Can a naturalist give us meaning?

A case can be made (a strong one, I think) that Edward O. Wilson is the greatest living naturalist.

His credentials are prodigious. A chaired professor at Harvard. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Co-author of one of the greatest books (i.e., book qua opus) ever produced: The Ants. The world’s leading experts on one of the Earth’s largest (by biomass) and most diverse clades, one of the few that developed true social behavior. The creator of a discipline, sociobiology, which attempts to merge biology and behavioral sciences. Curator of Harvard’s insect collection. And recently, a proponent for dispensing with a thoroughly entrenched theoretical approach to the evolutionary explanation of eusociality—inclusive fitness. This last point may be the least appreciated. A central tenet of a field that one has practiced in, indeed a tenet that one has advanced in several important works, is not something that most scientists or academics would attempt to overturn late in one’s career. There is no percentage in it, except intellectual honesty, a commodity that in our day has been greatly devalued. But like all great figures from the time of heroes, Wilson thinks of little else.

In addition to all the foregoing, Wilson can add spokesman for the cause of biodiversity, promoter of evolution as a world view, mentor of younger scientists, all round charming individual and graceful writer.

If I could have done one thing on Wilson’s extensive resume, it would unquestionably be writing The Ants. The book transcends its subject matter. You need not be interested in ants at all (although only a few pages into this book would make you so) to admire the breath of the scholarship, observation and thinking behind the immense subject matter. It is the kind of book that you can simply admire for its organization, its writing, its comprehensiveness, and its ability to make you care about something you had no idea you should care about. Or you can just look at the pictures. You can use the book as a litmus test. Say, for example, you are looking for a community to move to. Simply go to the public library there and find out if it has this book. If it does, move there. If not, evaluate why you are considering that place.

I bring all of this up because Wilson has recently published a book that tackles a subject that we supposedly had become too mature to consider: the meaning of human existence. In fact that’s the name of his book, The Meaning of Human Existence (NY: Liveright Publishing Corp.: c2014).

Before examining the book, however, let me return to what I called Wilson originally: a naturalist. By naturalist I mean a person who views the living world as a process with history. Stereotypically naturalists observe, classify and speculate on the origins of living phenomena. Naturalists are thus different from mathematicians, certainly. But they are also different from physicists and chemists who look for “laws” or repeatable explanations for phenomena. For a naturalist, history is the hidden cause. Nothing is necessarily inevitable. What is now, did not have to be. Geneticists can fall on either side of the line. Originally geneticists were concerned only with the operation of replication, protein replication, etc. But with molecular phylogenetics, geneticists now also deal with history (although in a dry, mathematical kind of way). But they are still not naturalists in the same way. Naturalists observe phenotypes dealing with an environment filled with other phenotypes: Darwin’s “this view of life.” To a naturalist, natural selection operates all the time. It is visible, not a code. And Wilson’s perpective on human “meaning” is decidedly a naturalist’s one.

The fact that all life on earth descended from a common ancestor has profound philosophical implications. The simplest one is that it precludes the existence of a theistic god. On a visceral level, no sentient being, with any regard for his “creation” could have allowed natural selection to be the means of populating this or any other planet. Darwin himself rejected god’s existence for this very reason. It had to do with ichneumon wasps, which deposit eggs into other insects so that the larva have a living body to devour from the inside. He wrote Asa Gray, a Harvard naturalist (one who would have a common perspective for that very reason):

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

On a somewhat different level natural selection does away with the “need” for a god. It is a mechanism that is both simple and robust. And of course it is corroborated by every discipline in the biological sciences, as no other creation explanation is or can be.

Fundamentalists are right to fight tooth and nail against the teaching of evolution. There is no more effective rebuttal to dogma than Charles Darwin and the science that developed from his powerful idea. People like Francis Collins can pretend to accept both natural selection and the existence of god, but when you ask him what he means by “god,” you find that it is not something that is worth concerning yourself over.

And there is a much more important reason why evolution makes god irrelevant. And that is the starting point of Wilson’s book.

