Edward O. Wilson's THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
This is a profoundly entertaining and thought-provoking book. In a series of essays Wilson sets out to explain the past, present, and future of life on earth. Along the way he engages the reader with interpretations, speculations, memories, and ideas galore. He can’t resist getting in a few swipes at theism and organized religion but he does it in a way that reinforces rather than detracts from his profoundly scientific and humanistic worldview.
That last thing—his worldview—is what I found most inspiring about this book. His message is that it’s up to us to figure out how life and the universe work. And it is up to us to put this knowledge to work for the betterment of all.
This puts Wilson solidly in the camp of those who believe that distinguishing between good and evil naturally evolves over time and does not require an external force to impose its will on creation either as first mover or sustainer.
I’m sure that will upset many folks but Wilson’s underlying message, that we all need to understand our world since it’s up to us to save it, is a profoundly moral one, any way you look at it. In particular, this realization places a premium on rational thought, scientific knowledge, and education.
There are a few points I don’t understand about the book and because of that I may purchase a paper copy to read it again (I listen to the recorded audio version this first time through).
First, I don’t understand his argument for removing “barriers” between the sciences and humanities. I understand logically his argument that all that is physical flows from a common foundation, but the benefits of combining science and humanities seem a bit vague. Is he saying that combining the two will result in a more compassionate world? I don’t get it. I need to reread that chapter.
Second, his appendix deals with his scientific emasculation of “inclusive fitness” as an alternative to classical Darwinian evolution. Apparently much peer-reviewed and academic blood has been spilled over this argument. Based on my scientific ignorance on the topic it’s difficult to make any meaningful comments. But if what Wilson says is true, that a chief proponent of inclusive fitness makes great use of linear regression models, I got lost very quickly because of one simple problem: use of linear regression to explain or predict anything implying more than correlation. It’s a statistical commonplace that “correlation does not imply causation,” yet according to Wilson, proponents of the inclusive fitness theory seem to be making that mistake. Is claiming that inclusive fitness advocates make inappropriate use of linear regression simply part of Wilson’s efforts to debunk inclusive fitness? Or, is Wilson simply misunderstanding things?
I can’t possibly know, so on my first reading of this chapter I couldn’t help but wonder why he is devoting so much effort to debunking something fundamentally flawed. But, as I noted, I’m not really qualified but am puzzled at the inclusion of this argument in an otherwise wonderful book.
Review copyright (c) 2015 by Dennis D. McDonald