Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: "The Meaning of Human Existence" by Edward O. Wilson

The Meaning of Human Existence (2014)
Edward O. Wilson (1929)

207 pages

With The Meaning of Human Existence, renowned biologist and Pulitzer prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson could hardly have made a more ambitious, and alluring, choice for a title. Fortunately he rises to the challenge in this slim volume. Building on recent discoveries in genetics, biology and other scientific fields, he describes how certain critical aspects of human nature may have developed due to the evolutionary advantage they conferred. Based on these new understandings, he calls for a re-thinking of millennia-old philosophical and theological doctrines that have attempted to illuminate the “meaning of human existence,” claiming that there is an urgent need to search out new answers to this eternal mystery through a close collaboration of science and the humanities.

To be clear, Wilson does not address in this work the related, though also fundamentally different, question of the “meaning of life.” He does not delve, for example, into why the universe exists, or what constituted the beginning of the universe, questions that science cannot participate in answering, at the very least for the foreseeable future. Wilson focuses here instead on how we humans can pursue a deeper understanding of the meaning of our existence --- of our lives as individuals and as a species.

Wilson notes that for much of history, this question remained the purview of the humanities, that is, of philosophers and theologians. Then, during the age of enlightenment, it suddenly seemed possible that science could answer the question on its own, without resorting to the soft, non-scientific explanations of the humanities. Wilson notes that this path failed to deliver on the early promises of its promotors, as it became clear that --- not surprisingly, in hindsight --- the answers science discovered led only to deeper and more fundamental questions.

Along the way, however, significant steps forward have been taken in our scientific understanding of the development of human nature, according to Wilson, and he argues that in light of these new findings, we can reassess our understanding of the meaning of human existence. As a particular example, he points to the inherent tension in most human beings between their instinctive desire to follow their own self-interest, and their equally instinctive desire to belong to a group, which often requires suppression of self-interest. He argues that recent advances in such fields as genetics and biology support the proposition that there is an inherited predisposition in humans toward holding both of these conflicting instincts, simultaneously.

Wilson describes how the presence of these aspects of human nature, and the resulting tension between them, would have conferred advantages on our ancient ancestors, and so would have represented an evolutionary preferred outcome that became built into our genetic code. The argument is that pure self-interest may have been beneficial to a particular individual in the short run, but would have been disadvantageous to that individual’s tribe in its competition with other tribes, and so, in the long run, also to that individual,. On the other hand, having no self-interest at all would have turned us into what he refers to as “angelic robots” (p. 33), perhaps advantaging the group in a short-term sense, but dooming it over the long run when faced with more dynamic groups, whose members held the two instincts simultaneously and in tension.

The presence of this internal conflict can seem undesirable and unpleasant in the moment --- for an individual faced with a decision between following their self-interest or supporting their community --- but Wilson argues that it is critical to our human existence, to our rise beyond other species in the development of “human-level intelligence and social organization.” (34) Wilson in fact carries this argument a step further, specifically warning against the seemingly imminent use of genetic engineering to improve the human race, in the sense of eliminating such conflicting feelings and emotions, and creating, say, a more emotionally stable version of ourselves. He feels such a move would only diminish a key strength of our humanity, and so place us at risk of stalling in our development as a species.

More to the main point of his work, Wilson goes on to cite recent studies claiming a genetic predisposition in humans to embracing religious beliefs and religious structures. He notes that such instincts would have enhanced the cohesiveness and strength of a tribe relative to others whose members did not have the same genetic pre-disposition, thus fitting neatly into the larger picture of human beings advantageously balancing self-interest and group-interest. He argues, however, that these instincts toward religious and cultural belief systems, which support a group over its rivals, have cohered over the past millennia into dogmas that have resulted in a legacy of on-going discrimination and violence between groups, as we witness so evidently in the world today. What in ancient times provided advantage for one tribe over another, now leads to seemingly intractable conflict.

Building off these and other discussions in the book, Wilson makes a clarion call: the world must use the understanding that science has made in recent years to step back from the various dogmas --- whether religious among the spiritual, or political among the secular --- that pit groups against one another in violent opposition. Through renewed efforts in the humanities, we must move forward toward a new philosophy of human existence, a broader meaning that spans the species, as opposed to the current myriad of ideologies that exist among the groups we’ve divided ourselves into. He argues that science and the humanities must take this step forward together, that neither alone can suffice.

