The Meaning of Human Existence

Image courtesy of the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

“After many close calls, extraordinary suffering … we staggered onto the stage to the grief of most of the rest of life.”

Last Sunday the Humanist HUB had to turn people away. And for good reason. The center was at capacity with people eagerly awaiting the afternoon’s speaker: famed evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson. Winner of two Pulitzers and ‘personal hero’ to at least a couple HUB members, Wilson has been dubbed “Darwin II” by writer Tom Wolfe, is the man who coined the terms “biodiversity” and “biogeography,” and is considered the world’s leading authority on ants.

The title of the talk, “The Meaning of Human Existence,” was almost as much of a hook as the name of speaker. No one particularly expected Wilson to answer that question—which would have been tantamount to answering, once and for all, what algebraic “x” really was. Instead, the focus of the talk was on something related, and of similar importance. Namely: why do we, the altruistic, cooperative, enlightened homo sapiens, seem to be so royally “fu[dg]ing” up the Earth?

The appearance of homo sapiens, according to Wilson, runs something like this: “After many close calls, extraordinary suffering, [and nearly reaching extinction on the African savannah], we staggered onto the stage to the grief of most of the rest of life.”

Since then, one Promethean achievement after another has brought us basic machines, mathematics, AC and DC currents, Fords, PCs, iPhones, increasing our power and our numbers. But while our computers run ever more advanced operating systems, Wilson says we continue to run on “Paleolithic emotions” while our society runs on “medieval institutions.” And although we like to think of ourselves as the dominant species on the planet, Wilson makes the argument that if we count “dominance” in terms of numbers, global biomass, and our odds of survival as a species, ants may have us beat.

Our dominance on Earth, and maybe even our mere survival, may depend less on our technological achievements than on whether altruism of selfishness wins out in our species.

Altruism is not God-given but a development of natural selection.

Wilson argues, as Darwin himself first proposed, that altruism is not God-given but a development of natural selection. There are various examples—upwards of twenty different evolutionary lines, says Wilson—of biological altruism that have been identified in the natural world, defined by an organism acting to the benefit of other organisms at a cost to itself.

Examples include vampire bats who regurgitate blood so those bats who failed to feed that night won’t starve; ‘helper’ birds that will aid in raising the young of other mating pairs; Vervet monkeys that will raise alarm calls when predators approach, even though they attract attention to themselves; and social insects like ants that rely on countless sterile workers who sacrifice their lives and reproductive potential for the survival of the colony.

Among evolutionary biologists, the idea that altruistic tendencies are derived by natural selection is not controversial. But exactly how biological altruism developed is a subject of ongoing debate.* Wilson’s stance on the issue, put simply, is that altruism develops when there are different groups within a species—different tribes for example—that are in competition with one another. If there are selfish individuals within a group, even a single selfish member, then the selfish members will always win out over the altruists. However, groups of altruists will theoretically always out-perform groups of selfish individuals because altruism insures the group as a whole is more likely to survive.

However, whether biological altruism can be extrapolated as a direct cause of human altruism is still a subject of debate. For one thing, biological altruism and what’s commonly meant by human altruism are not identical, since the latter requires conscious intent and the former does not. Furthermore, human behavior—more than any other animal’s—depends on culture, which is itself environmentally dependent. We’ve managed to spread across the globe, surviving in drastically different climates and on vastly different diets, not by rapidly evolving our anatomy (our genetic differences are superficial) but by endlessly adapting our culture. Humanity’s specific brand of altruism may be a unique product of cultural evolution.

By and large our altruism does resemble that of other animals. For example, we are far more altruistic towards our kin then towards strangers. And like birds, humans will help raise others’ young, or even adopt children who have no biological ties to themselves. But human altruism doesn’t always fall neatly in accordance to patterns of biological altruism. For example, humans often collaborate with and even give their lives for non-genetically related families and even “other tribes.” Stranger still: we act altruistically for the sake of other, non-symbiotic species.

