Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Meaning of Human Existence

Book Review: The Meaning of Human Existence  - by Edward O. Wilson (Liveright Publishing – W.W. Norton 2014 Kindle Edition)

This follows up on famed biologist Wilson’s previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth and explores the meaning of life from several angles with most emphasis on the biological and scientific. It is a highly educated contemplation of the nature of us. He scrutinizes the word “meaning,” using it in a less usual context of finding meaning in the accidents of nature – meaning without advanced design. We evolved to become more and more complex and developed intelligence so now we can analyze our own complexity and intelligence and search for meaning. He notes that we as a species are on the cusp of abandoning natural selection in favor of directing our own evolution and that brings new moral and logistical issues.  He points out that biologically there are ultimate meanings and proximate meanings. The ultimate meaning of human existence is of course unknown so he mainly addresses proximate meanings. He rejects ideas like predestination and religion and states that wisdom based on self-knowledge can be more useful to us.

The human condition, he says, is the product of history, not only ours but the whole of biological history, as well as our cultural history. He notes that most complex societies, human and some other animal species, have developed through eusociality, which refers to groups which rear their young across multiple generations and divide labor so that some members surrender their personal reproduction in favor of the reproductive success of other members. Eusociality is very rare among life forms but is a key feature of our own species. Eusociality also came relatively late, beginning between 200 and 150 million years ago in the earliest species of ants and termites. Eusocial species have come to dominate the earth in terms of sheer numbers and by weight even though they make up a small amount of species. One reason he thinks it is rare is that it requires special evolutionary sequences with the final one being construction of protected nests. In such a situation the labor gets divided between risk-prone foragers and risk-averse parents and nurses. Among humans one line developed where hunters hunted and foraged for meat to bring back to a protected nest and the social activity of assessing the intentions of others in the group likely helped to develop memory. Sociality and possibly other reasons (remembering where and when to get food) led to a knowledge of past and future along with the present. The new world of social interaction led to scenario development where social strategies emerged. This led ultimately to our development of the humanities as ways of knowing. Our social evolution is implicated in our vast and evolutionarily quick species brain development. Higher social intelligence led to greater evolutionary success.
He describes the theory of kinship selection

“… individuals favor collateral kin (relatives other than offspring), making it easier for altruism to evolve among members of the same group. Complex social behavior can evolve when group members individually reap greater benefits in numbers of genes passed to the next generation than losses from their altruism, averaged through their behavior toward all members of the group. The combined effect on the survival and reproduction of the individual is called inclusive fitness. ”

He disputes kinship selection and the inclusive fitness theory of evolution and favors his own and others’ theory of multilevel selection

“This formulation recognizes two levels at which natural selection operates: individual selection based on competition and cooperation among members of the same group, and group selection, which arises from competition and cooperation between groups. Group selection can occur through violent conflict or by competition between groups in the finding and harvesting of new resources.”

He thinks that mathematics and eusociality favor multilevel selection over kinship selection and that kinship selection/inclusive fitness has become a case of orthodoxy among biologists such that it has been difficult to get multilevel selection accepted as it should be. 

Better understanding of our biological origins, he says, is leading to a necessary convergence between biology and the humanities.

He asks, “Are we good yet corruptible or are we selfish and sinful yet redeemable?” He suggests we are both. This dual nature may well define our inner conflict based on multilevel selection. The unit of natural selection is the gene (or more precisely the alleles, or multiple forms of the same gene) and the target is the trait prescribed by the gene. In multilevel selection the trait may be selected by competition among individuals or by competition among groups. Better organized, more cooperative, and better communicating groups will win out over others less so. He notes as examples the “exquisitely programmed caste systems of ants, termites, and other social insects…” He notes that Charles Darwin saw the value of between-group selection.

Wilson suggests that our ancestor Homo habilis, turned to a diet with more meat as previous ancestors were vegetarian. This led to more hunting and nest-building as well as contributing to bigger brain size. He suggests that during this time a conflict arose between individual level selection and group level selection. Altruism and cooperation between all group members then became an important factor in competition with other groups for resources. Individual selection promoted selfishness while group selection promoted altruism. He also uses the terms sin and virtue. While this inner conflict may seem like inner competition between sin and virtue, or God and Satan to religionists, it is really just biology, he says. This inner conflict that we often describe as conscience has a biological origin and is a heritage that somehow helps us to survive.

He mentions a key idea of the Enlightenment – that we can know all through science and the quest to do so – precursed by the likes of Francis Bacon. Then came the Romanticism of the 1800s when people came to seek meaning in ways other than science – through literature, poetry, art, music, etc. – the humanities. Science uses logic and avoids metaphor while the humanities value metaphor. He quotes Picasso: “art is the lie that shows us the truth.” We use metaphor to practice anthropocentricity, he says, because it sharpens our social intelligence skills. Our tendency to use myth and stories activates our scenario-building skills. These aid our survival in the same way, he says, as animals playing sharpens their hunting skills. 

