Water Closet for 11-21-14

Harvard’s famous myrmecologist1 Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus, has given us another brilliant work.  At 85 he has had the audacity to write a book entitled The Meaning of Human Existence.His previous books and scientific papers, far too numerous to list here, have stirred up the academic world for more than three decades.  When he isn’t experimenting with and wondering about social insects, he writes about what might be the evolutionary meaning for people of what he is learning.  He boldly expands from the evolution of ant societies to that of human behavior.  There are 14,000 known species of ants; the bulk of these successful “super organisms” make up three fourth of all the world’s insect biomass according to Wilson.  There may be about a million species of insects.  His conclusions have stimulated much controversy in academic halls, within religions, and among philosophers; many of the latter he dismisses out of hand because of their ignorance of biology.

His theories are based on a broad and deep knowledge of biology accumulated since a young boy and added to from other scientific fields through eight decades.  He is a naturalist’s naturalist.  The same sentence could be repeated substituting scientist and writer for naturalist.

Edward O. Wilson studies social insects and relates his findings to other animals including us.   -   Wikipedia photo

Edward O. Wilson studies social insects and relates his findings to other animals including us. – Wikipedia photo

We in the Closet who admire his books suspect naturalist might be his favorite title.  It puts him up there with his hero Charles Darwin.  Darwin too went beyond his theory of Natural Selection, so well argued in On the Origin of Species.  He too had the courage early on to include man among other animals.  Wilson a century later says not only physical man evolved but also much of his psychological and social behavior.  Cries of blasphemy have sometimes been the response.  Wilson might think theology and philosophy without scientific bases blasphemy.

However, there is no blasphemy for us in this provocative little book of big ideas.  Wilson, a brilliant writer and broad thinker, a scientific philosopher, argues the importance of the humanities and sciences to our culture.  People have for several millennia done this while many, sometimes desperately, have tried to keep them separate.  Wilson argues well that both are essential to the meaning of human existence and should be embraced and valued by all.  His writing, lyrical at times, is certainly artistic.  He, a scientist’s scientist, puts the arts right up there with the sciences.  We agree both are essential; this should certainly be obvious to educated moderns.  It is not – about half of our countrymen who have gone to school don’t believe in evolution.  In Closet discussions we have trouble accepting this.

Wilson’s problem, and he thinks ours, are created religions tightly bound to evolved tribalism.  Each tribe has its creation story.  The trouble is many are intolerant of those of others.  More than just intolerant, they often persecute and even kill those differing with them.  Look at the Sunnis and Shiites now, or Christians and others in the past.  This deadly dilemma, according to Wilson, is partly in our genes; evolution on a group level.  He thinks an understanding of the evolution of certain aspects of behaviors and cultures is necessary for the continuance of life on Earth.  Man is not here alone.  What our species does all too often has unknown consequences in the webs of life.  Wilson for years has championed the protection of the biodiversity3 he sees so rapidly declining.

The professor’s ideas are far too big for our weekly Water Closet.  And you might ask what do they have to do with water, our main subject.  In this 200 page book he briefly summarizes the history of life on Earth and the chances of life on planets circling other stars.  When biologists do this they think of water in which our organisms got their start.  Some over time took essential water ashore with them.  Wilson’s body and ours are about 60% water.  Now we worry about human actions poisoning the waters in blood, soil, water bodies, and vapor in the air.  In doing so we affect the remarkable processes of evolution and resulting diversity.3

In his first page Wilson quotes the apostle Paul who probably knew nothing about evolution but interestingly prophesied.  “Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”. (1 Corinthians 13:12)   Wilson, who might well have said this two millennia later, responds.  “Our place and meaning, however, are not being revealed as Paul expected – not at all.  Let’s talk about that, let us reason together”.  One eyed ant specialist Wilson looks at small things and then thinks big.He challenges us with two eyes to use the tools of science and the creative arts to do the same.  His challenges for us with tribal genes while not easy are well worth taking on.  He would have us tolerant of one another and protective of other species and their shrinking habitats.

1 myrmecologist – one who studies ants

2 Wilson, Edward O. The Meaning of  Human Existence (Liveright Publishing Corp., New York) 2014

3 Wilson, Edward O. The Diversity of Life (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA) 1992

4 Wilson at seven lost his right eye in a fishing accident.  With his left eye, vision 20/10, he spent the rest     of his long life studying small things from which have arisen large conclusions.




Precipitation Data* for Month of: Aug Sept Oct Nov
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 3.37 3.77 4.40 4.55
 2014 Central Watershed Actual 2.20 2.58 8.09  3.4 as of 11/18**


Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):

For Nov. 18, 2014  Normal . . . 46 CFS                       Current Rate  . . . Unavailable

*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Oct. 

**Middleton Stream Team is source of actual precipitation data for Nov..

Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.

THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584

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