Friday, September 19, 2014

Recently Read: Consilience by E. O. Wilson Review

The biologist Edward O. Wilson is a rare scientist: having over a long career made signal contributions to population genetics, evolutionary biology, entomology, and ethology, he has also steeped himself in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences. The result of his lifelong, wide-ranging investigations is Consilience (the word means "a jumping together," in this case of the many branches of human knowledge), a wonderfully broad study that encourages scholars to bridge the many gaps that yawn between and within the cultures of science and the arts. No such gaps should exist, Wilson maintains, for the sciences, humanities, and arts have a common goal: to give understanding a purpose, to lend to us all "a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws.

In making his synthetic argument, Wilson examines the ways (rightly and wrongly) in which science is done, puzzles over the postmodernist debates now sweeping academia, and proposes thought-provoking ideas about religion and human nature. He turns to the great evolutionary biologists and the scholars of the Enlightenment for case studies of science properly conducted, considers the life cycles of ants and mountain lions, and presses, again and again, for rigor and vigor to be brought to bear on our search for meaning. 

The time is right, he suggests, for us to understand more fully that quest for knowledge, for "Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us.... Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become." Wilson's wisdom, eloquently expressed in the pages of this grand and lively summing-up, will be of much help in that search. 

From Library Journal

Historically, all of the sciences were once united under the rubric of "natural science." Over time, they became fragmented and specialized. Nevertheless, Wilson argues that there is a genetic and neurological basis for knowledge and that all subjects of human inquiry can be reunited under the umbrella of "consilience." 

From Scientific American

Edward O. Wilson's first "big book" was a slim volume, The Theory of Island Biogeography, written in collaboration with Robert H. MacArthur and published in 1967. It is one of the canonical texts of theoretical ecology. It helped to push the study of populations, communities and ecosystems from a foundation of largely descriptive studies to today's richer mixture of descriptive natural history, manipulative experiments in the field and laboratory, and mathematical analyses (often of complicated nonlinear systems). Sadly, cancer killed MacArthur a few years later. 

In 1973 a group of his friends and colleagues gathered in Princeton, N.J., for a memorial meeting. At that time, Wilson was about to send the manuscript of Sociobiology to his publisher. Wilson, Richard Levins and Richard C. Lewontin were staying in the overlarge house that I, recently arrived, was renting from Princeton University, and as we and others walked back to dinner there someone asked Wilson, "What is this sociobiology all about?

Dick Lewontin enthusiastically answered something like: "It is a big book, bringing a lot together, and defining sociobiology as whatever is in Ed's book." Much has happened since then. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis appeared -- 26 chapters on empirical and theoretical advances in understanding the evolutionary origins of the social behavior of nonhuman animals and a final speculative chapter suggesting that many aspects of human behavior and social organization might be understandable in broadly similar terms. Wilson had looked forward to an academic battle with anthropologists, psychologists and others who had little use for Darwinian interpretations of human culture. But he had (perhaps naively) not foreseen the political battle that erupted, with its epicenter at Harvard University and its apogee the infamous letter from Lewontin and others to the New York Review of Books, comparing Wilson's ideas with those of the Nazis. 

Wilson's subsequent books have ranged from a magisterial overview of his favorite animals (The Ants, with Bert Hölldobler, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990), through definitive statements about "biodiversity," a word that he made common coin (The Diversity of Life, 1992), to a wonderful autobiography (Naturalist, 1994). 

Far from backing off his sociobiological claims that evolutionary biology can illuminate aspects of human behavior and culture, Wilson's agenda has, if anything, enlarged over time. Which brings me to Consilience. The word is borrowed from William Whewell, who in his 1840 synthesis The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences spoke of consilience as a "jumping together" of knowledge by linking facts and theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. 

The book's opening chapter, aptly called "The Ionian Enchantment," sets forth Wilson's conviction that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small set of natural laws. 

The next two chapters take us on a quick tour through "The Great Branches of Learning" and "The Enlightenment," making clear Wilson's enthusiasm for the attitudes of the Enlightenment: "The assumptions they made of a lawful material world, the intrinsic unity of knowledge, and the potential of indefinite human progress are the ones we still take most readily into our hearts, suffer without, and find maximally rewarding through intellectual advance. The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities. The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship." 

