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The Meaning of Human Existence

Narrated by: Jonathan Hogan
Length: 5 hrs and 6 mins
Categories: Nonfiction, Philosophy
4 out of 5 stars (395 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Searching for meaning in what Nietzsche once called “the rainbow colors” around the outer edges of knowledge and imagination, Edward O. Wilson bridges science and philosophy to create a 21st century treatise on human existence. Once criticized for his over-reliance on genetics, Wilson unfurls here his most expansive and advanced theories on human behavior, recognizing that, even though the human and spider evolved similarly, the poet’s sonnet is wholly different than the spider’s web. Whether attempting to explicate "the Riddle of the Human Species", warning of "the Collapse of Biodiversity", or even creating a plausible "Portrait of E.T.", Wilson does indeed believe that humanity holds a special position in the known universe. Alarmed, however, that we are about to abandon natural selection by redesigning biology and human nature as we wish them, Wilson concludes that advances in science and technology bring us our greatest moral dilemma since God stayed the hand of Abraham. Edward O. Wilson is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading scientists. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the author of the best-selling The Social Conquest of Earth and Letters to a Young Scientist.

©2014 Edward O. Wilson (P)2014 Recorded Books

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Evolutionary Biology and the Big Question

Biology is my religion and Edward O Wilson is my prophet. I have been reading and rereading his work since the 1970s and plan to continue to do so for as long as I am able to read anything. I would feel presumptuous to offer criticism, including praise, to a scientist and author as renowned and respected as Wilson. Let me just say that I recommend this book to anyone with any curiosity about "the big question."

A reader who is not knowledgeable about evolutionary biology may fear that Wilson's erudition will make his writing inaccessible to them. Not so. He writes for anyone who is willing to pay attention. To a reader who wants to increase their understanding of the social implications of evolutionary biology: this may be the only book you need.

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

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  • Michael
  • Walnut Creek, CA, United States
  • 03-14-15

Pleasant Humble Simple Rationalism

This book has a really pleasant humble tone of simple, non-confrontational, rationalism. He simply treats religion as silly stories that should no longer be believed. He points out humans as having amazingly poorly equipped senses compared with animals. Some religious folks might find Wilson’s unassuming dismissal of religion more annoying than Dawkin’s bellicose tirades.

Largely the purpose of this book seems to be to make a pointed attack on the theory of “inclusive fitness” and, less so, suggest arguments in favor of “multi-level selection” theory. About half the book and an appendix focuses on this debate, while the other half is somewhat wide ranging ideas very loosely tied to the title. Notice this is not your fathers “Meaning of Human Existence”! This is not “meaning” like that endowed by a creator, but instead straightforward meaning like; the meaning of a spider’s web is to catch food. For Wilson our meaning is associated with our culture and our humanities and arts.

I enjoyed the “inclusive fitness” debate, and was mildly interested in the other stories. I really appreciated the unpretentious rationalism. I quite agree with the criticisms of “inclusive fitness” which has always seemed to me a bit more fantasy than science, but I did not find the book quite lived up to the lofty title.

I had just finished “The Human Age” recently, and it was interesting to see the difference in interpretation of that concept between Wilson and Ackerman. Ackerman feels humans need to take full responsibility for the planet now, simply because we must. Wilson seems quite unsettled by this idea, and quite unready for that responsibility.

The narration was very clear and enjoyable.

27 of 29 people found this review helpful

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Still don’t know the meaning of my existence

When I saw the title of this book: “The meaning of human existence,” I thought, ok now Wilson has taken water over his head. Still, I thought, Wilson is an excellent writer and even if he cannot tell me the meaning of human existence I will not go away empty handed. Both presumptions turned out to be correct. The book was entertaining, and I learned some new interesting things about ants (Wilson is the world’s foremost expert when it comes to ants). However, I did not become wiser regarding “The meaning of human existence”.

Wilson does tell the reader where we the meaning can’t be found. There is the mandatory religion bashing; Sure, if it were the case that the Bible is true then maybe the meaning of our existence may simply be to serve God. Yet, more and more people begin to see the Bible as well as other religious texts for what they are: Made up stories full of errors and inconsistencies. Religious proponents typically exploit the gaps in our knowledge. When we didn’t know where lightning came from, a God (Thor) was proposed. Now that we do know where lightning comes from, other gaps are exploited. For example, we still don’t know how the first cell arose. It must, therefore, be God… As science advances, it explains more and more of the realm that used to be considered within the expertise of the church. Consequently, the church is on a never-ending endeavour to find smaller and smaller gaps in our knowledge that they can stick their God into

Can science tell us the meaning of human existence? My answer to this question is that while science can tell us how we evolved it does not tell us what the meaning of this evolution is. Indeed, the most honest conclusion may be that there is no meaning to evolution and hence no meaning to our existence. It is like asking what the meaning of a stone falling towards the ground is. The cause is gravity, but what is the meaning? To me, it is a nonsensical question, and I found nothing that made me alter this view in Wilson’s book.

So if you want a well-written book that discussed some old philosophical issues, a little bit of religion and some fascinating animal behavior, then this book is a good pick. But be prepared not to be enlightened.

15 of 16 people found this review helpful

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Wonderful Book

I've not read Edward Wilson until now and am kicking myself for it. This book was a wonderful journey that provides a much appreciated objectivity and perspective of our biological roots from the (astonishingly rare) eloquent scientist. I put this book down once while reading and that was to sleep. Highly recommended for ANYONE.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Frances
  • Richmond, CA, United States
  • 09-06-19

Compelling book. Good “performer”

Thoroughly enjoyed this book as I have others by EOWilson. Still the Eagle Scout being so thorough in his arguments. And he has opinions most of which resonated. Being just a humble lay person myself he was engaging. Good writer.

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I've learnt a lot about insects

I’ve labored through over 50% of this book and now I’m done. The author goes on and on about insects! Not that entomology is not a fascinating topic and the behavior of tiny critters can be enthralling. But when I purchase a book on “The Meaning of Human Existence”, I frankly don’t care to spend over 3 hours learning about the minutiae of how insects go about their day, how the author got into an argument with other people fascinated by ants, how little bugs spray their pheromones, the strategies they use to enslave other bugs, etc. Maybe somewhere towards the end, the author ties things together and reveals the grand meaning of our existence, but I doubt it. In my opinion, books by authors like Yuval Noah Harari and Sean Carroll are richer and provide deeper insights into the nature and meaning of humanness.

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Brave and Petty all at the Same Time

When you tackle an enormous topic like this you get four stars from me without even blinking. I listened to this book on recommendation from Ray Dalio's "Principles" audiobook. You can see where the author has had an impact on Ray's thinking. I might have given this four or five stars on the story aspect, but I found the author's strong anti religious stance to be off-putting and more importantly unnecessary. It did nothing but clutter an otherwise well put together and well stated point of view. To be clear, it wasn't that the author stated their objection to religion, it was more the silly piling-on.

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narrator was kind of dull sometimes.

very interesting if you have time to kill. good information overall but dull narration makes it questionable.

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  • AJ
  • Saturn
  • 03-10-16

Great book

Great book...very thought provoking. .I found myself going back and reading it for a second time.

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Beautifully Becoming Book

Enjoying this, I don't know what to call it because story is an understatement, has provided me with such adventuresome comfort that has earn the position of favorite audiobook. Must read.