33 pages 1 hour read

Edward O. Wilson

On Human Nature

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1978

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Chapter 1Chapter Summaries & Analyses

Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis: “Dilemma”

Edward O. Wilson opens Chapter 1 with a question: “what is man’s ultimate nature?” (1). In other words, what makes humans—biological machines—any different from other machines. The “new naturalism” Wilson espouses—essentially making him a materialist (i.e. someone who believes that only empirically verifiable matter exists, and that there is no such thing as a spirit or soul)—necessitates two conclusions.

The first conclusion is that “no species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history” (2). The second is closely related: that “morality evolved as instinct” (5). The brain evolved to deal with whatever circumstances it needed to survive; the brain facilitates the functioning, and thus the flourishing, of the individual to whom it belongs, and with this comes the ability to reproduce itself. There is no particular goal for which nature is ordered; it is simply a function of evolution, the need to reproduce. This recognition can be dangerous, as it undercuts large portions of human history and culture which sought to determine the extrinsic, sometimes divine, goals of humankind. Once we recognize that humans are ordered by nothing other than biology, scientific explanations can take over.

The challenge that science faces is determining what limits human nature, and then which of these limits are to be obeyed and “which ones might better be curtailed or sublimated” (6).