Review of “On Human Nature”

Edward O. Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “On Human Nature” is, as the Washington Post claims, “enormously important.”  In its re-released form it provides an understandable approach to sociobiology so that we may better understand ourselves.  We are, without question, shaped by the evolutionary process to be what we are today.  The problem is that our minds have the capacity to provide a cultural evolution that can easily outpace the work of biology.  This presents us with a dichotomy:  the hardwiring of our minds contains features for survival, reproduction, and ordering of our relationships from a distant human past; the environment in which our minds are formed and in which we mature is rapidly changing and quite different from the past.  This results in a natural tug-of-war at both the societal level and at the individual level between norms, roles, standards, and even faith and thought.  As it turns out, an identity crisis or a desire to return to “simpler times” is built into us.  Our evolutionarily derived brain is outpacing the rest of biological evolution.  “Human nature is … a hodgepodge of special genetic adaptations to an environment largely vanished.”  And so, we are torn.  This also could be used to explain why conservative retrenchment is normal and understandable, until proof is provided that supports a new view.

Wilson believes that the sociobiology of human beings creates two great dilemmas:  that no species, including our own, has a purpose beyond those created by its genetic history; and, innate censor and motivator brain activity has resulted in morality that has evolved as instinct.  He takes us on a trip through heredity, development, and emergence, in order to examine aggression, sex, altruism, and religion.  And what a trip it is!  Wilson acknowledges that the greatest scientific marvel of the universe thus far is the human mind.  What is it?  “The accumulation of old choices, the memory of them, the reflection on those to come, the re-experiencing of emotions by which they were engendered, all constitute the mind.”

Wilson stumbles when he tries to explain areas outside of his area of expertise.  In the area of religion, he correctly points out that human beings appear to be hardwired genetically to have a faith in something beyond scientific materialism.  He recognizes the truth that more developed forms of religion are able to adapt to scientific discoveries so that there is no conflict.  At the same time he simply discounts any notion of a Creator or Timeless Other.  Yet, current scientific theories require a violation of the laws of physics such as breaking the speed of light or laws of quantum mechanics for the world to form as predicted at The Big Bang.  Thus, a “miracle” is still required using our present knowledge.  A more intellectually honest approach than to discount the validity of religion would have been to simply say “I don’t know.”  Because proof is lacking to prove or disprove the hypothesis, this is the best we can do at the present time.  Also, in terms of human sexuality, his reference to polygyny as the most common form of human social/sexual arrangement was interesting and supported not only by evidence, but also the Bible and any observation of rich and powerful men operating in the world today.  Where he loses his footing is when he enters into the debate about homosexuality, which he acknowledges would ordinarily be an excessively regressive biological trait.  To overcome this he creates a theory (out of whole cloth) about how families that contain the trait of homosexuality could be more genetically successful.  The only thing lacking is evidence – any evidence.  This argument is one more based on emotion, exactly the trait that he seems to most ascribe to religionists.  Internal consistency is not necessarily a hallmark of this work.

That being said, it is very much worth the read for its approach to what makes us human.  His discussion about the notion that humans are predisposed to dichotomize, to say this is “good” and that is “evil,” for example, is both true and sad.  He quotes one of my favorite authors, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:  “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  And the tendency to dichotomize is what the Inkling Charles Williams was addressing through most of his life in not only his writing but also himself.  We are forever categorizing, labeling, and then judging; when what we he believed we were called to do was love and forgive.  We see our ancient past in such dichotomies.  You are in the tribe or you are an enemy; you are a co-religionist or an apostate; you are a Democrat or a Republican.  Perhaps we will one day evolve to a point of having a belief centered by Mary’s statement in Williams’ play Seed of Adam which is one way to pronounce an end to dichotomy:

Dearest, to be in love is to be in love,
no more, no less.  Love is only itself,
everywhere, at all times, and to all objects.
My soul has magnified that lord…

The final area of criticism is his notion the free will can be reduced to a mathematically determined outcome if we just had enough inputs and a computer large enough to handle them.  The problem is that this is circular, for the computer necessary to handle such inputs, memories, computations, is the human mind itself.  Consciousness and free will remain beyond scientific determinism, and such mysteries as these will continue to compel us to ask – what does it mean to be human without waiting on science to provide the answer.

In summation, Wilson’s brilliant and extremely valuable work is very much worth the read, even though he strays beyond his area of expertise and places too much emphasis on a belief that science will provide the hope necessary to satisfy the human mind; and at the same time recognizes that if it is to do so it will only happen in some distant future.  Instead, he would do well to look back to the writing of Qoheleth in the Old Testament’s “Ecclesiastes” who seemed to understand human nature quite well, and it seems to be much the same today as it was thousands of years ago.