The purpose of a belief in a creation god is to discover the purpose of our existence. Evolution, however, shows that we arose quite randomly. If there was a god whose mind conceived of natural selection, then his “creation” of us was thoroughly whimsical. At no point in the history of life was it inevitable that we would exist. In fact, there were many points at which mere contingency operated. If the Cretaceous asteroid did not destroy the dominant life form on earth while rodent-like mammals hibernated beneath the surface, gigantic bird like creatures and immense, towering herbivores probably still would dominate the planet, while mammals eked a marginal existence, if they survived it all. If the small band of humanoids making their way in Africa had encountered an environmental catastrophe or fell victims to predators or a virulent contagious disease, humanity could have been choked off at the beginning. Those are only two of the numerous contingencies that explain our existence. They are historical explanations; not explanations derived from first principles like mathematics or laws of nature like physics.

So that’s where a naturalist like Wilson begins. We are the result of innumerable, random contingencies. It is a bracing realization, and one that is entirely different from a religious explanation. But that’s where a naturalist must begin, and so does Wilson.

What then?

Here’s is where the book seems to falter or at least fails to pursue a rigorous argument to be expected of someone who is arguing about “meaning.” But here again, it is necessary to realize that a naturalist’s perspective is not a rigorous argument derived from first principles. And so Wilson seems to wonder about a number of subjects on which his storied career concentrated. We read his musings on the limitations of our own sensory apparatus, the nature of those few experiments resulting in social organisms, the kind of animals he expects might produce “intelligence,” and his reverence for humanities, except in the future with a bit more science.

Much of this is quite amusing and thought-provoking. The idea that most of the animal world perceives its environment through the sense of smell is perhaps commonplace, but Wilson offers speculations that show how different we are from much of life. Anecdotes of how the natural world is interconnected by pheromones, a connection we cannot appreciate, is illuminating. His brief canvas of the reasons to preserve biodiversity and the threats we close to it is informative but in some senses both familiar and depressing. His educated guesses about what an extraterrestrial intelligent being might be like is entertaining (although more debatable than he lets on). One point he makes is quite astute: that no extra-terrestrial has ever visited us because there is only one alternative: either, like us, they are bent on conquest, in which case they would have to sterilize the entire planet to prevent incompatibility with the microbiome of this planet or they would have realized that it is best not to make the attempt, either for “humanitarian” or practical reasons. Under the same analysis, we are unlikely ever to witness an ET encounter (or at last not for long).

In one respect the book is quite weak. It lists all the threats to our existence and suggests that as a species it is in our interest to solve them. And while Wilson knows as much as anyone that our “eusociality” is a selective adaptation fashioned in the Paleolithic era, when concerns about conservation and population control and self-imposed checks on consumption and exploitation of the environment were not at all relevant, he doesn’t explain what forces will allow us now to overcome the predisposition towards individual and group selfishness that is the hallmark of all eusocial organisms. After all, an individual driver ant cannot be expected to suggest, Hey if we had fewer eggs we might not have to devour everything in our path. But of course, it might be a bit unfair to criticize him for not solving the problem of our dysfunctional social organization in small, 200-page book. But, as I noted before, scientists have a distressing tendency to ignore the entrenched political and economic interests that will, for sheer self-interest, oppose even the simplest steps to preserve our kind. Naturalists will view, with equanimity, the extinction of a species not fit for its environments. Millions of species have gone the way of Dimetrodon. Yet when it comes to whether our social-economic-political organization has rendered us unsuited for much longer survival and if so what is the way out, they pass over the question on the ground that they are not “political.” (Wilson doesn’t use this excuse. He simply ignores the patent reality.)