In lucid and engaging prose that invites a reader into a conversation on these topics, Wilson lays out his views on the current understandings of human nature and consciousness, and then coalesces these views into a proposal for a new path forward. To be able to solve the problems we face today --- environmental degradation, fundamentalist violence --- Wilson calls on science and the humanities to develop a new understanding of the meaning of human existence around which humanity as a whole can come together.

Other reviews / information:

In his chapter Free Will, Wilson discusses this ancient question of philosophers and theologians, again from the context of the latest understandings of science. He concludes that human beings do not, fundamentally, have free will, in the sense that it is at least theoretically possible to capture the set of events that will predict our next decision. Despite that, he argues that we humans can, and in fact must, act as if we do have free will, do have control; he writes “… does free will exist? Yes, if not in ultimate reality, then at least in the operational sense necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the human species.” (p. 170)

This lines up with the thinking of scientists such as the theoretical physicist Brian Greene; check out, for example, his interview in front of a live audience for On Being, with Krista Tippett, January 2014.  In the final, on-air version there is a comment that parallels Wilson's thoughts above; follow the links to either the transcript, or the audio of their discussion .

At the audio link there is also the unedited version of the interview, including the following exchange with an audience member (starting around 1 hour, 6 minutes), in which Greene notes that even quantum theory is deterministic.

Audience Member: “… it sounds as if, um, your proposal situates us in a very deterministic universe, and that we are simply, in some sense, um, almost robots acting out of these general laws, and that there’s no novelty within this very, very complex and creative entity that we are as conscious beings.  That’s my first question.

BG: Ah, so, ah, yes, it, it is hard to accept.  [Long pause, audience laughter]  But I wouldn’t go as far as to say there’s no novelty.  You know, when you bring complex systems together, even when they’re governed by deterministic laws of physics, which, as we understand them … and some people would say ‘well, what about quantum mechanics, doesn’t that sort of take away the determinism,’ no, it doesn’t at all, not at our current level of understanding.  So, the mathematical laws that Schrodinger wrote down for the quantum evolution are as deterministic as the laws that Newton wrote down, they determine probabilities, but there’s no place in those laws for anything other than deterministic evolution.   Now you can get novelty, because when you bring complex things together they can co-mingle and interact in ways that may be surprising, and I’m using human language to describe it, sure it comes right out of the equations but it still can be novel by any human barometer.  So, I wouldn’t say that novelty goes away, but yes, free will may, go away.   

AM: So, free will, meaning choice, there’s no such thing as choice.

BG: That’s right.

AM: I do not choose to love, I do not choose to extend myself, I don’t choose to live, to get back to [?]

BG: Well, it all depends on what you mean by ‘choose’.  So, if by choose you mean that you could have done otherwise, then I would say, yes, but I would say that you need to redefine the meaning of the word choose.  Choose is the sensation of choosing; now it is the fact that the laws of physics were just playing themselves out, and that is fundamentally why you did what you did, but to choose is to have the sensation of making that choice.  And we all have that sensation, and that is a definition which I think works well.  It does require a little bit of re-jiggering of your intuition, to recognize that it may be the case that it, the laws of physics that are behind the scenes doing it all, but yes, that sensation of choice is real.  And that’s what we should re-define free will to mean.  Free will is the sensation of making the choice, even though behind the scenes, the laws of physics were pulling the strings.

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Book Review: "Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy" by Jeff VanderMeer

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (2014)
Jeff VanderMeer (1968)


595 pages

Faced with the unknown, people display a range of reactions, from immobilizing fear to mindless aggression, from cautious wonder to impetuous curiosity. The struggle often becomes one of recognizing whether our natural reaction will put us at greater or lesser risk than some other possible response --- will a quick, aggressive action be what saves us, or will it only make things worse? Encountering something not only unknown but possibly profoundly unknowable heightens these stakes. Just such dilemmas face the characters in Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, which bundles three recently released novels into a single volume.