He talks about continuums and gradients in science (ie. temperature, velocity, pH, mass, wavelength, and carbon-based molecular analogs). The most relevant continua to the humanities are the senses and they are quite limited in humans compared to other species. We are bound to the tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum that is our visible spectrum. Our sense of smell is abysmal compared to most other animals. Yet, through our scientific instruments we can measure the parts of the sensory spectrums that we can’t experience directly. 

Wilson sees the integrating of science and the humanities as a great frontier. He notes that if scientifically advanced aliens were to study us they would likely be interested in our humanities since they would know most or all of the science. The humanities are how we subjectively experience the world through our narrow sensory ranges. This can also be expressed as our cultural evolution. He mentions ‘gene-culture coevolution’ (“where genetic evolution and cultural evolution each affect the trajectory of the other”). We experience our cultural evolution from the inside looking out. It is subjective. Although we can also approach it from the outside through science, the understanding is not nearly as rich or nuanced. He says that the humanities are our heritage and the natural history of culture. Another reason to value the humanities he thinks is that science and technology will eventually contract to the point where new discoveries will slow as they already have begun to do so in science. He sees the most advances in the next few decades in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics. He sees gene substitution as a future means to alleviate diseases and possibly to proceed with our volitional evolution. He thinks we will at first leave our evolution alone as a whole by not doing things like choosing desirable traits. He favors “existential conservatism” - “the preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust.”  
Returning to the multilevel selection he notes that “selfish members win within groups, but groups of altruists best groups of selfish members.” Wilson was at first an advocate of inclusive fitness and defended it along with the population biologists that developed it. Science journalist Richard Dawkins explained the idea to the public in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Now Wilson sees the inclusive fitness theory as fundamentally incorrect even though it had become dogma. Much of the evidence to refute it has been post-2000. Wilson recounts some of the mathematical analysis and the rejections of other biologists and people – noting an indignant protest by Dawkins – here and in an appendix. The bottom line is that it is likely that evolution through multilevel natural selection is correct. He says it thusly:

“The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction – the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete, and from all these the deep warm pleasure of belonging to your own special group. Social intelligence enhanced by group selection made Homo sapiens the first fully dominant species in Earth’s history.”

Humans are bizarre in some respects (as most species are). Most animal species utilize targeted pheromonal communication. Our lack of olfactory development excludes us from this world. Wilson was key in the discovery and early research on pheromones. There are many pheromones used in many ways. Ants are possibly the most detailed pheromone utilizer. Plants and bacteria also employ pheromones in various ways. Due to our large size and development of bipedalism our heads are lifted higher than most other species. Our ancestors required faster audio-visual communication as pheromonal would have been too slow. For these simple evolutionary reasons we do not use pheromones. We are a dominant species yet we are also sensory cripples, he notes.
Wilson is an authority on ants. He discusses superorganisms in general. He says that honeybees are the main superorganism that has come to be somewhat in symbiosis with humans and that they show some of the vulnerabilities of superorganisms which may express in the so-called colony collapse disorder. He notes that humans are not really superorganisms since we as individuals like to seek our own destiny, even though we have cooperation, division of labor, and altruism. In social insects division of labor is based on instinct. In us it is based on transmission of culture. We are too independent to be like worker ants.

Next he considers that the search for alien life is mainly a search for microbes. Microbial life is extraordinarily resilient. They can live in temperatures hotter than boiling water, in very low pH, and in deep cold. There are microbes (subterranean lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems, or SLIMEs) that draw energy from the metabolism of rocks down to depths of 1.4 kilometers. One question is whether alien life is coded the same way as earth life through our biological genesis, whether there is one code or more. There are living bacteria in our middle and upper atmosphere 6-10 kilometers above earth. Interstellar microbial travel informs ideas of “pangenesis” and it is known that microbes have accompanied our own space devices like the space shuttle. We could scan for interplanetary microbes but Wilson thinks the possibility of finding them is remote.

He explores what an E.T. would have to be like according to our evolutionary standards: land-dwelling, relatively large, biologically audio-visual, able to read facial expressions, distinct big head located up front, light to moderate jaws and teeth, have very high social intelligence, small number of free locomotory appendages, and be moral. He sees them thusly as equivalent to Neolithic humans at the beginning of the take-off of cultural evolution. He thinks they would not have indulged in volitional evolution as we should not (other than correcting disease-causing mutations). He thinks that earth was never visited and never will be by living aliens (perhaps by robots) due to the deadliness of potential biological incompatibilities of microbiomes. 

The collapse of biodiversity is the next topic. There are three levels of biodiversity: ecosystems, species, and genes. The number of species is a convenient measure of biodiversity. He thinks it will take a few hundred more years to describe species yet undiscovered and considers this lack of attention to taxonomy a mistake – that we should move faster in that regard and put more resources towards it. Without knowing the full or nearly full membership of an ecosystem we are at a disadvantage in trying to sustain it. He says that taxonomy is as necessary to ecology as anatomy and physiology are to medicine. If we don’t know all the species we are likely to misjudge the important ones, even “keystone” species. He notes that the human impact on biodiversity is an attack on ourselves. The acronym HIPPO describes the dangers: H = habitat loss, I = invasive species, P = pollution, P = population growth (per capita consumption is perhaps a better indicator), O = overharvesting. He notes that conservation efforts have slowed the collapse of biodiversity and can do still more but it is still proceeding rapidly toward low but steady mass extinctions due to human impacts.

