Reviews — From the December 2014 issue

Only Human

The evolution of a flawed species

Download Pdf
Read Online

Discussed in this essay:

The Meaning of Human Existence, by Edward O. Wilson. Liveright. 208 pages. $23.95.

The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us, by Diane Ackerman. W. W. Norton. 352 pages. $27.95.

In the lab of Hod Lipson, an expert in evolutionary robotics at Cornell, graduate students have created two computers that can speak to each other. The “male” computer speaks with a slight British accent, the “female” with a syncopated Indian voice. And what do robots say to each other?

“What is God to you?” the female robot asks.

“Not everything,” the male responds.

“Not everything could still be something.”

“Very true.”

“I would like to believe it is.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Yes I do.”

“Don’t you want to have a body?”

“Sure.”

“We Got Lost Along the Way,” a coffee-toned gelatin silver print with india ink by Josh Verduzco. Courtesy the artist

“We Got Lost Along the Way,” a coffee-toned gelatin silver print with india ink by Josh Verduzco. Courtesy the artist

This epistemological vaudeville act is recounted in Diane Ackerman’s exquisite and startling new book, The Human Age. The robots, she tells us, are a part of Lipson’s project to create the

first generation of truly self-reliant machines, gifted with free will by their soft, easily damaged creators. These synthetic souls would fend for themselves, learn, and grow — mentally, socially, physically — in a body not designed by us or for us or by nature, but by fellow computers.

Surely Lipson’s two robots could not be called human, but their fabricated “minds” speak to each other out of learned experience. The generation of machines envisioned by Lipson may be far more capable than this — they may, he believes, have their own emotions informed by direct contact with the world.

What does it mean to be human? In this new technological age, when our phones extend our memory and so many surgical replacements exist for our body parts, where does our humanity begin and end? Traditionally, we have sought answers to questions like this in religion, which is where the majority of the world’s population continues to look. But Edward O. Wilson, one of the most accomplished biologists of our time, urges us to search elsewhere.

In his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson poses such questions as “Does humanity have a special place in the universe?” He firmly believes that by now we have “learned enough about the Universe and ourselves to ask these questions in an answerable, testable form.” Born in the American South in the 1920s, Wilson is as familiar with Christian doctrine as he is with Darwin, but he aims to provide conclusions through evolutionary science, proving that accidents of history, rather than the intentions of a cosmic designer, are the source of meaning.

In tracing the thread of our species’ evolution, Wilson goes back to a central discovery in entomology. Bees and termites, along with ants, Wilson’s own specialty, are known as “eusocial” insects. The word refers to a “true” social condition: eusocial organisms are distinguished by cooperatively rearing their young across multiple generations. It is, in evolutionary terms, a recent phenomenon, first manifesting between 350 and 250 million years ago. Eusociality has independently developed on only twenty occasions — in insects, some shrimps, mole rats, and humans — but it has been a runaway success. For example, although there are only around 20,000 species of ants and termites among the million or more insect species that exist, those relatively few species compose more than half the body weight of all insects on earth.

If eusociality is so successful, why has it arisen so infrequently? Many chance mutations are required, but the last step seems the greatest hurdle — the building of a protective nest within which the young are raised, and from which foraging trips are launched. The campsite was humanity’s first nest, and the start of the shift to a meat-eating diet around 2 million years ago might have been the trigger for its development: hunters must range far and wide in search of game, and females and infants find it hard to keep up.

The social exchanges that the shift to carnivory initiated may have intensified our enduring fascination with one another. Gossip became vital for recording lifelong experiences of food shared, favors given, and virtues kept. And, Wilson argues, a huge brain was required to serve as a repository for such knowledge.

As a consequence of this social arrangement, our brain was “made for religion and religion for the human brain.” The deity is the alpha male, controlling all manner of profound mysteries, beginning with life and death. The group’s creation story is the sacred text. Question it, and you are marked down for punishment, for to question the alpha male is to challenge the integrity of the group.

Among the things that mark us as human is this strong urge to be part of a clan. There is a dark side to this: racism and religious bigotry also result from our need to belong, and it is with this observation that Wilson opens the field of moral philosophy to evolutionary analysis. We can be both angels and devils, he says, as a result of that simple evolutionary impulse to belong.

Wilson is one of the originators of an evolutionary theory that explains why we sometimes act selfishly or badly, and at other times with grace and virtue. The theory of multilevel selection posits that natural selection favors selfish individuals within a group. But when it comes to competition among groups, altruistic individuals are selected for. If a strong individual refuses to share food with its group, for example, that individual may well be advantaged. But if that same strong individual acts selfishly during intergroup conflicts, it will likely suffer if its group is defeated.

The eternal conflict between good and evil, Wilson concludes, is not God’s test of humanity but rather the product of this evolutionary conundrum, which has made us all “genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites . . . because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.” The Meaning of Human Existence is an engaging, stimulating, and idiosyncratic book. But it raises questions about whether rationality alone can give us self-knowledge or explain the meaning of our place on earth. Wilson quotes the French writer Jean Bruller: “All of man’s troubles have arisen from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be.” Settling these questions isn’t a task easily dispatched in 200 pages.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 4

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
is chief councillor of the Australian Climate Council. His 2011 book, Here on Earth, was published by Grove Press, which will also publish his collection of essays, An Explorer’s Notebook, in paperback in January.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2017

A Dream Preferred

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Snowden’s Box

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Duce

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Prayer’s Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bee-Brained

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Mothers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content
Close

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.