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A thought worth writing down.

October 27, 2014

It’s like a thought had in the middle of the night—gone. As with those, I should have written it down. Still, I continue to recognize certain thoughts as unforgettable things and proceed confident I will remember them.

The vast majority disappears. Maybe it’s the occasional success at recall—the intermittent reward that keeps us gambling—which keeps me trying. Or laziness. Who wants to get up at three for pen and pad?

Thus, the thing I was so certain I wanted to say here is currently out of reach. Other than to remind you of the library’s guest at the SteamPlant Nov. 13^th —long-distance hiker (and writer) Jennifer Pharr Davis—the only other thing that occurs to me to discuss is the meaning of human existence.

As in, E.O. Wilson’s newest book, “The Meaning of Human Existence.” I would not presume on the topic otherwise, but I’m glad he did.

It’s a short but packed book. Of course Wilson doesn’t state the meaning of human existence—who ever has? But he points the way within the constraints of our current circumstances.

Chapter One: “The meaning of meaning.” Chapter Two: “Solving the riddle of the human species,” which Wilson insists must include the efforts of science.

Chapter Three: “Evolution and our inner conflict.” Wilson says, “We are all genetic chimeras … saints and sinners … not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.”

Wilson makes many arguable points, which he happily admits, but evolution is not one of them. The importance of science as a human intellectual pursuit is this: “It cuts paths through the fever swamp of human existence.”

We are a very special species, he says, but many of our intellectual efforts are confined to a small box of awareness and fail to “address the origins of the traits we fundamentally possess—our overbearing instincts, our moderate intelligence, our dangerously limited wisdom, even, critics will insist, the hubris of our science.”

“So, what has this explosive growth of scientific knowledge to do with the humanities? Everything.” This is one of the appealing insights Wilson offers, and in fact makes a proposition:

“I hereby cast a vote for existential conservatism, the preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust … and not use science to mess around with the wellspring of this, the absolute and unique potential of the human future.”

Way back when, when there were fewer of us, we “only skimmed energy and resources from the abounding and unsmelled life of the land and sea.” (Wilson has many interesting points about our senses and our awareness.)

“There was still enough time and enough room to tolerate a large margin of error. Those happy days have ended.”

Oh, I’ll just continue quoting: “After we have made all of the cultural knowledge available with only a few keystrokes, and after we have built robots that can outthink and outperform us, both of which initiatives are already well underway, what will be left to humanity?”

“There is only one answer: we will choose to retain the uniquely messy, self-contradictory, internally conflicted, endlessly creative human mind that exists today.”

“That is the true Creation, the gift given us before we even recognized it as such …”

Would that we become so wise, before we destroy the wellspring of our own creation. It’s a thought worth writing down.

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