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The Meaning of Human Existence

(The Anthropocene Epoch #2)

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  3,547 ratings  ·  450 reviews
How did humanity originate and why does a species like ours exist on this planet? Do we have a special place, even a destiny in the universe? Where are we going, and perhaps, the most difficult question of all, "Why?"

In The Meaning of Human Existence, his most philosophical work to date, Pulitzer Prize–winning biologist Edward O. Wilson grapples with these and other existe
Hardcover, 207 pages
Published October 6th 2014 by Liveright Publishing (first published October 2014)
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May 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a wonderful little book by a preeminent biologist, Edward Wilson. He has remarkable insights into the world and the nature of progress. If there is a single theme in the book, it is that human progress depends on both science and the humanities. Neither is sufficient by itself. Wilson writes, "The most successful scientist thinks like a poet--wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical--and works like a bookkeeper." In his writing, the scientist must write precisely and avoid metaphor, while in ...more
Clif Hostetler
May 22, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
The narrative in this book reads much like the ruminations of a wise old professor talking about social evolution, the evolution of life, the humanities, instinct, religion, free will, and the fate of human existence. The author draws from a long career as a biologist and naturalists and speaks as one who knows his stuff.

However, he doesn't spend much time addressing the implicit question contained in the title of the book, what is the meaning of human existence? His implicit answer is that hum
Oct 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Throughout his distinguished career, Edward O. Wilson has brought a vast wealth of interdisciplinary knowledge to bear on some of humanity’s most complex and pressing questions. The Meaning of Human Existence is his most philosophical work, and contains many worthwhile insights about humanity’s origins and possible futures. Wilson’s method, best characterized as a kind of “biohistory,” integrates findings from the natural sciences with humanitarian wisdom to achieve a long view of the human stor ...more
Oct 09, 2014 rated it it was ok
There's nothing in this book that you don't expect from a scientist who only accepts explanations grounded in nature and physical reality: we're a product of evolution and our existence has no preassigned purpose and meaning. The problem with the book isn't just its predictable statements. I'm afraid E.O. Wilson sounds like a broken record. He's written a book titled The Meaning of Human Existence, and he spends nearly half of it promoting group selection and refuting kin selection. I doubt he's ...more
Sara K
Mar 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Wasn’t religious based which I love yet he included many aspects of science, religious views by others and how they correlate to humanity. There is alien talk, questioning if free will is real or just a figment of humans imagination, as well as marine life and micro organisms plus their importance. None the less it was an extremely easy read and could be put down and picked back up with no confusion.
Jan 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: environment
Meaning of Human Existence is a collection of essays by a great science writer. Probably never answers the title question, but who cares. I know the answer already anyway.

Individual-Level Selection VS. Group-Level Selection:

Humans are conflicted between the two. On the one hand, we evolved to think about ourselves over others. This might be the side that promoted "sin." On the other hand, we evolved to take care of our groups. This might be the side that promoted virtue, conscience, and honor.
Richard Block
Oct 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing

One of the world's great scientists has written, in all probability, his last book. E.O. Wilson is in his 90's, and it would be difficult to choose a topic more fitting to the end of his life's journey than this unusual combination of hard science and speculation.

