Thursday, 5 May 2011

E.O. Wilson's 'On Human Nature'

All Science teaches us is that Life is pointless
E.O. Wilson’s ‘On Human Nature’


One of the main purposes of this blog is to criticise the 'New Humanism', science-worship, cosmos-worship, Nature worship, militiant secularism, call it what you will that appears to dominate the discourse of public intellectuals today. Contrary to what the vanguard of these new movements want you to believe (I'm referring to Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan and Sam Harris amongst others), science teaches us only two things:

1. Life is Pointless
2. Nature is Horrible

Unless you believe in a Deity who set the cosmos in motion with some sort of purpose, the plain truth is that we are mortal animals, doomed to live and die in a cold and indifferent universe. The only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning is delusion, hedonism or external obligation. Knowing what we do about our ultimate fate, it's remarkable anyone does anything at all.

On that note, I’ve recently finished reading E.O. Wilson’s ‘On Human Nature’, written in the early 70s, where Wilson attempted to apply the theory of Sociobiolgy to human beings and their societies. In contrast to the arrogance of Dawkins, Dennet and co., Wilson writes with great modesty and humility, and, perhaps uniquely amongst the so-called ‘popularisers’, he also displays an awareness of the essentially pointless nature of human existence.

He writes: “We have no particular place to go. The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature. It could be that in the next hundred years humankind will thread the needles of technology and politics, solve the energy and material crises, avert nuclear war, and control reproduction...But what then? Educated people everywhere like to believe that beyond material needs lie fulfilment and the realization of individual potential. But what is fulfilment, and to what ends may potential be realized?”


Throughout the book, Wilson displays a touching awareness of this insoluble problem. Admittedly, on the very last page he feels obliged to express the hope that as people become more rational a new form of ethics may be devised so as to create a fairer and more equitable society, but this still wouldn’t solve the problem of ultimate purpose. We do indeed have nowhere to go, and for many people on the planet their sojourn here is nightmarish.

In conclusion, I heartily recommend Wilson’s book for a clear-eyed view of how biology got us here and how we ain’t going nowhere else....

27 comments:

  1. I think the proponents of the "New Humanism" bullshit have this idea that science needs to "compete" with religion in terms of being palatable to the common man.

    But just because something is true doesn't mean it's nice to believe, or life-affirming, or whatever.

    All science has going for it is that it's true. Otherwise, it's shitty.

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    1. Well, Sister Y, this shitty science has provided you with many conviences and comforts that I'm sure you wouldn't want to live without now. Think of this the next time you use your cell phone or start your car. You could go back to your ancestor's cave and pray for manna to fall from the sky. Humanism and science aren't as heartless and unfeeling as many believers in factless myth and superstition make it out to be. Apparently, reality is still too much for many to fathom.

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    2. I think she was saying "science as a worldview is shitty" not "technology is shitty".

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    3. Maybe so!! Science is the study and appreciation of learning how things really are. Imo, this is the only path to the betterment of humankind. Compassion and concern for others is certainly not discarded in this pursuit. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Sister Y, like many, through preconceived notions, have it all backwards.

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    4. Terry Conley, science serves the needs and beliefs of those who wield it. It may generate modern conveniences, medicine, entertainments etc. but it also generates ever more deadly and sophisticated weaponry such as the nuclear bomb, predator drones, and so on (and doubtless some hideous form of genetic warfare is being trialed somewhere as we speak). Don't get too starry-eyed about it.

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    5. Science can prevent suffering compared to the natural status quo, which is not that hard to do because the natural status quo is agonizing to begin with, so the bar is not set very high for science.

      But science also has the potential to multiply suffering unimaginably, through enhanced torture methods and the looming threat of space colonization, which can bring suffering to hundreds of billions of additional star systems, with hyperefficient suffering consciousness.

      As bad as the natural world is, its suffering is constrained by the practicalities of biological evolution and the physical restraints of the gravity sink of earth and this solar system (assuming naturally occuring panspermia is false). It is memetic evolution and its latest most dangerous offspring scientific and technological empowerment of a violent expansionist ape species that has the potential to bring the worst amount of the most intense suffering into existence. Nature has caused a lot of harm, but the worst quantities and qualities of harm are very clearly provided by science and technology.

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    6. "The sky is falling....the sky is falling" Chicken Little

      Seriously, I do appreciate the insight and wisdom intended here. No dummies in this crowd.

