Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mussar from Edmund O Wilson and Albert Einstein

An interview with the celebrated scientist and author Edmund O Wilson appeared in the Wall Street Journal (here) on 4/18/14.  Glancing from my study window at a certain house across the alley, one powerful insight from that interview comes to mind.  I am far from a בעל השקפה, so my opinion doesn't matter, but perhaps it will resonate with you as it did with me.  It's sometimes hard to know how to apply חכמה בגויים תאמין תורה בגויים אל תאמין, because there's a lot of overlapping.  This case certainly straddles the line, and it's probably not 100% oisgehalten, but it might be something a Yarei Shamayim, and certainly a Yeshiva person, would benefit from thinking about- not to denigrate others, but as a personal מחייב.  

Humans, he says, are just one of some 8 million species on Earth. In calling for the end of the age of man, he doesn't mean to suggest that humans should be replaced by other species. But he thinks that we should take a cautionary step back and think about how we can cede more of the Earth to nature, to help stabilize the ecosystem. He worries that, if we don't, the planet will come to look like a spaceship run by technical geniuses. He gestures with imaginary levers while explaining that in this futuristic world, scientists would even have to control the climate with switches. "Humans don't know what they're doing. We have no goal," he says. "You can say we want less war, or we want everybody to be happy, or we want everybody to have long lives and have good health … but what kind of a goal is that? That's the goal of your family dog," he says, letting out another guffaw.  (emphasis added.)
What should our goal be? "What we really want is grace," he says. "We want understanding, we want to be surrounded by beauty, and we want to be surprised constantly by discoveries of something unlike ourselves." It's another reason we should leave more of the world to nature, he argues, along with "the shield that biodiversity provides us against catastrophe." A fully functioning ecosystem, he says, could help protect humans from pathogens and parasites that are kept in check by biodiversity.

Soon after, I saw something similar from Einstein:

The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible.


  1. I had to click on your wikipedia link to double check my memory that this is the same Edward Wilson who is the sociobiologist. very surprising to see him talking about abstract ideas of grace and beauty.

    1. What do you think of his remark about what matters in life? I mentioned looking out across the alley because there's a crenelated mini-mansion there, and it pleases me to think of it as a dog house.

    2. I think he is right on. I wonder what he means by beauty -- does he mean beautiful art or music, or does he mean the beauty a mathematician sees in an equation that brings clarity and the type understanding he seems to admire?