Wilson in not only the world's premier insect scientist, he is a founder of sociobiology and one of the great public intellectuals on evolutionary biology. He writes with charm and great depths of hard earned knowledge about
David Teachout
Oct 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
One of the difficulties in modern science is the hyper-specialization that, with some good reason, has had to happen. Unfortunately a side-effect in this is the further distancing between the realm of science and the common populace identification with it. The result is a social separation that is not at all helpful and leads to a felt support in the ridiculous claim that science is incapable of providing any meaning or even the means of determining meaning. Wilson knocks this false claim down, ...more
Oct 08, 2014 rated it it was ok
I really like E.O. Wilson. This book seems like a retread of his earlier ideas. It could be enlightening for someone with no background at all in biological or evolutionary science but I really didn't find anything new here. The exploration, such as it is, of the interplay of science and humanities was lacking in depth. This seems like a compilation of excerpts from Wilson's other books and articles. Read those if you want a better, more in-depth look into the sociobiological and humanistic idea ...more
Kenny Chaffin
Nov 30, 2014 rated it liked it
I was somewhat disappointed in this book. It is very well written as are all his books for popular audiences. The problem I had with it was that it never really seemed to address the title and was more of an attempt at pushing his view of cultural evolution than anything else. Almost a bait and switch. :(
Jon Stout
Jan 28, 2015 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: scientists and humanitarians
Recommended to Jon by: Donald Richardson
Shelves: philosophy
E. O. Wilson sets out to bridge the gap between science and the humanities, the “two cultures” of C. P. Snow. Evolutionary biologists such as Wilson often have important insights into how human beings have developed, the nature of emotions, for example, or the nature of human cognition. Sometimes they go too far, in my opinion, by trying to reduce everything in cultural history to a biological phenomenon. But E. O. Wilson seems to have a healthy appreciation of the humanities, and to be willing ...more
Feb 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
In this crossover of philosophy and science, Wilson says to humanity, Know thyself, and thou shalt survive. Know that some of your behaviours are inborn, your propensity for religion is hard-wired albeit irrational, know that the Earth is the only habitable planet for you. The behaviours that guide you come in part from the natural selection that worked on the individual and in part from group selection. Those that we came to see as vices come from an individual's fight for survival; those that ...more
Kathryn Bashaar
Oct 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book was very thought-provoking. It was worth reading for the chapter on consciousness alone. Wilson makes the point that our consciousness(as well as what we call our "self") consists of making a narrative out of a series of random moments and sensations. I never looked at it quite that way.
He also explains the mix of good and evil in human nature from an evolutionary standpoint. His theory is that from the standpoint of the individual, selfishness is a better survival strategy, but from
Dec 22, 2014 rated it it was ok
Up front disclaimer: I have a Master of Divinity degree. That being said, I am a science enthusiast and read Scientific American regularly. I hoped this book would be a thoughtful examination of the inter-play of science and religion. Instead I found it to be an arrogant argument for science as the path to truth with the humanities as the discipline that keeps humans interesting. I was not persuaded by Wilson's argument, but more than that I was left wondering why this book is called The Meaning ...more
Dave Peticolas
Nov 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
Why are we here, what does it mean for us to be human, and now what are we supposed to do? Wilson's answer to the first two questions is the same: we are the product of an ancient history of physical, evolutionary, and cultural processes which have been unfolding for millennia and longer and which are extraordinarily contingent and could easily have produced an entirely different form of life. And to be human is precisely to be the utterly unique current culmination of those processes in the for ...more
Feb 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
There is nothing in particular that I dislike about this book thus the 4 star rating. The author obviously knows his biological stuff and what the book does, it does well. The only issue I have is not with this book in particular - it is more with a particular attitude that I see cropping up in a lot of the science books and articles that I read in general, this one included. I know that many scientists are not religious and I don't expect them to be, to each his own, I am not exactly a "religio ...more
Samarth Misra
Note: This is not so much a book review as it a review of my exploration of evolutionary biology which reached a new high when I finally read Edward O. Wilson's work. This is a summary of my notes masquerading as a book review.

In the second half of this book, Wilson tells the story of how he eventually landed at multilevel selection as the definitive explanation for human social and cultural evolution. Ever since I started reading about evolutionary biology, I've been torn between the two leadi
Oct 23, 2014 rated it did not like it
Nothing new here. On top of the unpleasant writing style, the author offers nothing really new or innovative to the conversation, and at times goes off the subject. One chapter is dedicated to guessing what E.T.s would look like. This is a filler chapter, skip it. In the end, this book may be a good read for people beginning to increase their knowledge of genes, evolution and group evolution, yet the language and structure just mind hinder those readers' ability to grasp them.
Sep 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction-read
The summer before I entered Southern Methodist University as a freshman, I found C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution on the required reading list. The essay, a version of his 1959 Rede Lecture at Cambridge, proposed the existence of a damaging dichotomy in academia between the sciences and the humanities. My undergraduate career was spent in an integrated curriculum that attempted to connect those two towers of human knowledge. Of all the scientists and humanists who have ...more
Jul 08, 2015 rated it did not like it
Shockingly incoherent. I would recommend it for the sole purpose of demonstrating a proper object for the critique of scientism. Scientism, usefully understood, is not good science or justifiable enthusiasm for the uses and accomplishments of science. Scientism is a form of chicanery, advancing unscientific analyses and assertions in the name of science.

