Scientist E.O. Wilson On Why The Humanities Matter

The Surprising Reason Why Reading REALLY Matters

The following is an excerpt from Edward O. Wilsons's The Meaning of Human Existence, which publishes today, and has been longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. If anyone is qualified to approach such a lofty-sounding topic, it's Wilson, whose writing on the intersections of biology and the humanities have earned him two Pulitzer Prizes. An environmentalist, sociobiologist and novelist, Wilson imbues his understanding of the natural world with his secular humanist viewpoints. In the below essay, he addresses why reading -- and fiction in particular -- are as valuable as technological advancements.

You might think this odd coming from a data-driven biologist, but I believe that the extraterrestrials created by the confabulations of science fiction serve us in an important way: they improve reflection on our own condition. When made as fully plausible as science allows, they help us to predict the future. Real aliens would tell us, I believe, that our species possesses one vital possession worthy of their attention. It is not our science and technology, as you might think. It is the humanities.

These imagined yet plausible aliens have no desire to please or elevate our species. Their relation to us is benevolent, the same as our own toward wildlife grazing and stalking in the Serengeti. Their mission is to learn all they can from the singular species that achieved civilization on this planet. Wouldn’t that have to be the secrets of our science? No, not at all. We have nothing to teach them. Keep in mind that nearly everything that can be called science is less than five centuries old. Because scientific knowledge has been more or less doubling according to discipline (such as physical chemistry and cell biology) every one or two decades for the past two centuries, it follows that what we know is by geological standards brand new.

Technological applications are also in an early stage of evolution. Humanity entered our present global, hyperconnected technoscientific era only two decades ago -- less than an eyeblink in the starry message of the cosmos. By chance alone, and given the multibillion-year age of the galaxy, the aliens reached our present-day, still-infantile level millions of years ago. It could have been as much as a hundred million years ago. What then can we teach our extraterrestrial visitors? Put another way, what could Einstein as a toddler have taught a professor of physics? Nothing at all. For the same reason our technology would be vastly inferior. If that were not so, we would be the extraterrestrial visitors and they the planetary aboriginals.

"There is another cardinal reason for treasuring the humanities. Scientific discovery and technological advance have a life cycle. In time, after reaching an immense size and unimaginable complexity, they will certainly slow and stabilize at a much lower level of growth."

So what could the hypothetical aliens learn from us that has any value to them? The correct answer is the humanities. As Murray Gell-Mann once remarked of the field he has pioneered, theoretical physics consists of a small number of laws and a great many accidents. The same is true, a fortiori, of all the sciences. The origin of life occurred over three and a half billion years ago. The subsequent diversification of the primordial organisms into species of microbes, fungi, plants, and animals is only one history that could have occurred out of a near-infinitude of histories. The extraterrestrial visitors would know this, from robot probes and the principles of evolutionary biology. They could not immediately fathom Earth’s full history of organic evolution, with its extinctions, replacements, and dynastic rise and fall of major groups -- cycads, ammonoids, dinosaurs. But with their super-efficient fieldwork and DNA-sequencing and proteonomic technology, they would quickly learn Earth’s fauna and flora at the present moment, and the nature and ages of the forerunners, and calculate patterns in space and time of life’s evolutionary history. It’s all a matter of science. The aliens would soon know all that we know called science, and much more, as though we had never existed.

In a closely parallel manner during the human history of the past hundred thousand years or so, a small number of cultures arose, then gave birth to the thousands of daughter cultures. Many of these persist today, each with its one language or dialect, religious beliefs, and social and economic practices. Like species of plants and animals splintering across the geological ages, they have continued to evolve, alone, or divided into two more cultures, perhaps fused in part, and some have just disappeared. Of the nearly seven thousand languages currently spoken worldwide, 28 percent are used by fewer than a thousand people, and 473 are on the edge of extinction, spoken only by a handful of elderly people. Measured this way, recorded history and prehistory before it present a kaleidoscopic pattern similar to that of species formation during organic evolution -- yet different in major ways from it.

