Reviews in the Wild: The Meaning of Human Existence

There are days when, after reading a story about a chimp playing with her infant or giving a hug to a human, that I feel all the warm fuzzies. Then I see a story about a chimp ripping a face off of a human and I’m reminded of how much the meaning of existence for a chimp is bound up in baser, animal violence.

Yes, there is a bit of a bifurcated perspective in this: a hug implies higher intellect and compassion, while violence is a lower animal passion. It is hard to not fall back into these categories that often dominate philosophy and religion. The chimp is complicated though and is, in fact, all of this (love and violence) and we are in danger—e.g. the loss of faces—when we endue the chimp only with compassionate qualities and forget the whole picture.

Herein is the problem when we forget the nature of humanity as well. Very often the Roddenberry-esque optimism sees humanity as capable of excelling to the highest heights. We are are the pinnacle of creation, some might say. Evolution has endowed us as a species with rational thought.

We are not alone in this rational thought, though. It is worth noting that (by some definitions) other primates also have rational thought. They too are capable of war strategies and tool use, for example. We just don’t always like their violent conclusions.

And yet, when I watch the news and see a human being bend over to help an impoverished and sick man to his feet or when donors flood blood banks during a crisis, I get the warm fuzzies about our species too. We are great, aren’t we? Then I see a man behead another man and I’m reminded that we are complicated creatures capable of loving support and monstrous violence.

Much of the question of the meaning of human existence is bound up in this dichotomy of humanity: simultaneously wonderful and terrible. Every major religion has also attempted to grapple with the problem of finding meaning in light of the human condition. Mind and body, saint and sinner, image of God and fallen deformed creature, are all theological ways to balance out this reality. But do these work? Many do not see these theological solutions as based in reality. In fact, many think religion has had its day and now it’s time to move on and that leads me to this week’s “Reviews in the Wild.”

EO-Wilson-Meaning-Human-Existence-covIn The Meaning of Existence, the professor emeritus at Harvard University and ever the controversial thinker, E.O. Wilson takes a hard look at the complicated nature of being human. He disposes of world religion as “impediments” to progress, plucks away the feathers of philosophy to expose what he sees as a history of “failed models,” and praises the prowess of science, which he believes is the proper partner for the humanities.

The two—science and the humanities—may best work together “in a common search for a more solidly grounded answer…to the great riddle of our existence,” he writes. Philosophy, for example, is more competent in the form of neurophilosophy (e.g. Patricia Churchland and Daniel Dennett), which takes into consideration the conclusions of neuroscience.

As part of this week’s Reviews in the Wild, then, I’d like to point out a short, but good review over at The New York Times of The Meaning of Existence. It represents a growing conversation about whether science can supplant the humanities or whether they should work together. Hint: it’s the latter.

The best natural scientists, when they aren’t busy filling us with awe, are busy reminding us how small and pointless we are.

Stephen Hawking has called humankind “just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star.” The biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson, in his new book, which is modestly titled “The Meaning of Human Existence,” puts our pygmy planet in a different context.

“Let me offer a metaphor,” he says. “Earth relates to the universe as the second segment of the left antenna of an aphid sitting on a flower petal in a garden in Teaneck, N.J., for a few hours this afternoon.” The Jersey aspect of that put-down really drives in the nail. Read the full review at The New York Times…


  • Lars

    Another fun post! This gets at the age-old question – is truth objective or subjective? Can you ask questions of religion where every religious sect arrives at the same answer (or at least consensus)? If consensus is reached, does it require religion? Does it even require God? Or are those answers just as valid if there is no God? In other words, is ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ a divine dictum or a trial-and-error societal convention?

    A related question is ‘do free (or uncoerced) societies tend to be more religious or more secular?’ My own belief leaves open the possibility, however remote, that universal truths such as ‘love thy neighbor’ may have been written on the heart by a supreme being but that that supreme being is impossible to know or to speak for (which accounts for our varied and localized projections of that being through time to say nothing of that being’s message).

    If religion operated like science, wouldn’t we see a convergence of beliefs as we got closer to God? That would seem to be the strongest case for objective religious truth. Instead, we see continual fragmentation. If science operated like religion, however, I suspect we wouldn’t be having this (virtual) conversation. :-)

  • Hi Lars,

    I’m just catching up on blog related stuff and realized I never saw your comment. While there are a lot of questions there and I can’t reply to all at this moment, the part about free and uncoerced societies and whether they tend to be more religious or more secular, in light of the love thy neighbor idea, is an interesting one. There probably needs to be more parameters to get at what is meant by “free,” for example, but you might be interested in a review I did a while back for the book “Big Gods” (

    The idea behind that is Big Gods are ways in which human beings can manage society. The Big God can see all (so crimes don’t go un-noticed), can be powerful enough to provide for his/her people (so people pray for food), and can heal (so people pray for recovery). But in studies where the government does a good job of policing, providing food and healthcare, societies (like Denmark, for example) tend to secularize. On the one hand, is it more free to believe that policing is done by God (therefore social pressures are to fit the expectations of that deity) or it is more free to give government to meet those needs? To be “free” in this case complicates the answer.


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