The Meaning of Human Existence, by Edward O. Wilson

The folksy charm of these essays threatens to detract from the main argument, says Simon Underdown

December 4, 2014

T he meaning of human existence can’t be thought of as a little question, but the eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson offers the reader a little book that claims to provide an answer. It takes the form of a series of broadly interconnected essays that are a jaunty distillation of many of Wilson’s well-known books. Those familiar with his work will notice echoes from Sociobiology through to The Social Conquest of Earth. He is in essence trying to present a holistic picture of the development of our species and the possibilities our future might hold (although the latter is disguised as discussion of what extraterrestrials might be like).

Written in Wilson’s usual engaging and highly readable style, at times the book is arguably too relaxed, and the folksy charm detracts from his argument. The lack of references or footnotes is similarly rather too casual. There is also a little too much score-settling (with that mean old Richard Dawkins, for example), which is out of place. Structurally, there are evident seams where many of the essays have been stitched into a book; some are rather badly frayed in places and the stuffing is coming out in others. This doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of reading a Wilson who is clearly having fun, but don’t expect a flowing narrative that builds a coherent argument – this is more of a book to be dipped into and read non-sequentially.

The early chapters that tackle human evolution are disappointingly full of simple errors that betray a lack of familiarity with the area and weaken the construction of Wilson’s grand argument. Misdating a species by 500,000 years may seem minor, but as the whole process of human evolution took place within 7 million years, it is problematic. However, despite these issues, Wilson builds his case for the importance of social factors, especially eusociality, to human development, and highlights the importance of meat to the evolution of the human brain. This provides his starting point for escalating to consider the implications of cooperation on human evolution.

Unless, like me, you’re an evolutionary theory geek, I would suggest skipping the chapters that deal with the arguments over level of selection. Wilson is a vocal advocate of individual/group-level selection while others are equally as passionate about gene-level selection. But we all agree that the gene is the basic unit of selection, so the argument is almost Lilliputian to the uninitiated – after all, it’s all still natural selection.

Perhaps the single most informative thing that Wilson tells us about human existence comes in the form of a throwaway line about Pulitzer prizes. He was happy to dismiss it as worthless when Carl Sagan won the prize for non-fiction in 1978, but when Wilson himself won it the following year it seemed a huge accolade; this admission is at once wonderfully demonstrative of Wilson’s honesty as a scientist and beautifully illustrative of human nature (even if it doesn’t paint us in the best light as a species).

Ultimately I was left with the feeling that Wilson has failed where Douglas Adams so gloriously succeeded in tackling the ultimate question – but then perhaps I shouldn’t have had that second Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster before reading this book.

The Meaning of Human Existence

By Edward O. Wilson
W. W. Norton, 192pp, £14.99
ISBN 9780871401007
Published 7 November 2014

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