33 pages 1 hour read

Edward O. Wilson

On Human Nature

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1978

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Chapter 4Chapter Summaries & Analyses

Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis: “Emergence”

In moving from heredity to development, Edward O. Wilson now approaches the topic of emergence and consciousness. One of the principal problems of emergence is that of free will, and how it is to be discussed within the kind of genetic determinism and materialism that scientific inquiry seems to favor. The question boils down to this: “if our genes are inherited and our environment is a train of physical events set in motion before we were born, how can there be a truly independent agent within the brain?” (71). Free will may very well be an illusion. Regardless of the truth—a matter of philosophy, not biology—the decisions and actions of an individual are free and unpredictable, but those of communities and societies can be predicted with enough data.

The emergence of conscious will is due to various evolutionary mechanisms that provide “feedback loops” (77)—which then allow for an organism to control behavior. This is not to diminish the complexity of the human mind, but it does help place the human mind and the human will (as the seat of desire and action) in their proper place. Even if the mind is “truly mechanistic” (77), this doesn’t mean a human’s mind can be predicted the same way one can predict the outcome of a mathematical algorithm or computer program.