Cultural evolution is different because it is entirely a product of the human brain, an organ that evolved during prehuman and Paleolithic times through a very special form of natural selection called gene-culture coevolution (where genetic evolution and cultural evolution each affect the trajectory of the other). The brain’s unique capability, lodged primarily in the memory banks of the frontal cortex, arose from the tenure of Homo habilis two million to three million years ago until the global spread of its descendant Homo sapiens sixty thousand years ago. To understand cultural evolution from the outside looking in, as opposed to the inside looking out, the way we do it, requires interpreting all of the intricate feelings and constructions of the human mind. It requires intimate contact with people and knowledge of countless personal histories. It describes the way a thought is translated into a symbol or artifact. All this the humanities do. They are the natural history of culture, and our most private and precious heritage.

There is another cardinal reason for treasuring the humanities. Scientific discovery and technological advance have a life cycle. In time, after reaching an immense size and unimaginable complexity, they will certainly slow and stabilize at a much lower level of growth. Within the span of my own career as a published scientist across half a century, the number of discoveries per researcher per year has declined dramatically. Teams have grown larger, with ten or more coauthors on technical papers now a commonplace. The technology required to make a scientific discovery in most disciplines has become much more complex and expensive, and the new technology and statistical analysis required for scientific research more advanced.

"With more and more decision making and work done by robots, what will be left for humans to do? Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technology by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior?"

Not to worry. By the time the process has set in, likely in this century, the role of science and high technology will, as expected, be beneficent and far more pervasive than now. But -- and this is the most important part -- science and technology will also be the same everywhere, for every civilized culture, subculture, and person. Sweden, the United States, Bhutan, and Zimbabwe will share the same information. What will continue to evolve and diversify almost infinitely are the humanities.

For the next few decades, most major technological advances are likely to occur in what is often denoted BNR: biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics. In pure science the secular grails now sought along the broad frontier include the deduction of how life originated on Earth, along with the creation of artificial organisms, gene substitution and surgically precise modification of the genome, discovery of the physical nature of consciousness, and, not least, the construction of robots that can think faster and work more efficiently than humans in most blue-collar and white-collar labor. At the present time these envisioned advances are the stuff of science fiction. But not for long. Within a few decades they will be reality.

And the cards are now on the table, face up. First on the agenda is the correction of the more than a thousand genes for which rare mutant alleles have been identified as the cause of hereditary diseases. The method of choice will be gene substitution, replacing the mutant allele with a normal one. Although still in the earliest, mostly untested stage, it promises eventually to replace amniocentesis, which allows first a readout of the embryonic chromosome structure and genetic code, then therapeutic abortion to avoid disability or death. Many people object to therapeutic abortions, but I doubt that many would object to gene substitution, which can be compared with replacement of a defective heart valve or diseased kidney.

An even more advanced form of a volitional evolution, albeit indirect in cause, is the homogenization ongoing among the world populations by increased emigration and interracial marriage. The result is a massive redistribution of Homo sapiens genes. Genetic variation between populations is declining, genetic variation within populations is increasing, and, as an overall result, the genetic variation of the species as a whole is also increasing -- the last dramatically so. These trends create a dilemma of volitional evolution likely to catch the attention of even the most myopic political think tanks in a few decades. Do we wish to guide the evolution of diversity in order to increase the frequency of desirable traits? Or increase it still more? Or finally -- this will almost certainly be the short-term decision -- just leave it alone and hope for the best?

Such alternatives are not science fiction, and they are not frivolous. On the contrary, they are linked to yet another biology-based dilemma that has already entered public discussion, ranking with contraceptives in high school and evolution-free textbooks in Texas. It is this: With more and more decision making and work done by robots, what will be left for humans to do? Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technology by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior? This choice would mean a sharp departure away from the human nature we have inherited, and a fundamental change in the human condition.

Now we are talking about a problem best solved within the humanities, and one more reason the humanities are all-important. While I’m at it, I hereby cast a vote for existential conservatism, the preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust. We are doing very well in science and technology. Let’s agree to keep it up, and move both along even faster. But let’s also promote the humanities, that which makes us human, and not use science to mess around with the wellspring of this, the absolute and unique potential of the human future.

Excerpted from The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson. Copyright © 2014 by Edward O. Wilson. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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