But given our unique altruistic capacities why does it seem we’ve become so bad for the Earth? Why, as Wilson asked, are we screwing things up?

Let’s admit it: we’re not exactly a blessing, but we’re also not a plague.

It’s tempting to fall into existential guilt or think of ourselves as some kind of perverse aberration inherently destructive to life on planet Earth. But we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. As answer for our behavior seems to lie in the very basic mechanisms of life.

We have been raised by Earth’s own code of conduct. Like other creatures, what’s first and foremost on our minds is an old and basic formula: survive and reproduce. Food and shelter, sex and kids. Much of what we and other animals do are focused on these basics ends and we strive for them as best we can.

Consider the rabbit or the starling. These species are not inherently evil, but when they’re placed in ecosystems with no natural predators and seemingly limitless resources, they do what life does best: consume and reproduce, ad infinitum, to the detriment—and sometimes extinction—of plants and animals around them. As a species we have come to a similar sort of place.

Let’s admit it: we’re not exactly a blessing, but we’re also not a plague. We’re a decidedly mixed bag. Our cultural adaptability has allowed us to stumble into, survive in, and disrupt ecosystems the world over, but somehow we’ve also developed the capacity for one of the highest form of altruistic action: altruism towards other species. Once in a while a person like Wilson comes along to remind us just how strange, how tribal, how animal, how stomach-driven, sex-driven, and Paleolithically myopic we are. But at the same time—by simply existing at all—people like Wilson also manage to make a case for precisely the contrary.

*For those who want to enter into the fray see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on biological altruism.


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Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.
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The Thousand Year Floods

Hurricane Harvey captured from the International Space Station, Courtesy of NASA

Circa 8 CE Ovid wrote about an ancient flood the gods of Olympus unleashed upon the earth, leaving only the pious couple Deucalion and Pyrrha looking over the side of their small boat to see fields and villages underwater—dolphins brushing the trees.

A pre-colonial Aztec myth says that during the era of the fourth sun, a devout couple hid in the hollowed trunk of a large tree with two ears of corn as divine storms drown the wicked of the land.

About 2000 BCE it’s said the Great Flood of Gun-Yu inundated large parts of China. According to myth, it continued for at least two generations causing people to leave their homes to live on the high hills and mounts or nest on the trees.

Great floods have been part of the human mythos of human apocalyptic destruction and punishment for millennia. Today, they are just as relevant to the human narrative as ever.

On August 25th, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas.

Two members of the Humanist HUB, Dan Richards and Jesse Wallace, are from Texas and have friends and family there. Dan’s parents weathered the storm in Galveston, TX while his cousins were in West Houston. Jesse’s extended family, spread out from Corpus Christi to Baton Rouge, had their homes flooded, their cars totaled. Watching it all happen from 1600 miles away, both men wanted desperately to be of use.

A “wild flash” hit Dan. He had a strong impulse to get in his car, race down to Texas, pick up an inflatable dinghy on the way, and start riding around the waterways of Houston trying to save people. But in the end he stopped himself.

“I wanted to help,” says Dan, “But I didn’t want to center myself. … Taking my ego out of it was my number one priority.”

He had no rescue training, he reflected, no equipment or experience. If he had gone and gotten himself hurt or stranded, someone would have to come out and get him. Or worse, in an attempt to help an injured or stranded person he could potentially cause them harm for lack of medical or rescue training, simply aggravating the problem.

Instead, both Dan and Jesse stuck to their phones and tried to coordinate flow of information over social media. Dan showed me an S.O.S. he saw on Facebook about a group of nine adults, two children, six toddlers, two infants, three cats, and three dogs stranded in a house on the brink of flooding. 911 was not responding to their distress calls. He forwarded the message to a high school friend who, after losing his home, was riding around with his brother picking up stranded. He could only hope they’d be able to reach the stranded.

The civilian response was overwhelming, and combined with social media channels, people picked up the slack where governmental rescue agencies were over-extended. The Cajun Navy, an ad-hoc volunteer group of private boaters from Louisiana formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, arrived to Texas en masse. There were guys who rolled through the flood waters in their monster trucks. Groups of citizens who made chains of people to get to those who were stranded in floodwaters.