Off to such a start, I approached the rest of the book with considerable trepidation. The middle part of the book, however, is an exceptionally insightful account of the sciences, including (as do the U.K. Research Councils) the social sciences. Wilson gives a good account of how our still growing understanding of the physical world has given us the power to reshape our environment, deferring to later chapters his observations on the often unintended consequences. Looking beyond today's spectacular advances in unraveling the structure and function of neural processes or in reading the molecularly coded book of life, Wilson points to a future in which this biological understanding will give us the power to reshape ourselves (again deferring the implications to his final chapters). 

He cuts through much polarized nonsense about nature versus nurture or genes versus culture, showing with many examples how both are as relevant to us as to other animals. These sociobiological ideas about kin selection, parental investment, mating behavior, territorial expansion and defense, status and other strategies are shown to have firm roots in evolutionary biology and clear applications to human institutions. 

As we move on to "The Social Sciences," "The Arts and Their Interpretation" and "Ethics and Religion," things get blurrier. Wilson continually and properly emphasizes patterns that are more or less universal: incest taboos (everything to do with inbreeding depression, and nothing to do with Freud); snakes and serpents in dreams (everything to do with real risks from snakes, and nothing to do with penises).

Although I am in sympathy with Wilson's basic premise, I think these illustrative universals are more subtly textured: consanguinity rules, in all their variety, are possibly better understood in economic terms, and I am with the Freudians on serpents. The suggestion that the magically beautiful cave art of Chauvet and elsewhere was born literally of magic--prescientific attempts to explain and influence one's world -- I find compelling. 

I would even agree that "the dominating influence that spawned the arts was the need to impose order on the confusion caused by intelligence." But to suggest this kind of explanation for contemporary art markets may be foolish: I think instead they are to be explained in largely economic terms (which themselves are ultimately, but remotely, grounded on evolution). The reason the annual turnover on paintings alone by Sotheby's, Christie's and the world's other auction houses is larger than the total annual spending on taxonomic and systematic biological research -- and why we have synoptic inventories of the world's art and not of the world's living species -- is not simply because we favor human handiwork over nature's. The reasons are essentially economic: we have created markets in art (and there is a lesson for conservationists here). 

In short, I share Wilson's view that the ultimate basis for art, and even for ethics, lies in the chances and necessities of our evolutionary history. But I think these origins are often deeper and subtler than they are sketched by Wilson. This being said, I love the clear, calm and often cruel phrases that drive his lance through black knight after black knight. 

On schools within the social sciences: "Each of these enterprises has contributed something to understanding the human condition. The best of the insights, if pieced together, explain the broad sweep of social behavior, at least in the same elementary sense that preliterate creation myths explain the universe, that is, with conviction and a certain internal consistency. But never--I do not think that too strong a word--have social scientists been able to embed their narratives in the physical realities of human biology and psychology, even though it is surely there and not some astral plane from which culture has arisen.

On religion: "For centuries the writ of empiricism has been spreading into the ancient domain of transcendentalist belief, slowly at the start but quickening in the scientific age. The spirits our ancestors knew intimately first fled the rocks and trees, then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible." Wilson, however, completes this quotation with "but we cannot live without them.

Greatly to oversimplify, Wilson offers us a clear-eyed view of the wonders of our evolutionary past, shared with other living creatures, as a satisfying creed to live by. As his final chapter makes plain, acceptance of this view of life carries a call to action. This last chapter summarizes our current plight: teeming population growth; climate change; extinction rates running 100 to 1,000 times above average rates in the evolutionary record and set to accelerate

Wilson, encouraged by his vision of the emerging unity of knowledge, which he hopes will help us rise above outdated irrationalities and short-term selfishness, offers a message of hope. I would like to share his optimism, but I cannot. Insofar as much of Wilson's Consilience is grounded on evolutionary biology, it emphasizes the short term and the individual. The classic problems surrounding the "evolution of altruism" or cooperative behavior -- of behavior that puts the good of the group above the interest of the individual -- are, as yet, ill understood (excepting for groups of sufficiently close relatives). These questions do not loom large in Consilience, yet they are utterly crucial to humanity's future. Whether the problem is population growth, or climate change, or diminishing biological diversity, the essential difficulty is in asking individuals today to make sacrifices that benefit communities tomorrow. 