      Yes, our new found toy called science and discovery,indeed, has the potential to cause much suffering and harm. But it also has the potential to provide much welfare and good. It has done both. So what do we do? Throw the baby out with the bath water? I think not. It appears that the rate of human ability to create technology is far outracing our ability to manage it. Agreed, there are many dangers but this is nothing new. Like the child who discovers a box of matches, burns his fingers a few times before learning what not to do, we also must learn how to use science for the most good. Science is not going away so no amount of poo pooing it is going to fix things. We are not going to force the toothpaste back into the tube.

      "Nature has caused a lot of harm, but the worst quantities and qualities of harm are very clearly provided by science and technology"? Not so!! Nature has caused extinctions of 80 to 90% of life on the planet in the past. And just wait until something like Yellowstone blows it's top. We in all our power will never match anything like that. It is pompous and arrogant to assume we have that kind of potential.

      So, all this philosphical whining about the potential dangers of human technology is far outweighed by the hugh potential good that it will be capable of accomplishing in the future.
      In my humble opinion of course.

      "Hope springs eternal" :>)

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    7. "Nature has caused extinctions of 80 to 90% of life on the planet in the past. And just wait until something like Yellowstone blows it's top. We in all our power will never match anything like that. It is pompous and arrogant to assume we have that kind of potential."

      This assumption is simply untrue. We absolutely do have that kind of potential. All it takes is one self-replicating technological pattern that can cross the distances between stars and start a process of exponential growth using the astronomical amount of potential resources in this galaxy and beyond. If this process brings any kind of sentience to the stars, and if this sentience contains any amount of suffering from the outset or evolves to contain such suffering later, the total amount of unpleasantness that will come into existence will *far* outweigh any suffering that could ever exist on the surface of just one planet.

      "So, all this philosphical whining about the potential dangers of human technology is far outweighed by the hugh potential good that it will be capable of accomplishing in the future."

      The whining is outweighed, but the additional suffering is not. You cannot outweigh torture of any innocent entity with whatever other good you could potentially produce. You could make trillions happy and it would still not outweigh any involuntary suffering that is forced onto the non-consenting innocent. This is what antinatalism recognizes, and this is why the analogy with the child who burns his fingers is actually quite relevant: The pain of the burned fingers is not necessary, because the existence of the child is not necessary. If the child is simply not created, it will never suffer. And people in the real world don't just burn their fingers. The statistical probability distribution makes it entirely plausible that this same child will later be forced to experience abhorrent suffering in illness, crime, accidents or war; suffering for which there simply is no compensation. Science and technology do not change this fundamentally unethical tradeoff. They only multiply its scope.

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    8. I wasn't talking about the danger of technology. (LOL @ Society for Prevention of Whining on the Internet using its main weapon, whining on the internet). I was talking about the scientific worldview, and its failure to replace (wrong, silly, pathetic) human values like God and tribe with anything else to take their place. Nature is horrible. Nature-worship and science-worship are both missing something vital. Note that I'm an atheist and pro-science (I went to MIT); 3D printing is great and all, but it doesn't make it any better that people suffer and die. Even making fewer people suffer and die doesn't make it better for the ones who do.

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    9. Sister Y; I apologize for ignorantly misreading your main point here. As usual, I go jumping or stumbling into these discussions half prepared with some of my,at best, sophomoric views. LOL

      With that said, maybe life is indeed pointless, and it is us who label it with our own manufactured humanly concepts. I think we are in a transition period between beliefs of religious origins of life (which will eventually die out) and understanding life from a strictly secular, humanistic albeit caring point of view. Humans are an impatient bunch, resulting in a desiring of things and conditions to get better right now.

      Birth and death seem to be a natural order of things, from stars to humans to bacteria. Most likely the universe itself. I suppose if stars could feel, they would consider their destruction as bad. Many dream of a utopian reality where nothing dies or ever feels the pain of suffering. I think the law of conservation prohibits this. I didn't design the system, but have to accept it as a matter of fact. I don't think we have to worship (hate that word) anything, a god or nature.

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    10. Terry,

      "We also must learn how to use science for the most good."

      This is an expression of blind faith. Given humanity's track record, do you really see this happening?


      "All this philosphical whining about the potential dangers of human technology is far outweighed by the hugh potential good that it will be capable of accomplishing in the future."

      Ummm, the 20th century was the most violent in human history, entirely due to science and technology. You make it sound like we should just ignore it, brush it under the carpet, regard it as a 'blip' etc. And let's not forget that we live in an era of nuclear weapons. It's astounding how little that fact is commented on today. Another example of humanity peering straight ahead through its rose-tinted blinkers. And as Anonymous so eloquently stated, no amount of utilitarian optimism or gambling on the future is going to annul, redeem or justify the pain and suffering that's gone on in the past, is going on now and will inevitably go on in the future.


