On The Human Condition

Galileo’s Inquisition Trial

An interesting thing about science is that while it is sometimes profound it is always incomplete. Science approaches complete understanding asymptotically, denouement denied but progress usually satisfying nonetheless. Our species, Homo Sapiens, young at some twenty millennia, has made enormous strides in knowledge and technology in the last few centuries. It has only been five centuries since Galileo and the Catholic Church clashed, and my, how the world of knowledge has changed since then! Carl Sagan may have described the old superstitious world best when he called it “demon-haunted”. And yet, I often find myself amazed at the depth of ignorance about science in the modern general public. It is almost as if we were two species, one cognizant and rational and the other, larger one, superstitious, primal, tribal, and bellicose. There is some evidence that groups of humanity may be evolving apart in those regards.

Sagan’s death took from us an important spokesman for science. His creative genius was  to tie it all together, to update progress, to advocate understanding, to meld science with the human condition and help us understand who we are and where we came from. Now, I feel that another author has been able to offer similar balm for inquiring minds: Edward O. Wilson. His biographical summary on Amazon.com reads:

Edward O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Regarded as one of the world’s preeminent biologists and naturalists, Edward O. Wilson grew up in south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, where he spent his boyhood exploring the region’s forests and swamps, collecting snakes, butterflies, and ants–the latter to become his lifelong specialty. The author of more than twenty books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Ants” and “The Naturalist” as well as his first novel “Anthill,” Wilson, a professor at Harvard, makes his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.

I have just finished reading Wilson’s new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth” and found it deeply satisfying. Although he is a highly respected scientist and evolutionary biologist he has written this new book for the general reader who is receptive to scientific learning. What he has accomplished, in my opinion, is to tie together numerous fields, including the creative arts no less, to provide context for understanding ourselves as a species. “Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Wilson has the latest answers. He backs them up with data and exposition, seasoning the mix with occasional irony, wry commentary and even bits of humor. He provides a grounded context for understanding human behavior, and at least one concept that is new to me, the notion that culture co-evolves with genes.

We all know how people act and we know that their behavior is often out of control, but that behavior often seems inexplicable in a modern setting. Sports fans react to games with violence, even riots. Competition empowers companies to succeed and sometimes to act illegally. Religious factions vie for adherents and condemn other religions. Some national cultures are peaceful and some violent. Some, like North Korea, are alarmingly bellicose. We are divided by ethnicity and by culture.  What Wilson offers is context for making sense of it all, and even some hope that our cultural nature might someday become not only better but something glorious.

I will forego offering more specifics because I think that summarizing his concepts would weaken them – they require his lucid and witty prose for proper digestion. However, here are a few chapter titles (not a complete list) to whet the appetite.

War as Humanity’s Hereditary Curse
The Sprint to Civilization
The Scientific Dilemma of Rarity
The Forces of Social Revolution
What is Human Nature?
The Evolution of Cultural Variation
The Origins of Morality and Honor
The Origins of Religion
The Origins of the Creative Arts

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Independent, tending progressive as the GOP recedes from its Eisenhower roots.
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11 Responses to On The Human Condition

  1. Tincup says:

    Thanks for the tip. I will give it a read. Also, Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene is a good read if you haven’t already read it. I read this book back in college.

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Yes, I have read several of Dawkins’ books, including that one. He’s a first-rate thinker in my opinion, and a brave one at that. If you like Dawkins I think you will like E. O. Wilson as well. I’m interested to know what you think of it.

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  2. PiedType says:

    Sounds like a good read. Unfortunately, those who might benefit most from reading such a book probably never will. Willful ignorance is rampant in a large portion of the population.

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  3. Pingback: Ideology, Reason, And The Brain « The Erstwhile Conservative: A Blog of Repentance

  4. Jane Reaction says:

    Jim: Thanks for the expose of Wilson’s book. Anything that helps us understand our “fellows” is welcome.
    It seems that education has fairly decimated free thinking. Teachers tell me that it is nearly impossible to get kids to question anything. They take the books as the “final answer” for everything, secure in the false notion that they never have to think about the subject again. There is a corollary in modern American politics.
    Jane

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Right, JR. When you purge education of controversy to satisfy politics we are left with pretty bland stuff, and that’s a turnoff for a lot of students I think. The really bizarre thing is that at this late date evolution should be filed under controversy!

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  5. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim,

    You speak of “the depth of ignorance about science” today. Do you believe it is any different today than “yesterday” in terms of citizens understanding science? Some “back then” believed absolutely that the earth was flat. Today Adam and Eve still prevail in the minds of many as REALITY, not religious sentiments.

    Perhaps more important than debating the “ignorance” of the general public today versus “yesterday” is to agree that humans remain “ignorant” about many topics today and will remain “ignorant” about a different set of issues “tomorrow”.

    My guess is that a few centuries from now humans will look back on our “discussion” over the “speed limit of the universe” and ask how we could have been so dumb. Unless we blow ourselves up, who knows how “fast” we might be travelling around the “universe(s)” of tomorrow.

    Was it not only about 100 years ago when many thought that “breaking the sound barrier” would cause all sorts of global havoc? As well, many today want to eliminate the power source of the universe, nuclear energy in all its various forms, from the face of the earth.

