Magazine article The Christian Century

The Meaning of Human Existence

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Meaning of Human Existence

Article excerpt

The Meaning of Human Existence

By Edward O. Wilson

Liveright, 208 pp., $14.95 paperback

Although the renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson affirms in The Meaning of Human Existence that humanity is "completely alone" in the universe--there is no God, no heaven--he writes in a religious manner. Indeed, in a 2014 radio interview about the book, Wilson classified himself as a "provisional atheist," leaving open the possibility that a supernatural power might exist.

In seeking existential meaning, the book involves the part of our psyche that is focused on religion, ritual, ethics, morals, immortality, and the yearning for the transcendent. Neuroscience suggests "strongly that a religious instinct does indeed exist," Wilson himself observes.

Twice a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction and an entomologist who has identified over 400 species of ants, Wilson sums up the meaning of our existence as the "epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become." Wilson doesn't speculate on the origins of the universe. Instead, he compactly reviews the sweep of our species' history in terms of evolutionary theory and the humanities. No matter what their background, readers who are people of faith will find here a brilliant summary of the scientific outlook on the world from one of our era's leading scientific thinkers.

Wilson stresses the need to construct a bridge between the natural sciences and the humanities. In the end, he says, scientific advance will be the simple part of history. Soon everybody across the globe will have access to the same technologies and medical advances. However, the humanities will ultimately determine the character of our future society. Philosophers, historians, artists, and other practitioners of the humanities have described human activity brilliantly, but have stopped short of asking why all of this activity has occurred. To provide the key to our future, they must work in tandem with natural scientists to fully elucidate our history.

Without calling it such, Wilson proposes what professional historians have termed "big history," which joins prehistory (a very long period covering biological evolution, hunter-gatherer societies, and the invention of agriculture) with conventional history (a very short period commencing with the invention of writing 5,300 years ago). In Wilson's words, we will then have the "whole properly presented as the living world's greatest epic."

To achieve this, academia will need to overcome the hard-core "jig-saw puzzles of specialization" that have created intellectual fiefdoms. "The most successful scientist thinks like a poet--wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical--and works like a bookkeeper.... He is careful never to be accused of rhetoric or poetry," Wilson writes. "The exact opposite is the case in poetry and the other creative arts. There metaphor is everything.... We are a very special species, perhaps the chosen species if you prefer, but the humanities by themselves cannot explain why this is the case."

Theology and religious studies can certainly be included in the humanities. Indeed, many religiously minded writers, such as the Jesuit paleontologist and geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, have delved into the implications of scientific discovery for religious belief.

Along these lines, The Meaning of Human Existence will attract those who reject the false dichotomy between religion and science and instead seek to synthesize them. …

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