Review: The Meaning of Human Existence

The Meaning of Human Existence
The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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 form of our bodies, minds, predispositions, cultural patterns, and social institutions.

What makes us truly unique amongst life on Earth, and the reason we currently find ourselves the most powerful species on the planet, is our sociality. So far as we know, complex social organization has arisen only twenty times in Earth’s evolutionary history. It is present in the ants, termites and bees (and not coincidentally those three forms dominate the insect world) and a few other species. But even in that small group humanity stands apart because it has achieved sociality via the route of high intelligence instead of fixed instinctual behaviors.

Which is not to say that our evolutionary inheritance has no hand in shaping our behavior. We are born predisposed to learn certain kinds of things and in certain ways. And there are two conflicting impulses continually at war within us: the urge to put oneself first whatever the consequences and the urge to make sacrifices for the community as a whole. These two impulses are a result of natural selection operating at two different levels, the individual and the group. It is group selection that caused the rapid increase in brain size that turned a small group of australopithecines into homo sapiens. Much of that extra brain seems to be used for thinking about other people and anticipating what they will do. Our brains are story-telling machines and the stories are usually about us.

As to what we are supposed to do, Wilson’s answer is nothing: we are not supposed to do anything. As the product of historical processes without purpose or intention we are radically free to choose. There is no transcendent task we have been given, no moral imperative handed to us by the universe and no end results we are obliged to achieve. And there is, certainly, no other life for us other than this one. Whatever heavens or hells we experience will be experienced right here in this, our one and only world, and they will be largely our own creations.

What then should we choose to do? Wilson sets our task as nothing less than the peaceful unification of humanity and the responsible stewardship and conservation of life on Earth. As daunting a challenge as the first is, the second is probably even harder and more urgent. Wilson documents the depressing rate of extinction that our civilization is wreaking upon the biosphere, a rate that seems sure to rise as the rest of the world proceeds with industrialization.

Wilson’s vision is sweeping in scope and deeply humane. I must confess I find it more than a little naive as well, though I desperately want to be proven wrong about that. To take one specific example: we are on the cusp of gaining the ability to manipulate our own genome. In effect, we will be capable of directing our own evolution. What should we do with this awesome power?

Wilson claims he knows what our answer will be: we won’t do much. We will decide to use this power to correct certain genetic defects, such as the one that causes cystic fibrosis, in the womb. This prediction is unsurprising. But Wilson claims that is all we will do. Rather than tinker with human nature, we shall conserve it in its present form as that which makes us what we are. To do otherwise would be, in a sense, a form of willing self-extinction.

I am skeptical. Once this power is in our grasp, I find it difficult to imagine that we will collectively decide not to use it. Surely the possibility of bequeathing higher intelligence, better memory, or enhance bodily function to one’s children will prove irresistible to at least some of those with the means to do so. Will none of the secretive and autocratic governments on Earth elect to experiment with technology of this sort? For good or ill I think we may be about to embark on a process of self-directed genetic evolution with unknown consequences.

But my quibbles over the book are minor. Naive or not, this slim volume contains a startling amount of deep and controversial thought. It won’t take long to read and is well worth the time.

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Review: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t know much about hip-hop, but I think this history of the music, dance, and graffiti which combined to form it, the people that started it, and the communities that sustained it is pretty good. Not great, but good. There is an extensive list of further reading and listening and when the author gets out of the way and just tells us the story it’s really very good. And he does tell us a lot, including the more unsavory parts of the history from many perspectives. It’s when he tells us what it all means, in the stilted language of critical theory meets hip-hop jargon, that I got a bit glassy-eyed. I still don’t quite know what pre-millennial tension is.

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Review: The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever

The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever
The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever by Alan Sepinwall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An enjoyable collection of essays about the most recent wave of well-written television: The Sopranos, The Wire, Buffy, and all that. The author has interviewed many of the writers and producers involved to get some of the inside story about how those shows came to be made and what their creators thought of them then and now. Good stuff.

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