From Chaos, Coherence—or at Least a Stab at It

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge — Edward O. Wilson (367 pages, $15)


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litbonanza.jpgKnowledge is in crisis.

This is the central premise of Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge : that our current understanding of the world is dangerously fragmented, that it is our solemn duty to integrate it or face ruin trying. As the product of one of the reigning dons of American biology, Wilson’s vision of consilience—harmony, coherence, unification—is grand and elegant and his elucidation of it inspiring, but perhaps too ambitious for its own good.

Wilson opens Consilience by hailing the Enlightenment as a model of egalitarian reason not taken far enough. In particular, with Francis Bacon and the Marquis de Condorcet as his muses, Wilson asserts that the empiricism of the scientific method is the ideal method for obtaining and developing knowledge and decries the loss of this drive to what he views as the intellectual degeneracy of impressionism, Romanticism, postmodernism, and logical positivism—in short, anything other than the hard science to which he has, conveniently, dedicated his career.

To Wilson’s credit (this is a book for the layman, after all), he spends a considerable amount of time outlining science’s personality and its profitability. He describes how science works and how scientists work (these not necessarily being the same procedures); he elucidates the precise definition of the much- abused theory; he glorifies, not unreasonably, the uncanny relationship between mathematics and the natural world.

With this portrait of science as his foundation—and we are evidently meant to trust in its soundness—Wilson goes on to demonstrate consilience within the natural sciences. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he presents his own magisterium, biology, as the one best suited to underlie the others, despite both its complexity and its abstraction from the more fundamental components of the universe. It is here that Wilson draws the critical distinction between analysis (what he describes as the tops-down approach) and synthesis (bottoms-up) in science. For Wilson, the former’s reductionism is what makes it the preferred tool of biology, and he hints, a whit scornfully, that modern science flourished first in the West because the East was too caught up in its holism to pay attention to the details.

Wilson’s scientism proceeds plausibly through the natural sciences and on even to his take on the neurology of the mind and the evolution of human culture. On the latter issue he is especially thoughtful, positing that genetics inform cultural evolution but do not control it, and in doing so he steers well clear of the fallacy of genetic determinism. He draws considerably on evolutionary biology, particularly the selfish-gene theory, and adopts, with modifications, Richard Dawkins’s definition of a meme as the basic unit of culture. As one of the coauthors of the theory of gene-culture coevolution, Wilson is not shy about including it, but he takes care to integrates it well with his concept of scientific consilience.

It is when he turns his attention to the social sciences that consilience’s idealistic armor begins to show a few cracks. Wilson’s central complaint is that these disciplines—anthropology, sociology, economics, political science—are not sufficiently scientific (by which he presumably means empirical, reproducible, mathematically reductionist) to be considered sciences. He’s right, of course: these disciplines would best be considered branches of philosophy, not science. But of philosophy as a whole he is arrogantly dismissive, at one point gloating: “Philosophy, the contemplation of the unknown, is a shrinking dominion. We have the common goal of turning as much philosophy as possible into science” (p. 12).

The cracks widen further when Wilson confronts the arts; his argument, that they, too, are reducible to an even more creative expression of scientific inquiry, seems to indicate a profound misunderstanding of what—to use his phrase—ars gratis artis is. Namely: science asks the questions of what and how, but art asks (nay, cries) “Why?” To expose art to the unforgiving scrutiny of empiricism is to destroy it; art need not be correct, only meaningful.

Consilience redeems itself, however, when examining ethics and religion. Here Wilson observes, validly, that most strife in the world stems from disagreements over what is right (ethics) and who has declared it right (religion), and that these two questions are inextricably linked. His position—essentially, moral empiricism—is interesting in light of his background as former Southern Baptist, and he supports it well, arguing, as have others before and after him, that religious conviction has an evolutionary origin and should be uninhibited. But to maintain a similarly laissez-faire attitude towards ethics, he says, is to allow the specter of cultural relativism to run amok once again.

Wilson ends Consilience with a call to action: the planet is in danger and we have jeopardized it. According to Wilson, we are faced now with a second Mephistophelean bargain, the first having been the “Ratchet of Progress” with which the Enlightenment dawned: will we entertain ourselves with the genetic toys of transhumanism or content ourselves with what natural selection—and natural selection alone—has granted us? As Wilson himself acknowledges, the question would amount to fire-and-brimstone scaremongering were the issues themselves not so real and so pressing. Only through the consilience of knowledge, he seems to say, can we give that question the informed consideration it deserves.

Wilson’s prose is elegant and sprinkled with subtle literary and, yes, Biblical allusions pleasing to those versed in subjects other than Wilson’s own. His unapologetic scientism and disparagements of philosophy aside, Consilience is a work first and foremost of philosophy, and it is a worthwhile read for anyone curious about a scientist’s take on contemporary epistemology.

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Cory Myers is an American student with interests in science, philosophy, and their intersection. He lives in the New York metro area.