Wilson describes the human mind as an instrument of survival that employs both reason and emotion. The mind is influenced by both culture and biology. The nature vs. nurture argument, can be informed by a knowledge of human instinct. He says that human instinct is different than animal instinct in that it is not (or perhaps less) genetically fixed. Humans and mammals with larger brains seem to have more flexible instincts. We tend to be influenced by what psychologists refer to as “prepared learning.” Even phobias, some acquired by a single experience, can be described a special instances of prepared learning.

“What we call human nature is the whole of our emotions and the preparedness of learning over which those emotions preside”

This human nature is what connects genes to culture.

Wilson notes that in all living societies there is an intimate relation between religion and music. Neuroscience suggests that we have some sort of religious instinct. We intuitively seek a bridge between the real and the supernatural. Myth and religion likely arose to explain and relate with the mysteries of existence. Religions also perform social functions and relate to our need for social cohesion. It is quite tribal in that it is a key means of social bonding. Creation stories tend to define religion and are the heart of tribalism. Creation stories almost always make the tribe an elite and chosen group. Shared faith in the creation scenario unifies the group. In secular societies it is often political ideology that serves the same function. The psychological benefits of shared faith lead to a high level of in-group cooperation which makes the group successful in competing with groups that are less cooperative internally. Regarding religion he quotes Seneca the Younger: “religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” Wilson sees all religion as tribalism and as potentially dangerous, whether moderate or extremist. He suggests that we free ourselves from religion, from “demons and tribal gods.”

Free will is the next subject. Our particular consciousness for us is what it means to be alive and human, thus working toward an understanding of what it is, is a primary quest for science and the humanities. He laments traditional philosophers as failing to explain consciousness and notes the efforts of modern neuro-philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland as helpful in integrating biology and philosophy. Others disagree that biology can ever offer a satisfactory explanation of consciousness. Neurologists have set out to map neural correlates of consciousness but it is no guarantee that knowing which parts of the brain are associated with emotions, will, memory, reward, etc. will offer explanations that are ultimately useful. How consciousness evolved is also a fascinating subject with current emphasis. Wilson thinks that a better understanding of sensory information – presumably those parts beyond our tiny sliver of the continuum, and time, are within our grasp
“Conscious mental life is built entirely from confabulation. It is a constant review of stories experienced in the past and competing stories invented for the future.” 

Most of our conscious activity is related to social interactions. The “self” or what we regard as the self, he says, is the main dramatic character of the confabulated scenarios we constantly run. Our stories define us. This confabulated self is an illusion that aids our survival, it would seem.

“Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive.” 

Free will only exists in an operative sense to keep us sane and aid our survival, he thinks.

Wilson thinks we are alone and without ordained purpose, that we came to be out of chance and necessity. He is optimistic about this in that we can now better repair the damage caused by our irrational beliefs. I am not so optimistic as there does not seem to be any slowing of said irrationality. He thinks we could create a paradise if we could overcome our tendency to partake of our Paleolithic tribal adaptations that we no longer need:

“We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious, and ideological struggles.”

Our emotional instability helps us to create, he suggests. We must learn control ourselves in order to avoid ruining our environment but we will never domesticate human nature and we should not seek to do so. He mentions the biological concept of the “tolerable parasite load” whereby a parasite seeks a balance in which parasite and host can live in relative harmony. Interestingly, he suggests a similar concept for dogma – “tolerable dogma load” where religious zealots could eventually live in harmony with the rest of us as long as they realize that their beliefs are also considered blasphemous to scientific sensibilities. Unfortunately, this seems a long way off. Even secular political ideologies can be mired in dogma when confronted more with demands to explain themselves, he says. Maybe. He specifically mentions denial of evolution, the very key to biology and beyond, and one of the very foundations of modern science. He describes dogma as a cultural parasitism and sees such ideas as religious creationism as the price of admission to religious tribes. Indeed, this seems the case. He does acknowledge, however, that there are some societal benefits to religious tribalism and its blind faith: it binds members, provides comfort, and it can promote charity and law-abiding behavior. Of course, it is not God, or grace, that provides these benefits, but membership in the group. Finally, he reminds that what we can know through science will eventually approach it limits but what we can know through the humanities, the arts, is vast in comparison. Science and art both spring from our biological orientation.

Lastly, there is a detailed appendix explaining the limitations of the inclusive fitness theory and the methods and mathematical models that refute it. He rejects any notion of universal design principles in evolution as there is no evidence of such, noting that the target of natural selection is not the individual (as inclusive fitness theorists incorrectly assume) but the “allele or genomic ensemble that affects behavior.”

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