    Anson

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Yes, I believe ignorance about science is different today than in previous times, very different. When I was born in 1937 there were no:

      1. antibiotics
      2. jet airplanes
      3. television sets
      4. communications satellites
      5. interstate highways
      6. computers
      7. nuclear power (as you note)
      8. nuclear weapons
      9. CT and MRI scanners
      10. plastics (except for a few fore-runners like “bakelite”)

      In that time only a small minority were able to go to college. Scientific knowledge is much more complete now than it was then. Scientific knowledge is accumulative in its nature, building on past knowledge, something Isaac Newton wisely acknowledged in his famous statement of gratitude about “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Now we know the nature of many things better than we did and specialization has blossomed. A partial list: space, climate, plate tectonics, astrophysics, archaeology, anthropology, cultural anthropology, evolutionary anthropology, oceanography, environmental science (nonexistent in 1937), genetics, chemistry, physics. Scientific knowledge exploded in the last half-century. Importantly, it is self-supporting and self-correcting through peer review. Shouldn’t that make it more acceptable to the public? In my opinion there is much less an excuse for ignorance today than ever before. I found a very interesting list of scientific disciplines on Wikipedia.

      I do not think that future generations will think us “dumb”, merely incomplete because with rare exceptions the scientific knowledge we have gained is true knowledge. Continental drift is real, the mechanics of operating satellites is real, the speed of light is real, the physics of fiber optic communications is real, genetics is real. Such knowledge can and most-surely will be complemented by further research, but it will not be reversed. What I see lacking in the general public is an appreciation for the integrity of the knowledge gained, and I see the religious side of human nature, culturally embraced by a tribal segment of society, as a principal reason for that.

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  6. ansonburlingame says:

    It was my assumption that you were bemoaning the lack of understanding of scientific knowledge on the part of the general public, not a critique of the advancement of such knowledge within the scientific communities. “Joe the plumber” level of knowledge versus the next wave of Einsteins so to speak.

    Newton developed the math tool called calculus well over 400 years ago. Calculus underpins much that we understand in science today. But how many people in the general public have any concept of what calculus means or how to apply it? Very few (and getting fewer) today, in my view. A lot of high school graduates today cannot make change without a calculator at hand, today.

    In any particular generation there remain great unknowns. As each generation uncovers the answers to some unknowns, more questions result over further unknowns, or so it seems to me. Thus for some enters the role of religion or faith.

    Today I prefer to think of science going in “both directions”, out into the seemingly infintessimal, the distant galazies, or “in” to the seemingly infintessimally small, such a the development of string therory, today. Newton suggested the effects of gravity. But today while we can measure the effects very accurately (using calculus) we still don’t know how gravity “works”. Could it possibly “work” because of “little strings” (envisioned only mathematically thus far) holding the universe together?

    The vast majority of the general public cannot even ask such questions, much less have any idea how to pursue the answers to such questions. But so what?

    Getting “back to earth” and daily lives, we cannot even agree on economic forces, much less economic “laws”. Just look at the never ending debate over Kenesyian economics today in most democracies.

    It was about 50 years ago when I sat in a class and considered an equation, a very long equation, that was designed to effectively target an object launched from a “platform” to stike an object, moving or stationary at some point in space. Supposedly the equation could be used by “David” to use his slingshot to hit the Giant or send a nuclear warhead against a target thousands of miles away.

    Just plug in all the variables called for (wind speed and direction for the sling shot or “ballistic winds” for the ICBM) and there was the answer. And guess what? When I went aboard my first SSBN there was a very large room filled with old computers that did essentially such calculations. When we “spun up” the guidance system in 16 different missiles, that computer feed the information to that guidance system to control the flight of the missile once it was launched. And 50 years ago we could “throw” such “packages” at a target a couple of thousand miles away and hit within about 100 yards of the “aimpoint”.

    Today, I can tell with the flick of a button where my auto is located on the face of the earth with an accuracy of a couple of feet. As well the computational power in my Iphone is more than the same power on the spaceship that first landed men on the moon, 53 years ago.

    But no one can accurately compute the effect of $100 spent by government on one hand or a private citizen on the other on the overall economy, today. Go read Reich’s column in today’s Globe (Friday). Are his views a matter of scientific fact, economic theory or simply the result of a mind framed by social “forces” (of some sort). Does Reich write as he does because of “nature or nuture” and then ask the same question about how Thomas Sowell writes!

    Now are those differencs (between Reich and Sowell) caused only by the “ignorance” of humans today? Or instead is one man absolutely correct and the other just too “dumb” to understand and agree with the other one?

    Anson

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  7. I’m so glad to see this. Our book group is now asking for suggestions for next book, and I will suggest this one. I’ve been an admirer of E.O. Wilson for many years, at least since our 12-year-okd grandson found The Diversity of Life on our bookshelves and read it (putting me to shame; I had the book but had not read it.) Last year, Tyler (our grandson) graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, and E. O. Wilson was the commencement speaker.
    Your first paragraph is especially well-written Jim, and thought provoking. You convince me that I should read this book, and if our book group chooses another instead, then I will consider you to be my reading companion on this one!
    Helen

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I hope you like the book, Helen. Please let me know how it goes. I should warn you not to be put off by a few chapters in the first half of the book in which Wilson dwells on his particular specialty, the eusocial insects. My eyes glazed over on those and I didn’t feel diminished by moving on. He knows waaaay more about those than I need to! 😀

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