Edward Wilson - Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Edward O. Wilson is used to stirring up controversy. A world-famous biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, named by Time magazine as one of America's 25 most influential people of the 20th century, this mild-mannered, courtly southerner has been raising hackles for much of his career. With Consilience, in which he proposes a bold explanation of the nature of the world and everything in it, the author of Sociobiology will once again arouse passionate debate.

Wilson's premise in Consilience is that a common body of inherent principles underlies the entire human endeavor. "I believe that the Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries got it mostly right the first time," he says. They assumed a lawful, perfectible material world in which knowledge is unified across the sciences and the humanities. Wilson calls this common groundwork of explanation that crosses all the great branches of learning "consilience," and he argues that we can indeed explain everything in the world through an understanding of a handful of natural laws.

The world he envisions is a material world that is organized by laws of physics and evolves according to the laws of evolution.

Wilson makes his point through a fascinating tour through the Enlightenment and the age of scientific specialization. Among his bugaboos are "professional atomization," which works against the unification of knowledge, and cultural relativism ("what counts most in the long haul of history is seminality, not sentiment"). In examining how a few underlying physical principles can explain everything from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions to a Mondrian painting, he offers fresh insight into what it means to be human.

Thoughtful readers with an interest in the future should consider Wilson's plea. This consilience of the natural sciences and the social sciences could equip future humankind with the analytical and predictive capacity to deal with the many changes wrought by humanity's recent global hegemony and, thereby, help "preserve the Creation." -- Harry E. Demarest The San Francisco Chronicle

Consilience is a provocative book, worth reading simply for the opportunity to spend time with one of today's great scientific minds. Nonscientists will find Wilson a congenial and approachable host. -- Paul Raeburn Business Week

In a book that is truly a magnum opus, Wilson is concerned with an even bigger project, the unification of all knowledge by the means of science, so that the explanations of differing kinds of phenomena are seen to be connected and consistent with one another--that is, to be consilient. . . . Wilson dazzlingly reaffirms the cogency and the power of scientific materialism. -- Booklist

Wilson's book sweeps across vast areas of learning in lucid, unpretentious, often eloquent prose. Consilience is an evangelical book, an arresting exposition of Wilson's religion of science and a kind of sermon . . . intended to assist in the reform of the world. -- Daniel J. Kevles The New York Times Book Review

A grand, coherent conception encompassing the sciences, the arts, ethics and religion. The reader feels lifted up to a high peak. -- Gerald Holton, Harvard University

Divisive Ideas on 'Unification'
Los Angeles Times, Thursday, July 9, 1998

When Edward O. Wilson has a new idea, people listen--and then start fighting. A distinguished professor emeritus of biology at Harvard University and recognized as perhaps the world's leading authority on ants, Wilson opened a new field of science in the 1970s with his book Sociobiology. It argued that social animals, including humans, behave largely according to rules written in their very genes. The theory sparked controversy because it not only appeared to contradict cherished beliefs about free will, but also, according to critics, harked back to racist ideologies charging that some human groups were biologically superior to others. Harvard students called for his ouster and protesters once soaked him with a pitcher of water at a symposium. Wilson and others have defended and refined sociobiology over the years to such a point that it is now a dictionary word, and a new generation of so-called evolutionary psychologists accept it as given. Now 69, Wilson has a new, potentially path-breaking book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which has placed him at the center of debate and controversy once again. Some scholars have praised it as "bold" and "provocative," while others have lambasted it as intellectually shaky and a right-wing treatise disguised as science. A rather strange word--it does not appear in Webster's New World Dictionary--"consilience" was coined in the last century and refers to long-separated fields of inquiry that come together and create new insights. For instance, the marriage of chemistry and genetics this century created the powerful new science of molecular biology, the basis of genetic engineering. The controversy surrounds Wilson's belief that all human endeavor, from religious feeling to financial markets to fine arts, is ripe for explaining by hard science. Philosophers and artists bristle at what Wilson calls his "unification agenda"--his attempt to show, as he put it, that "the greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of science and the humanities." Here are excerpts of his conversation with Times medical writer Terence Monmaney.

QUESTION: Would you point to a concrete example of consilience in action?

