Posted on 06/09/2013

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Edward O Wilson
The Social conquest of Earth

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The Human Condition

The Human Condition

“Where do we come from?” “Where are we?” “Where are we going?” Conceived in ultimate simplicity by Paul Gauguin on the canvas of his Tahitian masterpiece, these are in face the central problems of religion and philosophy. Will we ever be able to solve them? Sometimes it seems not. Yet perhaps we can.

Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.

……. Since Paleolithic times each tribe – of which there have been countless thousands – invented its own creation myth. During this long dreamtime of our ancestors, supernatural beings spoke to shamans and prophets. They identified themselves to the mortals variously as god, as tribe of Gods, a divine family, the Great Spirit, the Sun, ghosts of the forebears, supreme serpents, hybrids of sundry animals, chimeras of men and beasts, omnipotent sky spiders – anything, everything tht could be conjured by the dreams, hallucinogens, and fertile imaginations of the spiritual leaders. They were shaped in part by the environments of those who invented them. …..

The creation stories gave the members of each tribe an explanation for their existence. It made them feel loved and protected above all other tribes. In return, their gods demanded absolute belief and obedience. And rightly so. The creation myth was the essential bond that held the tribe together. It provided its believers with unique identity, commanded their fidelity, strengthened order, vouchsafed law, encouraged valor and sacrifice, and offered meaning to the cycles of life and death. No tribe could long survive without the meaning of its existence defined by a creation story. The option was to weaken, dissolve, and die. In the early history of each tribe, the myth therefore had to be set in stone.

The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival. Tribal conflict, where believers on the inside were pitted against infidels on the outside, was a principal driving force that shaped biological human nature. The truth of each myth lived in the heart, not in the rational mind. By itself, mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity. But the reverse order is possible. The discovery of the origin and meaning of humanity might explain the origin and meaning of myths, hence the core of organized religion

Can these two worldviews ever be reconciled? The answer, to put the matter honestly and simply, is no. They cannot be reconciled. Their opposition defines the difference between science and religion, between trust in empiricism and belief in the supernatural.
4 years ago.
f the great riddle of the human condition cannot be solved by recourse to the mythic foundations of religion, neither will it be solved by introspection. Unaided rational inquiry has no way to conceive its own process. Most of the activities of the brain are not even perceived by the conscious mind. The brain is a citadel, as Darwin once put it, that cannot be taken by direct assault.

Thinking about thinking is the core process of the creative arts, but it tells us very little about how we think the way we do, and nothing of why the creative arts originated in the first place. Consciousness, having evolved over million of years of life-and-death struggle, and moreover because of the struggle, was not designed for self-examination. It was designed for survival and reproduction. Conscious thought is driven by emotion; to the purpose of survival and reproduction, it is ultimately and wholly committed. The intricate distortions of the mind may be transmitted by the creative arts in fine detail, but they are constructed as though human nature never had an evolutionary history. Their powerful metaphors have brought us no closer to solving the riddle than did the dramas and literature of ancient Greece.

Scientists, scouting the perimeters of the citadel, search for potential breaches in its walls. Having broken through with technology designed for the purpose, they now read the codes and track the pathways of billion of nerve cells. Within a generation, we likely will have progressed enough to explain the physical basis of consciousness.

But – when the nature of consciousness is solved, will we than know what we are and where we came from? No, we will not. To understand the physical operations of the brain to their foundations brings us close to the grail. To find it, however, we need far more knowledge collected from both science and the humanities. We need to understand how the brain evolved the way it did, and why.

Moreover, we look in vain to philosophy for the answer to the great riddle. Despite its noble purpose and history, pure philosophy long ago abandoned the foundational question about human existence. The query itself is a reputation killer. It has become a Gorgon of philosophers, upon whose visage even the best thinkers fear to gaze. They have good reason for their aversion. Most of the history of philosophy consists of failed models of the mind. The field of discourse is strewn with the wreckage of the theories of consciousness. After the decline of logical positivism in the middle of the twentieth century, and the attempt of this movement to blend science and logic into a closed system, professional philosophers dispersed in an intellectual diaspora. They emigrated into the more tractable disciplines not yet colonized by science - intellectual history, semantics, logic, foundational mathematics, ethics, theology, and, most lucratively, problems of personal life adjustment

Philosophers flourish in these various endeavors, but for the time being at least, and by a process of elimination, the solution of riddle has been left to science. What science promises, and has already supplied in part, is the following. There is a real creation story of humanity, and one only, and it is not of myth. It is being worked out and tested, and enriched and strengthened, step by step.

I will propose that scientific advances, especially those made during the last two decades, are now sufficient for us to address in a coherent manner the questions of where we came from and what we are. To do so, however, we need answers to two even more fundamental questions the query has raised. The first is why advanced social life exists at all, and has occurred so rarely in history of life. The second is the identity of the driving force that brought it into existence.

These problems can be solved by bringing together information from multiple disciplines, ranging from molecular genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology to archaeology, ecology, social psychology, and history. (Chapter: Human Condition; “The Social Conquest Of The Earth” - Edward O. Wilson)
4 years ago.