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This is the 9th IAE Newsletter
in a series on Credibility and
Credibility and Validity of Information Part 9: The Meaning of Human Existence
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
“History makes little sense without
prehistory, and prehistory makes little sense without biology….
Knowledge of prehistory and biology is increasing rapidly, bringing
into focus how humanity originated and why a species like our own
exists on this planet.” (E.O. Wilson; American biologist, researcher,
and author; 1929-.)
Since early times, humans have been mystified by such natural phenomena
as weather cycles, illness, and life itself. They often ascribed
spiritual forces as the cause.
The world-renowned biologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E.O.
Wilson suggests that religions developed across the world to explain
these mysteries and emerging spiritual beliefs. He discusses this
phenomenon in his new book, The Meaning of Human Existence
(2014). This article, and the next article in the Credibility and
Validity of Information series on how to determine credibility/validity
in scholarship, will explore two different perspectives of religious
systems. Although Wilson acknowledges the widespread credibility and
probably innate reality of religious belief, he doesn't accept its
objective validity. He supports what he considers valid scientific
perspectives. In the next article, theologian Norm Metzler accepts
religion per se as a valid explanation of spiritual/natural phenomena,
and describes how one can determine the credibility of the variety of
religious belief systems.
Wilson explains his beliefs from past, present, and future
perspectives. The overriding issue relates to the meaning of life.
Wilson argues that life is an accident of evolutionary history and not
the intention of a designer. History's gradual unfolding is obedient
only to the general laws of the Universe. Our Past
At some point in the distant past the Big Bang initiated
the earth's time/space journey. Our planet, capable of producing life
as we have experienced it, emerged among the objects formed. Living
forms emerged on earth 3.5 billion years ago and eukaryotes (cells with
a nucleus) emerged about two billion years ago. The emergence of
nuclear DNA/RNA allowed for differentiation within and among species.
Among the hundreds of thousands of animal species that emerged, only 20
are eusocial, cooperatively rearing their young and dividing labor. The
division of labor basically involved risky foraging and safer
nest-maintenance and parenting.
The eusocial species include two mammals, humans (homo sapiens) and two
species of African mole rats; plus fourteen insect species and three
coral dwelling marine shrimp. None of the non-human animals has a large
enough brain to create a scientific/technological culture. (Wilson,
2014. p 18-20).
Anatomically modern humans with advanced forms of consciousness emerged
about 200,000 years ago. The expansion of our brain's cortex enhanced
curiosity about such mysteries as those mentioned above. Humans became
a social species and so had to learn how to live together. This
initially occurred through cooperative kinship interactions. Although
humans wouldn’t understand the biological mechanisms for many
millennia, hormonal and cognitive systems (such as those regulated by
oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine) emerged to support cooperative
behavior. At some point, kin became tribe, and more complex patterns of
ethical cooperative life occurred. For example, communities initiated
and codified sanctions when various forms of misbehavior created
negative social issues.
Absent physical explanations of mysteries, spiritual explanations
emerged that were combined into religious beliefs. The beliefs were
periodically adapted to new developments, but it wasn't until the last
200 years that scientific developments seriously threatened religious
Agriculture emerged somewhat over 10,000 years ago, and with it the
need to compute costs and keep records, which required further advances
in language and math. Written language began about 5,000 years ago.
Such developments eventually set the stage for science.
So did we evolve as basically competitive or cooperative, helpful or
hurtful, good or evil? Wilson suggests that our behavior exists across
all those ranges, affected by the innateness of biology and the
rationality of culture.
Our search for an appropriate meaningful life led first
to the humanities, whose methods tend towards the analogically
speculative, critical, and historical. The empirical methods of science
emerged several hundred years ago. Both approaches saw meaningful life
as existing within their separate sets of borders. As indicated earlier
in this series, science sought objective validity and the humanities
sought subjective credibility. Divisions occurred in each of the two
systems. Over time, natural science became physics, chemistry, and
biology; and then each of these further split (such as chemistry into
organic and inorganic chemistry).
The same thing occurred in the humanities, which encompass literature,
philosophy, religion, the arts, and the social sciences. Literature
thus includes poetry and prose; and prose includes novels, short
stories, non-fiction, biography, etc. The idea that life's meaning can
be reduced to a unitary system or explanation disappeared.
As the early human brain increased in size and capability, it developed
an improved memory that enhanced recognition, communication, bonding,
and the continuous evaluation of cooperative/competitive behavior. It
also developed technologies that enhanced our sensory/motor
capabilities. From all of this came the intense pleasure of group
membership—the capability to move beyond pure competition in order to
achieve more through cooperation.