      "I think we are in a transition period between beliefs of religious origins of life (which will eventually die out) and understanding life from a strictly secular, humanistic albeit caring point of view."

      Really, where is the evidence of that? The numbers of people dying per day from starvation, suicide etc are constantly rising.

      "I don't think we have to worship (hate that word) anything, a god or nature."

      That's your choice, but please don't go worshipping humanity, the creature/concept least worthy of any kind of adulation.

      If humanity were ever to 'wake up' it would realise that there us nothing of a fundamentally positive nature to achieve, all that there is to do is reduce suffering. Antinatalism is the surest way to do that.

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  2. Another great piece and a good advice for some reading time! This book will go into my list of new stuff to read.

    And I agree with Sister Y.

    Kudos!

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  3. Shadow: thanks as always, my friend. The book is a definite must-read.

    Sister Y: It's great to see you here. Your blog is always a pleasure on account of its razor-sharp intelligence. Wish I had some of it!

    Re. your comment, yes, it's astonishing how the scientists and humanists 'oooh' and 'aaahh' over the Orion nebula, the rings of Saturn and all the rest of it, yet appear utterly blind to the misery of sentient life. I guess it would spoil their wankfest. 'Admire the boundless beauty and elegance of the Panther as it chases its hapless prey'.

    Yes, and let's recall Schopenhauer's remark about attemtping to weigh up the amount of pleasure and pain in the world: 'Compare the feelings of an animal being eaten with that of the animal doing the eating'. Or more pithily, Woody's great line: 'Nature is juust one big restaurant'.

    Well, time to go on hunger strike, I say!

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  4. Karl,

    I just ordered the book. Besides a big feast for thought, your blog and the ones from fellow antinatalists provide a continuous and wonderful reading list.
    You're right: by trying to be sooo humanistic Dawkins and co. are becoming utterly inhuman.

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  5. Hey Karl,

    This blog looks like a winner if those two posts are a harbinger of future output.

    it's astonishing how the scientists and humanists 'oooh' and 'aaahh' over the Orion nebula, the rings of Saturn and all the rest of it, yet appear utterly blind to the misery of sentient life.

    This may actually be their way of mentally escaping the misery and mundane of this world. That's partly why I have such an interest in astronomy, but certainly its not the primary or only reason. In my more fanciful moments, I imagine us leaving Earth with a few tens of thousands of like-minded people and establishing a more perfect society somewhere "out there" - away from the corrupting influence of Earth. Alas, I know that won't happen, for even if somebody in the far off future does put this dream into practice, what is there to prevent the "unwashed masses" from following them to their own paradise in the heavens (not meant religiously, of course).

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  6. Josep: Glad you ordered the book, my friend. You won't regret it.

    Filrabat: Great to see you here, man, and thanks for the kind words.

    I'm not knocking an interest in astronomy per se; I often like to stand out in the back garden and contemplate the stars, mainly because of the temporary relief it brings me from the chaos and misery of the human world. I think the problem arises when people try to transfer that wonder to the human race itself and the fact of our existence. How fortunate we are to be alive, they say, the odds were so small. Some of us have the opposite reaction....

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  7. "I think the proponents of the "New Humanism" bullshit have this idea that science needs to "compete" with religion in terms of being palatable to the common man."

    Too true Sister Y... too true. One of those things that gives me a near instant gag reflex. Hardly any need to stick my finger down my throat! ;)

    Karl, when I hear that tired old cliche about how "fortunate" we were to have been born, in spite of the infinitely small chance of it ever having occurred... I feel a rage begin to brew. I honestly can't find the words to describe the anger. At least it subsides when I just walk away from the moron who made the statement. Isn't it a shame that walking away from life isn't equally simple and painless?

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  8. filrabat: In my more fanciful moments, I imagine us leaving Earth with a few tens of thousands of like-minded people and establishing a more perfect society somewhere "out there" - away from the corrupting influence of Earth.

    The stars and nebulae look nice from far away, just as Earth looks nice from the Moon. You don't see the imperfections until you get closer. I have found this to be true for many things: nature, sex, "gadgets", vacations, people... Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say. The corrupting influence is not Earth, it is brains.

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  9. "Maybe so!! Science is the study and appreciation of learning how things really are. Imo, this is the only path to the betterment of humankind."

    It has magnified human suffering: there are now 7 billion people in the world.

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    1. Yup, it makes me slightly angry when I see Steven Pinker's book arrogantly proclaiming that things are getting better. He bases this on percentages! The fact is that there are more and more individual lives in misery than there ever have been. No amount of fiddling the figures and distorting the perspective to suit a Pollyanna ideology can disguise that fact.