ANSWER: The one that I would cite is incest avoidance in human beings. I believe the evidence shows persuasively that the original Freudian view of the origin of the incest taboo is incorrect--that some people have an overpowering urge to commit incest and cultures have created this taboo in response. It turns out to be just the reverse of that. The evidence indicates that it is due to the innate aversion to sex that arises from the so-called Westermarck effect--namely, individuals who are intimately associated during the first 30 months of life are desensitized to later close sexual bonding. All of the nonhuman primate species that have been examined for development of sexual preference also show this Westermarck effect. . . . It also explains the interactions of what we presume are genes underlying this rule of inhibition or desensitization. Note that if children are reared apart during the first 30 months or more of their lives and then brought back together again, they would have no barrier to forming sexual bonds, except being told that this is prohibited by custom and law. And then this fits very well with what we know in exact detail about the deleterious effects of inbreeding. When you marry or when you have a child with someone who's very closely related, then the chances are greatly increased that you will bring into juxtaposition rare genes in the population that cause genetic disease. So here we have an example of an understanding of what's going on at the level of the gene in human genetics, and leading up to and explaining how a certain psychological mechanism developed in the brain, which in turn provides an explanation to a wide range of phenomena concerning sexual preference, incest avoidance and all of the various myths and laws and religious prohibitions connected thereto.

Q: You say in your book that ethics is everything. Can science not only shed light on existing ethics, but also create new ethics?

A: The best example of that is the development of the environmental ethic. When we talk about the physical environment we now know with increasing precision what it is that we're doing to it. And we also have ways mathematically of projecting population trends so we'll know roughly what the population will be around the world, and what the impacts are on the environment country by country, region by region. I'm reminded of what Bertrand Russell once said about people's unwillingness to think about population growth. He said people would rather commit suicide than learn arithmetic.

Q: In the past, when political leaders tried to engineer a society using their own understanding of scientific principles, the results were disastrous. So, many cultural historians and historians have a kind of natural reaction against people who try to harness science to public policy or to culture.

A: They've got the wrong target. It's not the science but the pseudoscience that political leaders and ideologues draw out of it. In the 20th century, the most awful case of pseudoscience, of course, was Nazi eugenics. And that was not a consequence of science being brought to bear honestly and squarely but rather a complete perversion of ideas about heredity that were false. So what we need is not to avoid more scientific research and understanding. What we need is more of it and to learn from the lessons of history how not to allow it to be perverted by ideologues to disastrous result.

Q: Is there a way of saying, in a word, what you hope to accomplish with this theory of consilience?

A: Well, let me say it's not a theory. What I've done is simply point out what the trends are in the increasing [blending] of the scientific disciplines. . . . We've seen everything that we conventionally call biology and the natural sciences now linked with a web-work of cause-and-effect explanation running from particle physics all the way to ecosystem studies and the brain sciences. The idea of consilience, then, is simply an observation that this is what is happening, and a projection into the future that this will continue. It has a certain logic to it because now we are inclined to believe that the mind does have a material basis, that cultures are the result of large numbers of individuals who make decisions by means mediated through the activity of the brain. And that leads up to the most sublime human thinking and forms of creative art. Frankly I'm rather surprised that this idea--or shall we say prophecy or projection--has met so much resistance.

Q: You talk in your book about "volitional evolution" [or human genetic engineering] being perhaps one of the truly monumental things facing humanity in the very near future. What is your main concern?

A: That people would, if they were allowed to engineer their own normal genes, rush ahead with disastrous decisions to do so. And here the key concept is pleiotropy, which means a gene having more than one effect. So-called normal genes might be identified only on the basis of one or two effects they have--the effect on, say, some kind of cognitive test or performance in sports or whatever. There might be a temptation to modify a gene like that to improve performance in one category, or even starting to put together combinations of genes so as to get a superior-type person--a math genius who was also a potential Olympic athlete. That sounds good on the surface, but then we don't know all the effects of those [genetic] changes. And until we do it would be dangerous to go ahead with gene engineering or volitional evolution in individual cases. Another problem with genetic engineering or volitional evolution of normal genes is that you're at risk of mucking around with the very essence of human nature. It might sound nice to start diminishing aggressive drive in young males, but what else are you taking out? Maybe the whole species' innovative drive, the ability to rebel intellectually. Until we know more about [such phenomena] it would be dangerous to go ahead with gene engineering.

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