In essentials, I agree with Wilson's hope that we are moving toward a unification of all knowledge, based ultimately on understanding evolutionary processes. But I do not share his optimism that this unity may be our salvation. I fear that the inflexibility of social institutions, rooted in the past evolutionary history of our species, will ineluctably continue to put their emphasis on the interests of individuals and of the short term.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

Edward O. Wilson has already had three careers and has made major contributions to knowledge in all of them. First, as an entomologist, he elucidated the intricacies of behavior and organization in ant societies. Second, as a sociobiologist, he studied the biologic basis of behavior and organization in human societies. Third, as an environmental activist, he crusaded for the preservation of the natural ecologies that human societies are rapidly destroying. 

With this book he has launched his fourth career, as a philosopher, attempting to assemble the many issues of concern to the human species into a unified intellectual framework. To his framework he gives the name "consilience," a word invented by the 19th-century philosopher William Whewell, which is derived from a Latin word meaning "jumping together.

Consilience is "a `jumping together' of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.

The book is a major contribution to philosophy, whether you agree with it or not. It brings together a rich diversity of ideas and stories, some of them arising from Wilson's professional activities in his three previous careers, others from his omnivorous reading. The 20 pages of end notes provide an annotated guide to a vast literature covering science, history, art, and philosophy. The 12 chapters of the book survey all these areas and many more. Wilson's purpose is to tie them all together into a package, with science serving as the string.

His central theme is the assertion that science can provide a firm foundation and a unified basis for ethics, religion, art, and the regulation of human society. Once we reach a scientific understanding of the biologic origins of religious and cultural quarrels, we shall be able to reconcile our differences and solidify our agreements. All men are brothers, and all women sisters, as seen through the impartial eye of science. The extension of scientific understanding to include the whole of human culture will bring with it an erosion of barriers, a unification of the human species, and a deepened respect for our natural environment.

This is a great and noble vision, portrayed with eloquence and passion. The vistas that Wilson sees lying ahead of us, if we share his faith in the all-embracing wisdom of science, are entrancing. The book, as a statement of the faith of an outstanding scientist and an outstanding human being, is exciting to read. It is full of insights gleaned from Wilson's encyclopedic knowledge of ants and humans. Everyone should read it. And yet, I have to confess that I came to the end of the book unconvinced. Although I admire the vision, I cannot share it. To me, the vision is too tidy. It has too much of the flavor of Plato's Republic or More's Utopia, societies ruled by benevolent intellectuals with little tolerance for rebellious spirits.

Wilson's view of human nature is narrow, and his view of science is hierarchical. He has little to say about medicine and law, the two professions that lie on the border between scientific rigor and practical wisdom. He writes with undisguised contempt for the many practitioners of the social sciences -- psychology, anthropology, sociology, and economics -- who try to understand human behavior without reducing it to biology. He wishes to squeeze the whole of human knowledge into a reductionist mold, reducing ethics and religion to biology, biology to chemistry, chemistry to physics. Being a physicist myself, I know how poorly physics is suited to be the root of the tree of knowledge.

It may well be that Wilson is right and I am wrong. The questions that the book raises are important, whether Wilson's answers turn out to be right or not. I hope his answers are wrong, because I value the diversity of culture more highly than the unity of science, the rebelliousness of people more highly than the consilience of ideas. To me, science is only one of many ways of exploring the human landscape, without any overriding authority over the others. In the end, the future will decide who is right. Meanwhile, you should read this book and make up your own minds. -- Reviewed by Freeman Dyson 

From Booklist

Thanks to the rampant success of Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time (1988), a great many are familiar with the project to formulate a grand unified theory linking together all the basic physical forces. 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. 

Consilience is the summum bonum of science as a way of knowledge, a philosophy; discovering it across all fields of knowledge--the arts and humanities, not excluding religion, as well as the physical and social sciences--would complete the work of the Enlightenment to demonstrate that creation is intrinsically orderly and even predictable. 

Wilson sympathetically reinterprets the Enlightenment, especially the work and attitude of Condorcet, sadly allowing that its termination in the French revolutionary reign of terror justifiably accounts for some of its subsequent bad press, then proceeds to show that the consilience of the natural sciences has been conclusively established and to argue that discoveries in brain science and genetics, in particular, should be applied to the problems of social science, aesthetics, ethics, and religion in order to bring them into the single web of cause and effect that encompasses everything. 

