Hamlet marveled, “What a piece of work is man,” but that isn’t the half of it. Two new books are out which talk about man’s place in the universe, both reviewed by Tim Flannery in Harper’s. Dian Ackerman, whose affinity for understanding nature is undisputed by most, reminds us in Human Age, that by weight our species is “10 percent worms, mites, fungi, bacteria and viruses,” and that all of them are vital to our existence. (“Only Human,” by Tim Flannery, Harper’s Magazine, 12/14, pg. 100) In fact, these “teeming masses outnumber human cells ten to one.” (Ibid, pg. 100) Add to this knowledge our awareness that we hijack cells and genetic material from others, including nonhuman organisms, and that through medicine, parts of us have been replaced with pig bladders, horse valves or even synthetic materials which makes the question, “Who are we?” increasingly complicated.
Consider, too, that new technologies have affected our minds. Ackerman speculates that thanks to social media, we now relate to one another differently – the result of replacing much of our personal contact with electronic interfaces. The change, she speculates, may explain why “college students are testing about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than their counterparts from twenty to thirty years ago.” (Ibid, pg. 101)
Edward O. Wilson’s book, “The Meaning of Human Existence,” attempts to understand being human in the technology age. Wilson, a respected biologist, believes that as we learn more about ourselves and the world we inhabit, the need to turn to religion to solve the mystery of our existence will one day disappear. One of the major questions we have asked in the past has been, “Does humanity have a special place in the universe?” What we know today suggests we do not. As Flannery attests, what Wilson has to say about evolutionary science shows us that “accidents of history, rather than the intentions of a cosmic designer are the source of meaning.” (Ibid pg. 98.) That God persists in our minds is the aftermath of primitive life and our association with the need for a dominant alpha male to survive, one who could be aggressive and yet support community cohesion. As our species survived and became better nourished, our brains grew, increasing our capacity for good or evil and making us appear to be at once angels and demons.
Do our facile minds mean we have a right to imagine ourselves at the top of the ecological heap? Not according to Ackerman. The changes we have wrought have affected other species, included viruses, making them more adaptive and stronger. This reality, Ackerman believes, will one day force us to understand that we have no choice but to share the planet with other living entities. According to her, man is neither a God nor a Devil, but a creature with a special gift: imagination. With it, we may one day come to a true understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. That enlightenment will come, she believes, not through science but through the humanities. In the arts, she posits, lies the human soul.