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The Meaning of Human Existence Hardcover – October 6, 2014

ISBN-13: 978-0871401007 ISBN-10: 0871401002 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (October 6, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871401002
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871401007
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (167 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #982 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“A valedictory work… What a lively writer Mr. Wilson can be. This two time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction stands above the crowd of biology writers the way John le Carré stands above spy writers. He’s wise, learned, wicked, vivid, oracular.” (Dwight Garner - New York Times Book Review)

“In his typically elegant style, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Wilson (Letters to a Young Scientist) cannily and candidly probes the nature of human existence.” (Publishers Weekly)

“This compact volume packs a great punch—particularly in its new compelling argument that it would be the gravest of mistakes to reengineer our minds to make ourselves supermen. It understands our limited brains as the right tool for building the kind of future we require, and with this 'existential conservatism' gives us new reason to celebrate the wonder that is us.” (Bill McKibben, author of Enough)

“With remarkable clarity and a depth of insight that is absolutely unique, E. O. Wilson provides a highly readable and immensely enlightening analysis of nothing less than the meaning of human existence and the relationship of our species to the physical universe. By effortlessly merging science with philosophy, Wilson has created a masterwork that lays out his theories of our destiny. Already the world's most distinguished evolutionary biologist, Wilson has transcended disciplinary boundaries with this book to create an invaluable analysis of who we are and the choices we now confront; it is a must-read for all.” (Vice President Al Gore)

“E. O. Wilson is Darwin’s great successor, a scientist of such astounding breadth, depth, experience, and brilliance that he offers us nothing less than a new understanding of humanity… You will see the beauty, mystery, and possibilities of human existence through the eyes of one of humanity’s greatest and most intrepid explorers.” (Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University)

“[A] tough-minded little primer-cum-manifesto… Compact and readable.” (Dan Cryer - Boston Globe)

“There can be few better guides through our species’ past journey and potential for the future… A provocative and beautifully written collection of essays.” (Tim Lenton - Nature)

“No biologist has been more persistent or eloquent in correcting our misapprehensions about human origins than Edward O. Wilson… We should be grateful that Wilson, so late in his illustrious career, still appeals to reason and imagination in hopes of enlightening us about our nature and inspiring us to change our destructive ways.” (Scott Russell Sanders - Washington Post)

“Wilson asks: Does humanity have a special place in the universe? Where are we going, and why? He answers by telling science’s latest creation stories, and presenting a vision of the future both inspiring and plausible, not an easy feat to pull off… Wilson is both a wild-eyed optimist and a hard-nosed realist. What more can we ask of a prophet?” (John Horgan - Scientific American)

About the Author

Edward O. Wilson is widely recognized as one of the world's preeminent biologists and naturalists. The author of more than twenty books, including The Creation, The Social Conquest of Earth, and Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson is a professor emeritus at Harvard University. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, he lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

NOTES - The last great book I read was “Unweaving the Rainbow,” by Richard Dawkins.
John H. Evans
Meanwhile, I hope many will read this book, and I think we owe a great scientist our gratitude for writing such a humane, perhaps final book.
David Keppel
Very clear and well written, discussing cutting-edge issues on the sciences and humanities.
A. Coutinho

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

223 of 236 people found the following review helpful By B. Case TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 2, 2014
Format: Hardcover
"The Meaning of Human Existence," by Edward O. Wilson, is an extraordinary book: audacious, illuminating--and in the end, oddly comforting. How could it not be with a subject and title so outrageously brazen? Written by one of the most honored and preeminent living biologists, and at the pinnacle of his life, this is an exceptionally personal book. It is a synthesis and distillation of all the big who-are-we ideas he's put together from a lifetime of scientific research and personal experience. You might call it a highly personal philosophical anthropology. But more accurately, it's a scientific creation narrative about how we came to be what we are, what makes us special in the cosmos, and how we can use that specialness to improve our future.

I downloaded this book the day it was published and devoured it over the course of the next two days. Now, a few days later, I am still basking in the satisfying glow and deep comfort of that extraordinary experience.

The book pleased me not because it offered any major new scientific concepts or ideas. In fact, I found I was already quiet familiar with nearly all of the science presented in the book. If you've read Wilson's other bestselling books, and you're reasonably well-read in the fields of prehistory, evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and comparative religions, then you, too, will find little new here. What was beautiful and remarkable was how the author was able to weave these many big concepts together to form a stunning tapestry of truth, a new science-based creation narrative.

In this book, Wilson recounts his personal scientific take on the epic journey of human evolution.
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78 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Newton Munnow on October 16, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I've read many of E.O. Wilson's books. None have stunned me in the same way as when I first read 'On Human Nature' but 'The Meaning of Human Existence' boasts a big title for what is, essentially, an echo of many of his past works. When Wilson sticks to science, he's as sharp and eloquent as ever. When he veers to philosophical guesswork, as in his chapter on Extraterrestrial Life, he's a lot less convincing.

While I liked the idea of visiting ETs being more concerned with the humanities than our scientific discoveries (they'd have reached the same scientific conclusions independent of human input) I wasn't convinced by Wilson's projections of what they might look like. I'm not sure there was any point in including such a chapter. In a book that should have been marshaling facts and arguments it felt like a less than amusing detour.

One of Wilson's main points remains that the internal conflict in human conscience is a result of thousands of years of trying to balance individual selection against group selection. In other words, selfishness is (to an extent) natural for each of us. But at the point it affects the group you belong to, it weakens that group. If it weakens it too much, adios to your entire group and goodbye to your gene pool. The rallying cry he concludes with, for humans to share enough knowledge to remember that they are part of life on earth rather than the point of life on earth, is a vital one. Fight ignorance, ask the right questions, catalog the answers - it's vintage Wilson. There are no breadcrumbs here thrown to the religious and Wilson's punches still hit home after all these years.
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50 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Avid reader on November 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The most ambitious thing about this relatively short book seems to be its title. Wilson fans will quickly discover that there is nothing really new here. On the contrary, it struck me to be a collection of set pieces that are not even carefully edited (as can be seen by the fact that several explanations and descriptions occur--almost verbatim--in several places).

Wilson, one of the founding fathers of sociobiology, sees not only the biological make up of mankind but also its cultural creativity shaped by the accidental developments of its evolutionary history. Thus our morality arose out of the conflicting pressures of individual selection (sin) versus group selection (virtue), our love of stories and literature, our delight in music, our sense of religious awe all exist because they provided evolving man with advantages in his existence as successful hunter-gatherer. For Wilson a phenomenon (be it biological or cultural) is explained in its meaning as soon as its evolutionary advantage for mankind has been explained, a view shared by few proponents or practitioners of the humanities. Where he seems to run into problems, however, is when it comes to deciding whether what was advantageous to hunter-gatherers can still be considered to be advantageous to the evolutionary future of mankind. Here Wilson decides to have it both ways. On the one hand, he firmly believes that it would be a mistake to fiddle with the biological make up of man's nature (p.60)--though he is quite willing to consider some drastic social engineering, which he himself admits "sounds 'fascist'" but "can be deferred for another generation or two" (p.137). Small comfort!

When he comes to the evolutionary advantages of man's culture, on the other hand, he is quite eager to pick and choose right now.
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More About the Author

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.