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The Meaning of Human Existence – part 1

October 19, 2017 by

I now know the meaning of human existence: to find a balance in the eternal internal conflict between selfishness and altruism. Recently I read ‘The Meaning of Human Existence’ by Edmund O. Wilson, one of the world’s preeminent biologists, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, and a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.

The meaning of human existence, as I understand it, is the way we humans deal with our permanent internal conflict of conscience between selfishness and altruism. I have it and you have it and it is built into our genes. As professor Wilson writes: “Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue. To give in completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve society. But to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots.”

This conflict is also at work within organizations. Many individuals promote their personal interests, even if it harms the organization. But even these egotists have an urge for altruism, because it is in their genes to contribute to the strength of the group.

Humans are unique in this internal conflict. It is “not a personal irregularity but a timeless human quality”. Most species are selfish and only twenty evolutionary lines built their social life on some degree of altruistic division of labor. Ants and termites are among them, as are shrimp, African mole rats and humans. The big difference is that the social organization in groups of animals is based on narrow instincts only, while humans add choice and pleasure. “The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction – the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete, and from all these the deep warm pleasure of belonging to your own special group. Social intelligence enhanced by group selection made Homo sapiens the first fully dominant species in Earth’s history.”
There you have it: we have a built-in urge to belong and that is what makes us strong as a species.