If he was there, Jesse reflected, he probably would have been with his uncle in a boat pulling people out of houses. But from afar, he focused on the next step after immediately surviving the flood: helping people survive the next month.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Jesse did volunteer electrical work in New Orleans and from his experience knew that it wasn’t middle-class people like his family that would need most financial support but people with fewer resources. He donated installments to several GoFundMe campaigns aimed at helping specific families below his socioeconomic status weather the upcoming months as well as to low-income school districts whose supplies had been completely flushed away.

As Humanists, we don’t have a God or divine hierarchy to look up at and pray to. Dan saw a lot of people posting, “Thoughts and prayers,” on social media during the hurricane. “I don’t see that as misguided,” he says. “There’s some utility in prayer.” He feels it focuses people on the task that needs doing. If we were silent, what use is that?

Jesse saw the same flurry of reflexive thanks-to-God messages after they’d been rescued. “No!” Jesse says. They shouldn’t be thanking God. “Thank the [guy] who just gave you the help and recognize his humanity is amazing.”

Jesse recounted a different kind of “rescue” story about a friend living in Houston, hated by his neighbors for being a Black Lives Matter activist. During the storm, both he and his family and the family of a neighborhood man who hung a Confederate flag on his truck were huddled together in the same shelter for some 40 hours. The conservative man thought BLM was a terrorist organization, or at least a hate group bent on assaulting white people. A conversation began between the two men.

After the clouds passed, the BLM activist and the conservative man worked side-by-side to help others in the neighborhood get their houses back together. Last Jesse heard, a kind of friendship seems to have formed between him and some of his staunchly conservative neighbors.

“I find it a bit ironic how impressive humanity can be and not even know it. … I just wish it didn’t take a catastrophe [to bring it out of people.]”

This is the first time in recorded history that two Atlantic category 4 hurricanes have made landfall in a single year. And the 33 trillion gallons of water Harvey dumped on the U.S. “This is something that hasn’t happened in our modern era of observations [about 100 years]” said University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Dr. Shane Hubbard speaking to the Washington Post.

The future may potentially bring the biggest flooding the human race has ever seen. It won’t just last two generations as the Great Flood of Gun-Yu purportedly did, it may last far, far longer.

The old flood myths often represented a cleansing of wickedness from the world. A time when humanity had gone a wrong way and needed to be radically, violently redirected. The great floods of the future—just like those of the past—will also be a consequence of human “wickedness,” so to speak. The difference is that we won’t see them as God-sent but human-made. And our redemption too will not be divine but gruelingly, honestly, heroically Humanistic.

Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.

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A Call For New Myths

I am a white man who’s been raised on violence.

That’s not the takeaway I’d expected when I arrived for my first visit to the Humanist HUB last Sunday. Not in the least.

The afternoon’s speaker, Colin Stokes, was slated to talk about movies in pop culture. Bright shafts of sun lit the heads of almost a hundred people waiting for the talk to start. There was a rendition of “Superman’s Song” by Crash Test Dummies and a recitation of Shel Silversteen’s poem “Masks.” Then after a gregarious introduction by Greg Epstein, the Humanist HUB’s Executive Director, Colin rose to the front of the cream-colored room and began to speak.

As humanists, he pointed out, we don’t just accept our myths as God-given, we have the immense freedom to choose which texts we hold as sacred—by which texts we live our lives. But with that freedom comes a responsibility to scrutinize our texts and challenge the basis of the lessons they teach us.

Myth-making didn’t stop with the Romans, it’s a living genre, so to speak, tied to a multi-billion-dollar movie industry. “Maybe your pantheon is Ariel and Simba,” Colin said. “Maybe you know Harry Potter’s genealogy better than King Arthur’s.” The point is: the nature of myth has changed. No one goes to the local amphitheater to hear the bard sing the war deeds of our forefathers. We go to the movie theater and watch Dunkirk. Children don’t often learn from folktales anymore—they learn from Lilo & Stitch. Not Aesop, but Disney.

Colin took aim at one kind of narrative that lies at the heart of many of the movies he—and many Americans—hold dear: the hero’s journey. It’s the backbone of many a Hollywood blockbuster, depicting a hero’s call to adventure, his journey from the known into the unknown, shifting the balance of a broken world to one of good and justice. Think of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Lord of The Rings, Batman, Superman, and most all the superhero movies that have been coming out in recent years.

But the heroes in popular movies, Colin says, have often been white, the journeys have often been violent, and the prizes have often been women.

In the old Star Wars movies, a total of two women speak over the course of six hours of film. Of the IMDb 100 best movies of all time, only a handful of them have people of color in lead roles. According to a recent study of movie scripts found highly gendered verbiage throughout: men are far more likely to “kill” while women “squeal.” Men “laugh,” women “giggle.”

Things have been getting better, Colin pointed out. A third of movies in the past year have had female protagonists. About a third had minorities in star roles. After building its success on films, predominantly starring male characters, Pixar has started dabbling with female protagonists like Merida in Brave and Joy in Inside Out. Films like Get Out and Hidden Figures have been giving more limelight to people of color, and Moonlight may have been the only Academy Award winning film without a single white actor.

But the problem goes deeper than what movies we watch or what books we read. Colin points out that our national narrative of our country is laced with the same kinds of mythology as our movies.

On a trip to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Colin got a thrill from the way the United States was portrayed: a heroic experiment that, by the genius of its founding documents, was able to defy the odds and emerge a long-standing beacon of liberty and justice in the world.

It was only when he sat down with his fellow museum-goers—all of whom were either minorities or queer—that he was told how much history had been left out, how many unmentioned heroes had to work against the social order behind the United States Constitution in order to achieve the egalitarianism it seemed to innately promise.

“It was as if the Empire [in Star Wars] were to put up a museum to congratulate themselves on the achievements of the Rebel Alliance,” Colin said.

Calling America’s founding stories “myths” isn’t calling them false per se, but they are untrue. They are untrue to the full complexity of the way history unfolds. As the founding fathers signed their names under the words “all men are created equal,” many of them had slaves waiting on them at home. Later, many Americans would give their lives to keep slavery alive.

Colin calls for new myths, featuring an array of heroes on non-militant journeys. Already, there are examples that these kinds of films are every bit as enthralling, and profitable. Zootopia features an ableist cityscape and violence-denying female protagonist. Wonder Woman’s heroine and female director, Patty Jenkins, raked-in record profits for DC Comics. LEGO Batman, says Colin, was his vote for the year’s best portrayal of male conversion away from toxic masculinity.

Growing up, my heroes were often armed, white men. A swordsman. A bounty hunter. A gunslinger. A military pilot. They were in the comic books I read, the video games I played, the animation and movies I watched. It has left a lasting affinity for violent power both in me and many of the men I know.

I know that guns cause more damage than they prevent. But when I was handed a pistol in rural Vermont, I took it and unloaded the clip at a target in the woods. After that I tried the rifle—and liked it.

As we were walking along the Hudson River in Manhattan recently, one of the most good-natured guys I know told me he’s often wondered what it would be like to take a person’s life.

I have to accept it. I and my friends are white men who’ve been raised on violence. That will not change. Of course, it’s not that white men were my heroes just because they were violent, white, and male. They were also honorable, they were loyal, they protected the weak, they bore their losses with dignity and didn’t hold grudges, they could laugh at the world as well as at themselves.

While the question of equal opportunity for races and genders are obvious in my mind, there are many other questions that are still unanswered about the place of power and violence in the world.

Can violence be justified? Does force of arms cause more peace than harm? Is there really “a time for everything under the sun?” “A time to kill and a time to heal?” “A time for war and a time for peace?” Or is that just another old myth written in an old book?

Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.