In the end Wilson arrives at a rather hopeful view of our “meaning.” It is appropriately modest and depends on what we materially are, rather than what we “spiritually” wish we were. Wilson gets to this hopeful existential view in the quirky, contingent way that we got to where we are. At least, as a naturalist sees it. Given that competing visions of “meaning” all lead to perdition, it’s worth contemplating how a historically based view of the matter might provide a better solution to our existential dilemma. And his book is as entertaining as you would expect from a naturalist as accomplished as Wilson. The problem is that for those who seek a “meaning” based on fixed laws, God will always trump Chance. And without God those folk will never find Meaning. And that fact will likely ultimately lead to our own meaningless self-destruction. But that, my friends, is also an operation of natural selection. Not all, not most, species survive, and none for very long (in a geological sense), and that might be another way a naturalist could see our own species, although Wilson is far too genial a writer,  even to suggest that obvious fact.

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    • narhvalur
    • November 22nd, 2014
  1. Fascinating read. I suspect that existential questions about our species are difficult to encapsulate even for a renowned naturalist. There are so many variables and component factors as to make concise propositions noticeably insufficient. These questions are simply too big for most of us. That’s why religion stubbornly endures. It conveniently removes the burden of existence from the individual. Science cannot compete with that unless a given population is well educated and civic-minded.

    Another attraction of religion is how it feeds the human ego. We are the chosen people, they say, to have dominion over the Earth. Evolution, inadvertently, draws a similar conclusion. For it offers Homo sapiens as the highest form of life yet seen on this planet.

    Perhaps it is human ego run amok that is the real problem. If we see ourselves as superior, everything else becomes less important. Consequently, we wage destructive war on our neighbors, exploit other creatures to the point of extinction, and pollute the environment catastrophically. Ironically, our self-perceived superiority may be in fact nothing of the kind.

    Advanced extraterrestrial life is a virtual certainty somewhere and at sometime in the cosmos. The fact that such beings are not publicly known to us doesn’t mean they neither exist nor have visited our world. Though highly social, the ant cannot conceive of the enormous human stepping over her colony. Maybe it is the same for us.

  2. Good points, Robert. You really ought to read the book (it doesn’t take
    Interesting points you make, Robert. I think you should read the book (it is not that long) because I know you are interested in certain kinds of science-related speculations, and my brief review did not do justice to many of the arguments Wilson makes.

    As for the ET issue specifically, Wilson’s point was specific, and one that I had never thought about. He says that any civilization from another star system that could reach us would obviously be much more scientifically advanced than we are. They will undoubtedly understand (as we are just beginning0 that the health of an organism on a planet teaming with life as Earth is must depend on a precarious balance of each organism with the microbiome that exists in, on and around them. (prokaryotes, on Earth for example, make up more than 5 times the biomass as humans. And thy theoretically can double in mass every hour if conditions permitted. Fungus many more. Who knows how many viruses there are. Plus there are parasites eukaryotes.) I says as an aside that it is almost certain that whatever historical path natural selection took on that other star, it began like ours did, with self-replication molecules, eventually encased in cell membranes and the cells themselves at last came together to make metazoans. If that is so, that system must also be delicately posed between mega-organisms and the microbiome around it (from gut bacteria, to parasites in saliva, the skin parasites, etc.). The balance existing is really quite intricate, and resulted from hundreds of millions of years of evolution. A large organism that is introduced in that system is very likely to be vulnerable to microbes that it has not come into contact with, ever. Just look what happened ot th AmerIndians when Europeans invaded. They fell prey to numerous microbes, and Amerindians and Europeans had been separated only by at most 10,000 years of evolutionary symbiosis with their respective microbiomes.

    So an intelligent ET would consider that setting foot on this planet risks contaminating him, his ship and equipment. The only safe thing to do would be do sterilize this planet of all its microbes before visiting. Or more practically limit contact to probes by robots rather than living ETs. I think humans will probably come to the same conclusion if they are ever confronted with the ability to visit a planet teaming with microbes. And we know how humans will react. The current freak-out over Ebola suggests that humans would likely sterilize a planet before setting foot on it (or else not letting the human visitors turn). If they were of like mind and had been here before, we won’t be here now.

    Of course, who knows? It’s only speculation.

    This is only one of many imaginative speculations Wilson makes in the book which makes it so entertaining and thought-provoking.

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