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  10. Karl,

    A bit late to this thread discussion but here goes.

    Of course life itself doesn't have a 'point.' To have a point is a relative ascription, not something intrinsic to a thing. To be outraged that life does not have a point is only to re-assert the very humanistic attitude you are berating, by demanding an anthropomorphic stamp on things which do not warrant it.

    There's really just no pleasing folks. If we discovered one day that the point of life was to create the most delicious chocolate cake imaginable, would people be happy now that they knew the point? No, they would probably now gripe and complain about how they don't even like chocolate cake in the first place. Just consider - the fact that life does not bind you with a specific point means you are entirely free to create your own.

    Anyway, yes, life, viewed in a certain way, is pointless. Let me take a moment on that. On this view we reject any notion of a benevolent deity, an afterlife and so on. The problem here, then, is that while rejecting divinity, we usually retain concepts such as "ultimate", "infinite" and "eternal".

    So then, as we are imperfect, finite beings, our pathetic, boring lives can have no "ultimate" meaning. No meaning in the context of eternity. Most astrophysicists are still telling us that the universe likely ends in heat death. Life forms simply could not survive; even primitive ones.

    If we are to find meaning in life without resorting to notions like divinity and an afterlife, we must find it in the moment, in the day to day, or at least within our lifespan. Personally, I find meaning in work, family and friends. In posting gibberish on philosophy forums. In the petty pleasures of the table, and the bed (sleep obviously!).

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  11. Thanks, Cathy, but some of us are too bothered by the cosmic poinltessness, the pointlessness of all suffering, the random nature of life and the lack of any natural justice to find much comfort in the quotidian.

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    1. Karl, my only disagreement is that nature is indifferent, not horrible. Other than that I generally agree with you I think.

      Even before my thinking was philosophically inclined I've never understood what people mean when they say life has meaning or purpose. I've always thought of those terms as synonymous with reason for life, the reason for existing. It just seems far too convenient and bizarre to be true that we're here to have fun, be with our family and friends and have a good life (pop-culture existentialism), or even to make of life what we wish. I think it's more reasonable to assume these are self-satisfying beliefs. I've just always taken existential nihilism as trivially true, even before I'd heard the term.

      But the strange part is, it's hard to live (I'd say impossible for most) as though existential nihilism is true. If life is pointless then anything you do is as valid as anything else. It seems to be a perfectly acceptable on a rational level but on an emotional level it's too big a pill to swallow. You still end up gravitating towards the things you enjoy or are otherwise obligated to do and you still act in ways you feel are moral even though you know it's pointless.

      I also believe this science-worship you mentioned is a case of people mistaking the map for the territory.

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    2. Karl:

      Mostly I'm on your side, but my selfish and greedy subconscious brain won't let me end it all. If you can't find comfort in mundane daily life (the quotidian, as you put it), what keeps you going? I hope that's not a too personal question.

      Another question for you. If one takes the position that, say, "nature is horrible", or some such, then how does it make sense to appeal to notions of natural justice?

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    3. I don't appeal to natural justice; I lament its absence.

      As for comfort in the quotidian, obviously its regularities and trivialities drag me along like they do everyone else. How much pleasure or comfort one derives from it is entirely a matter of chance and easily susceptible to change, so don't get too complacent.

      Living is an automatic biological habit; breaking it is difficult, no matter how awful one thinks it is.

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  12. K,

    Another anonymous...

    I'm with you on the general pointlessness of existence, the ubiquity of pain and suffering, and antinatalism. Having said that, I see nothing wrong with trying to salvage as much as we can from the general awfulness of the world.

    Epictetus wisely said (among other things): "Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens."

    Distinguishing what is and is not in your power is essential. But if you lament the indifference of the cosmos, or the fact that there is suffering in the world, which you can do nothing about, it's much like lamenting that Earth has only one moon.

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    1. Not necessarily. By constant re-iteration of the suffering, one consolidates one's own determination to minimise one's contribution. It's extremely easy to become complacent and slip in to the 'I'm alright, Jack, so fuck you and your suffering' mode.

      As for Epictetus, I'm afraid I find his 'insights' ultimately trivial. Everyone makes the best of their lot; sometimes it is more bearable than at other times, but try telling someone dying of cancer to 'make the best of it'. I've noticed generally that most stoics and their contemporary advocates have healthy bank accounts.

      As Le Rochfoucauld said, 'We all have the courage to bear the suffering of others'.

      (Might I also suggest to you and the person above that if you have anything further to say, do so on the current post. The themes and topics debated are generally the same.)

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