The Area X of the title is a stretch of coastline, blocked off from the public behind vague government reports of some kind of environmental disaster. Officials, however, find themselves with a much more challenging and mysterious truth, as a kind of force field has descended around this piece of the coast, comprising an area of both land and the off-shore ocean, which prevents access except through a single portal on land. Through an agency called the Southern Reach, the government has been organizing an ongoing series of expeditions into Area X, ostensibly to investigate the environmental disaster that has occurred, but in reality focused on understanding the strange force that has gripped this region, and what it may mean for the future.

The first third of the book, entitled Annihilation, opens shortly after the four members of the designated twelfth expedition have entered through the portal into Area X. They soon discover a kind of tunnel in the ground that they had not been expecting, despite the extensive training and information about the region that they had received in preparation for their mission. Descending into the tunnel to investigate, they begin to encounter phenomena not only unexplainable but seemingly otherworldly. The expedition soon falls apart in the face of what seems to be the natural world in Area X rising up against them.

The focus in the second third of the book, Authority, turns to the organization coordinating the expeditions. The Southern Reach, located just outside the one known entrance into Area X, has had little to show for its long-standing efforts to investigate the phenomenon on its doorstep; many expeditions have been sent in, with results from catastrophic to uneventful, but what information makes it back only generates more questions than answers as to the nature of what is happening, and of what sort of long-term threat it may pose. Decades of failure have in fact created a debilitating hopelessness among the employees of the Southern Reach, made worse by a toxic stew of company politics within the secret agency, all of which undermines any new efforts to make progress.

In the final third, Acceptance, the reader is thrust back into Area X, as the struggle between Southern Reach and the forces that hold sway in the strange region comes to a head. As the confrontation escalates, the characters begin to get closer to an explanation for the strange phenomena occurring. Even as their understanding deepens, however, they find themselves left with only more profound questions about the nature of what they face, and its potential threat to the outside world.

In telling the story, VanderMeer manages to deftly control and manipulate a reader’s understanding of what constitutes the full truth of events. For one, he plays extensively with time in the novel. Though the story broadly flows forward from a point early in the mission of the twelfth expedition on toward the climactic engagement with the power at the center of Area X, along the way VanderMeer shifts continually back and forth between the present and the past. Extended flashbacks and jumps back in time to events prior to the twelfth expedition slowly reveal hints about the motivations of the characters and pieces of knowledge the different characters have about the true situation inside Area X. More unsettling for a reader, VanderMeer manipulates events in the novel by revealing them in fragments: a moment will play out, but then some pagers later a main character will remember back to that moment and recall and relate information not covered in the first pass through it. Thus, not only does the reader only gradually build up an understating of the main characters, even the reality of the story must be pieced together from stingily dribbled out bits and pieces.

A second, more unsettling factor for the reader is the knowledge that some characters spend part of the time under hypnosis, ostensibly to protect them as much as possible from realities of Area X that might overwhelm them and so jeopardize the mission of the Southern Reach. But it can be unclear at any given moment in time whether a particular character is under hypnosis. This leaves a reader wondering, as the focus shifts among the main characters in the story, how much of what they relate can be trusted as actual fact, and how much of what they do is of their own free will.

Oddly unsettling too is the lack of definition of time and place in the novel. A few hints and clues leave the impression that the novel is set a few decades into our future, and in the south-eastern United States. But a reader can’t be quite sure. Other than the diverse names of the characters, and the American sounding names of the local towns and establishments, nothing places the story particularly in the United States. A secret umbrella organization, Central, rules over the Southern Reach, and no other government entity is ever mentioned in the novel. Combined with hints that the country has been suffering under increasing terrorist attacks and environmental disasters, the subtle indication is of a dictatorial state; does the government or country of the United States even still exist as we know it today?

VanderMeer has crafted a gripping novel that engages a reader on every page in the search for the truth. Taken together, the vagueness of place, the constant shifting in time and finally the uncertain agency of the main characters enhances the mystery of what has happened and will happen in Area X. Through these techniques a reader remains effectively as uncertain about what may constitute the realities of Area X, and the full extent of the government’s attempts to understand and control it, as are the characters themselves.

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf