Information Age Education
   Issue Number 162
May, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, five free books based on the newsletters are available: Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the 9th IAE Newsletter in a series on Credibility and Validity of Information.

Credibility and Validity of Information Part 9:
The Meaning of Human Existence

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

“History makes little sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes little sense without biology…. Knowledge of prehistory and biology is increasing rapidly, bringing into focus how humanity originated and why a species like our own exists on this planet.” (E.O. Wilson; American biologist, researcher, and author; 1929-.)

Since early times, humans have been mystified by such natural phenomena as weather cycles, illness, and life itself. They often ascribed spiritual forces as the cause.

The world-renowned biologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson suggests that religions developed across the world to explain these mysteries and emerging spiritual beliefs. He discusses this phenomenon in his new book, The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). This article, and the next article in the Credibility and Validity of Information series on how to determine credibility/validity in scholarship, will explore two different perspectives of religious systems. Although Wilson acknowledges the widespread credibility and probably innate reality of religious belief, he doesn't accept its objective validity. He supports what he considers valid scientific perspectives. In the next article, theologian Norm Metzler accepts religion per se as a valid explanation of spiritual/natural phenomena, and describes how one can determine the credibility of the variety of religious belief systems.

Wilson explains his beliefs from past, present, and future perspectives. The overriding issue relates to the meaning of life. Wilson argues that life is an accident of evolutionary history and not the intention of a designer. History's gradual unfolding is obedient only to the general laws of the Universe.

Our Past

At some point in the distant past the Big Bang initiated the earth's time/space journey. Our planet, capable of producing life as we have experienced it, emerged among the objects formed. Living forms emerged on earth 3.5 billion years ago and eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus) emerged about two billion years ago. The emergence of nuclear DNA/RNA allowed for differentiation within and among species.

Among the hundreds of thousands of animal species that emerged, only 20 are eusocial, cooperatively rearing their young and dividing labor. The division of labor basically involved risky foraging and safer nest-maintenance and parenting.

The eusocial species include two mammals, humans (homo sapiens) and two species of African mole rats; plus fourteen insect species and three coral dwelling marine shrimp. None of the non-human animals has a large enough brain to create a scientific/technological culture. (Wilson, 2014. p 18-20).

Anatomically modern humans with advanced forms of consciousness emerged about 200,000 years ago. The expansion of our brain's cortex enhanced curiosity about such mysteries as those mentioned above. Humans became a social species and so had to learn how to live together. This initially occurred through cooperative kinship interactions. Although humans wouldn’t understand the biological mechanisms for many millennia, hormonal and cognitive systems (such as those regulated by oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine) emerged to support cooperative behavior. At some point, kin became tribe, and more complex patterns of ethical cooperative life occurred. For example, communities initiated and codified sanctions when various forms of misbehavior created negative social issues.

Absent physical explanations of mysteries, spiritual explanations emerged that were combined into religious beliefs. The beliefs were periodically adapted to new developments, but it wasn't until the last 200 years that scientific developments seriously threatened religious dogma.

Agriculture emerged somewhat over 10,000 years ago, and with it the need to compute costs and keep records, which required further advances in language and math. Written language began about 5,000 years ago. Such developments eventually set the stage for science.

So did we evolve as basically competitive or cooperative, helpful or hurtful, good or evil? Wilson suggests that our behavior exists across all those ranges, affected by the innateness of biology and the rationality of culture.

Our Present

Our search for an appropriate meaningful life led first to the humanities, whose methods tend towards the analogically speculative, critical, and historical. The empirical methods of science emerged several hundred years ago. Both approaches saw meaningful life as existing within their separate sets of borders. As indicated earlier in this series, science sought objective validity and the humanities sought subjective credibility. Divisions occurred in each of the two systems. Over time, natural science became physics, chemistry, and biology; and then each of these further split (such as chemistry into organic and inorganic chemistry).

The same thing occurred in the humanities, which encompass literature, philosophy, religion, the arts, and the social sciences. Literature thus includes poetry and prose; and prose includes novels, short stories, non-fiction, biography, etc. The idea that life's meaning can be reduced to a unitary system or explanation disappeared.

As the early human brain increased in size and capability, it developed an improved memory that enhanced recognition, communication, bonding, and the continuous evaluation of cooperative/competitive behavior. It also developed technologies that enhanced our sensory/motor capabilities. From all of this came the intense pleasure of group membership—the capability to move beyond pure competition in order to achieve more through cooperation.

Our most extensive experience with the meaning of existence has come through very long explorations within the humanities. Science attempts to understand the basic systems that govern the universe. The humanities are cognitively grounded and so they demonstrate what we ourselves have discovered about existence through analogy and reality. Should we ever interact with extraterrestrials, the humanities would provide an explanation of who we are (given that the communicative aliens might be ahead of us in scientific understanding).

The Future

What's next? All organisms die and most species eventually become extinct if they don't evolve into another species. Will the earth itself be destroyed? Religions tend to suggest it and global warming patterns give one pause.

Does life exist on other hospitable planets that we could colonize? Wilson suggests that within a decade or so, scientists will be able to detect life on other planets that are similarly situated near their star. "The existence of alien life will then pass from the well-reasoned hypothetical to the very probable" (Wilson, 2014, p. 112). We or our robots will go because our individual and corporate minds shrivel without challenge.

Microbes will dominate life-bearing planets as they do on earth. Colonizing other planets is perilous. Each planet has evolved its own ecology. To insert ourselves into an inhospitable ecology would be destructive. Like it or not, we humans got only one hospitable planet for immortality. We thus need to tend to what we have.

Biodiversity refers to the earth's balanced variety in life, from ecosystems (such as lakes and forests) to the species that inhabit them, to the genes that prescribe traits in species. All are important to sustain life. Five factors signal a destruction of the earth's biodiversity:
  1. Habitat loss, such as through deforestation or climate change,

  2. Invasive plant/animal species brought from other parts of the world,

  3. Air/water pollution,

  4. Population growth, and

  5. Over-harvesting of food from plants and animals.
These are the current problems. Politics will affect needed decisions.

Biology and the Meaning of Life

Our brain didn't evolve to solve the meaning of life. Our brain is a system for survival that uses both emotion and reason. It evolved gradually, each step responding to its immediate needs. What we call human nature is the base—the totality of our emotions and learning that bias the cultural beliefs of individuals and groups. Human nature is part instinct, part formative experience and learning, part who we associate with and where we live, and part mature reason.

We might also add music and religion to that. Both of these culturally exist in all civilizations, and the two are often entwined in practice. As indicated earlier, deities supposedly used priests and scriptures to explain mysterious occurrences, guide moral behavior, and promote a celestial afterlife. Within the last few centuries science has also explained many such mysteries and behaviors, but the deity explanations are deeply embedded. Further, churches provide a supportive tribal community that many people prefer in order to deal with genuine misfortunes.

Wilson suggests that a tribe is defined by its creation story. The deity favors a specific tribe above other tribes that worship a supposedly wrong god. The instinctual forces of tribalism can become stronger than the yearning for positive spirituality. The heated arguments and armed conflicts seem to have been going on forever. The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger said that common people considered religion true, the wise considered it false, and the rulers considered it useful. When asked about the Pope's 1950 infallible pronouncement that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily into heaven, the distinguished physiologist Anton Carlson replied that he couldn't be sure because he wasn't there, but he was certain of one thing and that is that she would have lost consciousness at thirty thousand feet.

Religious belief survives, despite the ridicule of non-believers such as Anton Carlson. The enemy isn't so much the believers versus the non-believers, but more often dissension occurs among competing religions, Christianity and Islam now perhaps, but also competing Christian denominations, or two versions of the same denomination. Wilson suggests that religious belief has become so deeply ingrained in humans over many millennia that it won't be dislodged. He still believes that the best way to live in the real world is to free ourselves of demons and tribal gods.

How free are we to do that? Wilson indicates that the concept of free will is an element of consciousness that so far defies understanding. However, the neurobiology of consciousness itself is moving towards a probable solution through the current brain mapping initiative. That should provide the necessary background to solve the complexities involved in understanding free will, something that will require a general acceptance of solid scientific research.

Wilson argues that a global desire is necessary to reduce the religious and political tribalism that perhaps made sense in earlier times but not in the urbanism of the 21st century. Contemporary tribalism is destroying significant human capability. Wilson is particularly incensed by the damage that U.S. religious and political ideology are currently doing to reduce positive scientific exploration, and especially the advances that are occurring in biological evolution and personal identity. The United States has long lagged behind European nations in the acceptance of evolution. (See

When disagreements occur in science and/or the humanities, the scholars involved typically seek a productive resolution. This is certainly preferable to futile tribal conflicts that may gain ravaged property at the cost of the lives of their own adherents in order to forcefully conquer those who will continue to despise the aggressors. It took many millennia for collaborative reason to finally evolve. It shouldn't be used wastefully.


Sylwester, R., & Moursund, D., eds. (June, 2013). Consciousness and morality: Recent research developments. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Free 48-page book. Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from

Wilson, E.O. (2014). The meaning of human existence. New York: Liveright.


Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit five books for the IAE Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information:

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