Wilson is confident that such applications will eventually be made, but he also feels it is urgent that they be made. As human population burgeons and its environment deteriorates, continued human success depends on making the wise choices that sound knowledge makes possible. Wilson dazzlingly reaffirms the cogency and the power of scientific materialism. -- Ray Olson

From Kirkus Reviews

A tour de force from a scholar for whom such tours are par for the course. Wilson, who sowed the seeds of sociobiology decades ago, expands his agenda to the whole of human learning and behavior. All, in both the realms of art and science, can be reduced to a common set of unifying principles, or consilience. All can be subsumed under the basic laws of physics and their offspring in chemistry and biology. 

For instance, the reductionist new genetics and molecular biology have revolutionized our understanding of biology in terms of evolution, human development, and the brain as the vehicle of human behavior. Further, Wilson restates his notion of the co-evolution of genes and culture, but it is here that his argument is weakest, based on the premise that we are genetically programmed toward certain archetypal forms and themes which he finds in primitive and ancient art but which are dubiously applicable in the modern world. Wilson's arguments on achieving consilience in the humanities will no doubt rile many of the faithful in these fields. 

For example, he rails against economists for their arid mathematical models that pay no heed to the irrational ways humans behave and he pretty well damns anyone who espouses cultural relativism; and he has very little good to say about philosophers in general. On the other hand, he writes knowledgeably about mind, making it clear that emotion is inextricably tied to reason, and his distinction between religion and ethics is well argued. 

In the end, Wilson invites scholars to explore the gaps in knowledge, as well as move toward synthesis: We are drowning in information, he says, while starving for wisdom

He also pulls out all the stops on the future of the biosphere, noting the potential for changing our genet ic make- up. No doubt many scholars will accuse Wilson of simplistic arguments, errors, and distortions. But how many have the guts to venture beyond the boundaries of their specialty to make a case for unity? For that reason alone, Wilson's proposal merits the attention and debate of the broad community of scholars. 


"An original work of synthesis...a program of unrivalled ambition: to unify all the major branches of knowledge--sociology, economics, the arts and religion--under the banner of science." -- The New York Times

"As elegant in its prose as it is rich in its ideas...a book of immense importance." -- Atlanta Journal & Constitution 

"Edward O. Wilson is a hero. . . he has made landmark scientific discoveries and has a writing style to die for. . . . A complex and nuanced argument." -- Boston Globe 

"One of the clearest and most dedicated popularizers of science since T. H. Huxley ...Mr. Wilson can do the science and the prose." -- Time

"An excellent book. Wilson provides superb overviews of Western intellectual history and the current state of understanding in many academic disciplines." Slate

"The Renaissance scholar still lives.... A sensitive, wide-ranging mind discoursing beautifully.... Wilson's buoyant intellectual courage is bracing." -- Seattle Weekly

From the Inside Flap

"A dazzling journey across the sciences and humanities in search of deep laws to unite them." -- The Wall Street Journal

One of our greatest living scientists -- and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for On Human Nature and The Ants --gives us a work of visionary importance that may be the crowning achievement of his career. In Consilience (a word that originally meant "jumping together"), Edward O. Wilson renews the Enlightenment's search for a unified theory of knowledge in disciplines that range from physics to biology, the social sciences and the humanities.

Using the natural sciences as his model, Wilson forges dramatic links between fields. He explores the chemistry of the mind and the genetic bases of culture. He postulates the biological principles underlying works of art from cave-drawings to Lolita. Presenting the latest findings in prose of wonderful clarity and oratorical eloquence, and synthesizing it into a dazzling whole, Consilience is science in the path-clearing traditions of Newton, Einstein, and Richard Feynman.

About the Author

Edward O. Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929. He received his B.S. and M.S. in biology from the University of Alabama and, in 1955, his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard, where he has since taught, and where he has received both of its college-wide teaching awards. He is currently Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He is the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, On Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990, with Bert Hölldobler), as well as the recipient of many fellowships, honors, and awards, including the 1977 National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1990), the International Prize for Biology from Japan (1993), and, for his conservation efforts, the Gold Medal of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (1990) and the Audubon Medal of the National Audubon Society (1995). He is on the Board of Directors of The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the American Museum of of Natural History, and gives many lectures throughout the world. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts with his wife, Irene.

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