likable gentleman.  One can learn a lot from him -- including many insights that his Christian and pagan forebears announced centuries ago.   He tries to weave the wisdom he has "discovered" into a comprehensive evolutionary narrative, leaving out far too much of human experience -- miracles, for instance, and answered prayer, and the revelation of God.  (Not to mention freedom, and truth, and a genuine choice between right and wrong.)   But his instinct is sound.  We do need to tell a story, one which embraces the truths Wilson has noticed, and those he has overlooked.

I believe the Gospel does that, better than anything else.  Nothing in this book works to change my mind.  

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