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Human Existence

Toward the beginning of the recent sci-fi film Lucy, Morgan Freeman gives an impassioned faux-scientific speech to assembled neurology experts. He posits what might happen if humans could use the entirety of our brainpower, and as enraptured scientists raise their hands and ask for more, Freeman hints at superheroic powers, manipulating spacetime and that sort of thing.

Of course, it’s all bunk, laying the groundwork for yet another film in which Scarlett Johansson transcends consciousness and humanity, in this case transforming her body into a flash drive that is slightly bigger than a usual flash drive.

The lofty title of Edward O. Wilson’s latest, The Meaning of Human Existence, recalled to me the kind of stupefied awe with which non-specialists (like, say, a literary essayist) often respond to the magnificence of science. Wilson is, of course, one of the most insightful, graceful science writers of the modern day, rendering his research on biology and the fascinating world of ants into pitch-perfect prose. He is a rare talent, able to present such specialized knowledge as accessible to the layperson without sacrificing the rigor of precision. All of this makes it unsurprising that this latest book has been nominated for the National Book Award in Nonfiction.

While Lucy milks scientific ignorance for cheap thrills, however, Wilson does the opposite, arguing that scientific knowledge must be remarried to the humanities. In his words, “If the heuristic and analytic powers of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.” He calls for a revival of the Enlightenment, claiming that our knowledge is now rich enough to continue this project in earnest.

I’m interested in Wilson’s book as a literary object because of this argument. As I’ve talked about in previous blog posts, literary nonfiction has that bizarre component to it where the writers are asked to render knowledge, but where our specialty is typically in the rendering rather than the knowledge. Wilson’s expertise comes through the knowledge (the rendering is also fantastic, of course), which is in large part why I’ve turned to his books regularly for years. I’m as affected by the poetics of ant biology as I am by Mary Ruefle’s meditations on the moon, as we all are when the topics are treated with appropriate grace.

So Wilson’s claim, that the humanities and sciences are not separate, but in fact entwined pursuits that must join, is an easy sell for me. It’s how he gets here, then, that matters. He argues both that “The greatest contribution that science can make to the humanities is to demonstrate how bizarre we are as a species, and why.” Similarly, concerning the humanities exploration of our own consciousness and lives, “The meaning of human existence cannot be explained until ‘just is’ is replaced with ‘just is, because.’” From there, he argues against the theory of inclusive fitness, guesses what intelligent extraterrestrials might look like, and characteristically talks about ants all the time.

Given this artificial divide of humanities of sciences, I’m a person who sits firmly on the humanities side, and so Wilson’s claim that we describe what “just is” rather than what “just is, because” immediately causes me to raise an eyebrow. I think of Thalia Field, of Mark Dion, of Kodwo Eshun all as people working from humanities to equally address what is and why it is (admittedly, I’m a bit unfairly taking Wilson’s quote out of context in answering it like this, as certainly Wilson speaks to the trends and not the exceptions).

Yet despite minor squabbles, which are I’m certain much more minor than any squabbles he might have with my occasional attempts to discuss science, Wilson’s argument remains, well, inspiring. “So,” he says, “what has the explosive growth of scientific knowledge to do with the humanities? Everything. Science and technology reveal with increasing precision the place of humanity, here on Earth and beyond in the cosmos as a whole… We are a very special species, perhaps the chosen species if you prefer, but the humanities by themselves cannot explain why this is the case.” I’m a bit surprised, sometimes, when I catch myself feeling inspired by the limitations of my capacity, by the mapped edges of my thinking. But as Wilson’s own book and its towering aspirations attest, seeing such limitations is the first step in surpassing them.