Our most extensive experience with the meaning of existence has come
through very long explorations within the humanities. Science attempts
to understand the basic systems that govern the universe. The
humanities are cognitively grounded and so they demonstrate what we
ourselves have discovered about existence through analogy and reality.
Should we ever interact with extraterrestrials, the humanities would
provide an explanation of who we are (given that the communicative
aliens might be ahead of us in scientific understanding). The Future
What's next? All organisms die and most species eventually become
extinct if they don't evolve into another species. Will the earth
itself be destroyed? Religions tend to suggest it and global warming
patterns give one pause.
Does life exist on other hospitable planets that we could colonize?
Wilson suggests that within a decade or so, scientists will be able to
detect life on other planets that are similarly situated near their
star. "The existence of alien life will then pass from the
well-reasoned hypothetical to the very probable" (Wilson, 2014, p.
112). We or our robots will go because our individual and corporate
minds shrivel without challenge.
Microbes will dominate life-bearing planets as they do on earth.
Colonizing other planets is perilous. Each planet has evolved its own
ecology. To insert ourselves into an inhospitable ecology would be
destructive. Like it or not, we humans got only one hospitable planet
for immortality. We thus need to tend to what we have.
Biodiversity refers to the earth's balanced variety in life, from
ecosystems (such as lakes and forests) to the species that inhabit
them, to the genes that prescribe traits in species. All are important
to sustain life. Five factors signal a destruction of the earth's
Habitat loss, such as through deforestation or climate change,
Invasive plant/animal species brought from other parts of the world,
Population growth, and
Over-harvesting of food from plants and animals.
These are the current problems. Politics will affect needed decisions. Biology and the Meaning of Life
Our brain didn't evolve to solve the meaning of life. Our brain
is a system for survival that uses both emotion and reason. It evolved
gradually, each step responding to its immediate needs. What we call
human nature is the base—the totality of our emotions and learning that
bias the cultural beliefs of individuals and groups. Human nature is
part instinct, part formative experience and learning, part who we
associate with and where we live, and part mature reason.
We might also add music and religion to that. Both of these culturally
exist in all civilizations, and the two are often entwined in practice.
As indicated earlier, deities supposedly used priests and scriptures to
explain mysterious occurrences, guide moral behavior, and promote a
celestial afterlife. Within the last few centuries science has also
explained many such mysteries and behaviors, but the deity explanations
are deeply embedded. Further, churches provide a supportive tribal
community that many people prefer in order to deal with genuine
Wilson suggests that a tribe is defined by its creation story. The
deity favors a specific tribe above other tribes that worship a
supposedly wrong god. The instinctual forces of tribalism can become
stronger than the yearning for positive spirituality. The heated
arguments and armed conflicts seem to have been going on forever. The
ancient Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger said that common people
considered religion true, the wise considered it false, and the rulers
considered it useful. When asked about the Pope's 1950 infallible
pronouncement that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily into heaven, the
distinguished physiologist Anton Carlson replied that he couldn't be
sure because he wasn't there, but he was certain of one thing and that
is that she would have lost consciousness at thirty thousand feet.
Religious belief survives, despite the ridicule of non-believers such
as Anton Carlson. The enemy isn't so much the believers versus the
non-believers, but more often dissension occurs among competing
religions, Christianity and Islam now perhaps, but also competing
Christian denominations, or two versions of the same denomination.
Wilson suggests that religious belief has become so deeply ingrained in
humans over many millennia that it won't be dislodged. He still
believes that the best way to live in the real world is to free
ourselves of demons and tribal gods.
How free are we to do that? Wilson indicates that the concept of free
will is an element of consciousness that so far defies understanding.
However, the neurobiology of consciousness itself is moving towards a
probable solution through the current brain mapping initiative. That
should provide the necessary background to solve the complexities
involved in understanding free will, something that will require a
general acceptance of solid scientific research.
Wilson argues that a global desire is necessary to reduce the religious
and political tribalism that perhaps made sense in earlier times but
not in the urbanism of the 21st century. Contemporary tribalism is
destroying significant human capability. Wilson is particularly
incensed by the damage that U.S. religious and political ideology are
currently doing to reduce positive scientific exploration, and
especially the advances that are occurring in biological evolution and
personal identity. The United States has long lagged behind European
nations in the acceptance of evolution. (See http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/08/060810-evolution.html.)
When disagreements occur in science and/or the humanities, the scholars
involved typically seek a productive resolution. This is certainly
preferable to futile tribal conflicts that may gain ravaged property at
the cost of the lives of their own adherents in order to forcefully
conquer those who will continue to despise the aggressors. It took many
millennia for collaborative reason to finally evolve. It shouldn't be
Wilson, E.O. (2014). The meaning of human existence. New York: Liveright.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy
(2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit five books for the
IAE Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information: email@example.com.
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