Wilson misuses science by mixing descriptions of fact and scientific discovery with highly speculative and idiosyncratic interpretations without
Robin Tierney
Oct 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
The Meaning of Human Existence
by Edward O. Wilson

A slim volume of elegant essays to be read when you’re in a calm, contemplative and open-minded mood. Most of my favorite essays are toward the book’s end. If you nod off at discussions of “inclusive fitness” and “universal design principle” vs. population genetics” (a debate about what accounts for selection for a trait in evolution), you’re not alone.

Cogent points include those about humans’ hereditary myopia, having trouble caring about other p
Oct 22, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not sure this is the book I'd recommend someone to pick up if they hadn't read Wilson before... Unfortunately, this was my first. If I were already an established fan, I'm sure I'd have a greater appreciation for the experience of reading this book, but as that's not the case, I found his frequent references to his accomplishments and prior work tedious. I'm sure there was good reason for that, but I don't feel particularly generous in this moment. I wanted to be more inspired after reading ...more
Aug 11, 2020 rated it it was ok
Dry and repetitive. Author makes a good case against inclusive fitness, although that’s not what I was expecting from a book titled “The Meaning of Human Existence.”
Oct 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is one of the best books about human existance. Author gives different examples and cases that i never heard. Also i like the details about ants and their perfect society. The only bad side is too short and too superficial..
Excellent book filled with fascinating facts and theories about our rich bio diverse little planet and it and our special place in the Milky Way galaxy, if not the known Universe, easily digestible by this simpleton; that would be me. The premise behind the book is that we stand on the cusp to genetically alter and redesign our own destiny and now, more than ever, science and the humanities must come together to save us from ourselves.

According to Mr. Wilson, we have two, maybe three generation
Nov 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The book adds for the reader a new lens to the meaning of our existence. It shows that we, humans, are not only special species, but we are living in a marvelously diverse world. A world where social dynamics come as a result of genetic modification across species. "The Meaning of Human Existence" is not only restricted to examining the self, but also to re-examine what's around us as we are living in parallel with ants that communicate via the language of chemicals, male bees that give their li ...more
Daniel Simmons
Dec 27, 2015 rated it liked it
If I had to give a star rating to the ACTUAL meaning of human existence, I'd probably give it two: not bad, but nothing super-special -- a bit middling for most of the time, really, which is not a complaint but rather a resigned acceptance that we humans are no more the Chosen Species of our planet than are, say, slugs. As for this book, reading it felt like sinking into a plush armchair and listening to your alternately wise and wise-cracking favorite uncle as he spins a yarn about who we are a ...more
Dennis Robbins
Oct 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I recommend this book. There are many like it describing a science world-view of humanity, its history and future, but this one is succinct. At times I wanted greater coverage and treatment of many of its fascinating topics but when I got to the end I realized in was the right length.

According to Wilson we are ultimately free. There are no supernatural entities to save us. There is no second life after this one. We are the products of accident and necessity. The human brain is the most complex s
An excellent literary read that the author succinctly blends science and philosophy. Since childhood, E.O. Wilson studied insects, and in 1975, he popularized the concept of sociobiology with a book of that title by linking biology to social behavior in humans as well as animals. Sounds simple enough, but at the time was a new way of seeing the world. At this point in our evolution, he is alarmed that we are now capable of abandoning natural selection on one hand and on the other still grasping ...more
Steven Schmatz
Oct 28, 2016 rated it it was ok
There were some interesting parts. Too bad they comprise the minority of the book.

Wilson's talk about multi-level selection really made me think - it explains the battle between selfishness and altruism. His talk about driver ants was also fascinating.

But often it seemed like many of the sentences were him showing off his trophy shelf or using pretentious language to seem smart. The good parts could be condensed to a Medium article or a blog post, but the rest is just fluff. It seems like he pub
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Edward Osborne Wilson, sometimes credited as E. O. Wilson, is an American biologist, researcher, theorist, and author. His biological specialty is myrmecology, a branch of entomology. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical ma ...more

Other books in the series

The Anthropocene Epoch (3 books)
  • The Social Conquest of Earth
  • Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life

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“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”  Theodor Geisel said...
26 likes · 6 comments
“Human existence may be simpler than we thought. There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life. Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world. What counts for long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based upon a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies.” 22 likes
“The competition between the two forces can be succinctly expressed as follows: Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.” 12 likes
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