December 1, 1998
by Laura Worsham
CONSILIENCE: The Unity of Knowledge
Edward O. Wilson
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998
The Truth is out there -- it lies not in the stars, but within ourselves, and, if you believe what the distinguished biologist Edward O. Wilson argues in his newest book, Consilience, the path to truth is paved with facts. Empirical, observable facts built so solidly one upon the other that they will connect into a theoretical connective tissue that will unify all knowledge.
Consilience is a term revived by Wilson to label his theory that all knowledge can and one day will be unified under known and yet-to-be discovered first principles of science. The word literally means "a jumping together." Through consilience, argues Wilson, fields as seemingly diverse as biology, physics, psychology and, here's the news, the social sciences, will be joined under the same natural laws.
We humans are no exceptions to the laws of nature, says Wilson; neither our brains nor our cultures are exempt from the constraints of natural law. As our genes evolved, so too our behavior. Therefore, ethics and Moral reasoning are constrained (not necessarily prescribed) by genetic rules. If, Wilson believes, we build a new science that draws from all area of study we will discover these rules, and through this discovery we will finally come to an understanding of ourselves and each other.
This eighth book of Wilson's is born of a long lifetime of study as a biologist (specifically an entomologist) and teacher at Harvard University. He is incidentally a native son of Mobile. He attended Murphy High School and writes in his memoir that it is the rich environment of Mobile, with its rivers and streams filled with tadpoles and minnows and our fertile soil alive with ants, worms and beetles that inspired and sustained his interest in the natural sciences.
For decades he has been a highly respected if controversial figure in scientific circles. In the seventies he first proposed his theory that much of human behavior is based on heredity and that we are therefore not infinitely variable or programmable. This was at the height of emotionally charged social movements including feminism and civil rights, which fostered an underlying bias toward cultural relativity in the social sciences.
He was excoriated and attacked at Harvard as being sexist, racist and ethnocentric. But if you read Consilience you will find that his critics misjudged him. He quietly and determinedly refused to back down, just kept building over the years on his theories. Now it seems that his theories are gaining in both scientific and popular acceptance.
It is not hard to understand why these theories stirred such controversy. His insistence that empirical observation and reductionist analysis should be applied to behavior and even moral reasoning seems to diminish our humanity, and therefore those who favored the holistic humanities world view rejected him.
Even more than the humanists, the social scientists disliked Wilson's belief that behavior, to some extent, is heritable. His contention that we are predisposed by our evolutionary history to behave in certain ways seems to negate the argument that culture is responsible for the unfair treatment of women and minorities. (And if culture is responsible, and culture is infinitely variable and reprogrammable, as many social scientists believe, then unfair treatment can be weeded out by simply changing elements of culture.)
I was initially skeptical of Wilson's theories for the same reasons. Historically, when science has been called upon to explain culture it seems that truly awful things happen. Social Darwinism was used to justify the ruthless economic oppression of millions by turn-of-the-century robber barons, and lest we ever forget, unnatural selection in the form of eugenics and in the name of purifying the Aryan race was used to justify the slaughter of millions.
Wilson is aware of the past and his theories are not consilient with these abuses. One criticism of his writing is that he spends too little space answering these valid fears, preferring perhaps to describe what his theories are, rather than what they are not.
Consilience, declares Wilson, does not search for differences among peoples, but rather seeks to discover similarities. Ethnologists, those who conduct comparative studies of cultures around the world, have discovered dozens of "cultural universals."
To name but a few the universal traits of all cultures, we all dance, live in hierarchically structured communities, believe in luck, give gifts to each other, and tell jokes.
Many humanists believe that Wilson's argument that the only path to knowledge of ourselves is accumulation of facts through disciplined observation and reductionist analysis , diminishes us. Stephen Jay Gould, an outspoken critic of Wilson's and coworker in Harvard's Biology Department, argues that there is too much chaos in systems as complex as the brain or human culture for there to be unifying laws, or if they exist, for us to ever understand them. Wilson believes that through consilience we can know, and that some day we will know. He does not discount Chaos or complexity theory, but believes that if we do not now understand, it is because we possess an " insufficiency of facts" and one of the reasons this insufficiency exists it is because we haven't been asking the right questions. New first principles must be discovered before we can learn what we must know about ourselves if we are to survive. Gould argues that we can never know; Wilson feels passionately that we can. He writes: Wir Mussen wisen, wir werden wissen. We must know, we will know.
Reductionism is only a part of Wilson's theory. Analytical taking apart alone would diminish us; the whole point of gathering facts is to have enough knowledge to resynthesize the parts, once we understand them, into a reconstituted whole. Consilience is reconstitution.
At first glance the idea of reductionism applied to human behavior was repellent to me. But through his ability to analyze and resynthesize information in defense of his theory, he has convinced me. He is very much a humanist, not only well educated in the arts and sciences but believes that arts and sciences are closely linked. Science, says Wilson, is the way we communicate information. Art is our way of communicating emotion. We need both reason and emotion, he says. Science analyzes, the humanities reconstitutes. How much more superior the reconstitution if it is based on a thorough knowledge of the organism's constituent parts.
It does not diminish Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to study the individual notes, and it is those individual notes recorded and recopied that enable us generation after generation to experience the whole of the music. We will never control cancer until we understand how cells function and interact. We will never end war until we understand what drives us to fear, anger and aggression.
When Wilson writes that all wisdom begins with an understanding of the physical basis of mind our initial response might well be one of dismissal. Read on, he writes compellingly and cogently with an extraordinary ability to organize and synthesize dense amounts of information. While he does not leave room for miracles or any transcendent origins of the soul or moral reasoning, he argues persuasively for the awe- inspiring thrill of searching for the truth, however mundane it may turn out to be.
Wilson writes: "...on our own we can know and in knowing, understand, and in understanding, choose wisely."