Thursday, October 26, 2006

Edward O. Wilson: On Human Nature

Edward O. Wilson's On Human Nature is an enjoyable read. (It won a Pulitzer Prize, so this is no surprise.) Even though it was written in 1978, it continues to provide a good overview of much that is still held to be true about human biology and sociology. There are chapters addressing Heridity, Agression, Sex, Altruism, and Religion. Wilson is a gifted writer, and can explain subtle concepts with clarity. The opening chapter posits that we are evolved creatures, and that our brains are effectively machines constructed out of billions of nerve cells that bottom out in chemical and electrical interactions. With this as context, Wilson says that the central dilemmas of our existence are that we have no pre-established goals, and that our development of morality on a scientific basis has been short-circuited by the fact that much of our ethical instincts are inculcated by our heridity and environment. In order to understand how we can have goals beyond those evolution set for us, or understand morality in any depth, we first have to understand the biases that evolution has built into us.

The heart of the book is an exploration of what human nature consists of. Wilson provides clear contrasts with the many other creatures (from insects to higher mammals) that he has studied. He points out the myriad ways that social behavior differs across species, both to show how different thinking creatures might be, and to provide context for an argument that the "natural" drives we have evolved shouldn't be treated as guides to correct behavior. If religion can be systematically analyzed and explained as a product of the brain's evolution, its power as an external source of morality will be gone forever. He follows that with this statement of principals:

The core of scientific materialism is the evolutionary epic. Let me repeat its minimum claims: that the laws of the physical sciences are consistent with those of the biological and social sciences and can be linked in chains of causal explanation; that life and mind have a physical basis; that the world as we know it has evolved from earlier worlds obedient to the same laws; and that the visible universe today is everywhere subject to these materialist explanations.

The one thing I would fault Wilson for is for not addressing his first dilemma more strongly. I think he did a good job of showing that religion and our instincts are not a sufficient basis for establishing goals for us to pursue. But that doesn't leave us adrift in an uncaring cosmos; the first task of any maturing person is to discover or invent their own goals. Morality and ethics provide boundaries on that search, but everyone has to find their own destination. Wilson instead falls back on a shared goal of progress and scientific exploration. I do admire his eloquence. This is how he closes the book:

The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the depest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.

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