Interview with Edward O. Wilson, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction


The Meaning of Human Existence Edward O. WilsonThe Meaning of Human Existence

Liveright Publishing Corporation/ W.W. Norton & Company

Interview by Tobias Carroll

Tobias Carroll: Early in The Meaning of Human Existence, you discuss topics to which you had taken a different approach in The Social Conquest of Earth. Do you think of that book and this one as companions to one another?

Edward O. Wilson: Yes, the first two of a trilogy, to answer the first two of the big questions, “Where do we come from?” (The Social Conquest of Earth, 2012), and “What are we?” (The Meaning of Human Existence, 2014). The last will be out in January 2016: “Where are we going?”

TC: In this book, you write about science's contribution to the humanities being in the form of showing "how bizarre we are as a species." The word "bizarre" wasn't necessarily what I would have expected to see there; when did it first become apparent to you that that was the best description?

EOW: Well, bizarre from the point of view of an ant or an octopus, even a chimpanzee.

TC: At one point, you discuss the life cycles of scientific discovery. Do you have a sense of when the pace of discovery might again speed up?

EOW: It will continue for a while at an exponential rate, but the number of discoveries per investigator will fall, as the number of investigators per discovery rises, and with it the expense.

TC: Halfway through The Meaning of Human Existence, you begin to speculate about the characteristics of intelligent extraterrestrial life. When did you first begin thinking about these qualities?

EOW: When I was nine years old. Don’t we all?

TC: You make the argument that intelligent species will, very likely, be unable to live on any planet beyond their home. When did you first reach this conclusion?

EOW: See above.

: In The Meaning of Human Existence, you discuss aesthetics, but you also discuss some of the biological reasons for why we as a species have aesthetics. Do you ever find that that divide gives you pause when you're writing?

EOW: Not at all. It gives me confidence that we are right in pushing the biology of aesthetics.

TC: At the beginning of Chapter 12, you quote from Jean Bruller's novel You Shall Know Them. How did you first come to read this novel?

EOW: I don’t recall, but the quote is in the epigraph and draws one right in.

TC: Do you have an ideal writer in your mind when you're writing this (or any other) book?

EOW: Nada.

TC: You raise concerns in this book over both environmental catastrophes and blind adherence to dogma; do you feel that one or the other is a greater threat to our species?

EOW: The blind obedience to dogmas and religious leaders leads more quickly to environmental crises.


Tobias Carroll lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York, where he is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has been published by Tin House, The Collagist, Electric Literature, OZY, Midnight Breakfast, and Joyland, among many others. He can be found on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll, and online at

Photo credit: Jerry Bauer