Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


Edward O. Wilson, Consilience:  The Unity of Knowledge.
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998

Reviewed by John Bedell

Edward Wilson is one of our most famous and honored scientists, and here he offers us his vision of what science is and what it may someday become.  Wilson imagines a future in which all of human knowledge has been unified through the scientific method, and he is nothing if not bold.  Science, he tells us, "is the sword in the stone that humanity finally pulled."  The social sciences will be joined to biology through the new brain science, and the humanities, the arts, and even ethics will follow.  Science has no greater champion than Wilson: his learning is vast, his prose eloquent, his arguments strong, and his vision of a future in which all of human knowledge is absorbed into science is compelling.  Yet, I think, his grand scheme for the unification of knowledge collapses in the end.  Because of Wilson's stature, the failure of his efforts may be a clue as to what can and cannot be achieved through the program of rationalist science.

Consilience is one of the best books I have ever read about science. If you seek a description of what scientists do, or how they think about their work, I can suggest no better place to look. The thrill of experiment and the joy of discovery that drive the best scientists come through admirably, as does the grinding work necessary to achieve any real advance.  Wilson also beautifully evokes the wonder of science: the use of femtosecond lasers to observe chemical reactions in progress, the power of a ultraviolet photography to show us flowers through butterfly eyes.

The problems begin when Wilson reaches beyond biology, and the further he strays, the less convincing he becomes.  He is fascinating on the new science of the brain and the mind, yet already here there are difficulties.  Wilson seems to think we are on the verge of "understanding consciousness," but I find it impossible to imagine what that might mean.  Even if we do, one day, possess a set of equations describing the kind of computational apparatus that produces a conscious mind, what kind of "understanding" would that be?  Would that "explain" to the average person, or even the average scientist, why the operations of the brain produce the sensation of being alive?  To a hard scientist, "understanding" means something like "possessing a very detailed, mathematically rigorous description."  This is not what "understanding" means to the average person, and I don't think that equations of the complexity that will no doubt be required to describe the brain can genuinely convey "understanding," any more than we "understand" quantum mechanics.

Wilson's chapters on social science are not bad.  He calls for greater sophistication in statistics, better use of evidence, less political polemic, and other matters to which nobody who cares about the truth can object.  Yet I fail to see how his program of advancing the study of culture through the application of psychology and the new knowledge of the brain will help at all.  Wilson emphasizes how our increasingly detailed knowledge of human nature will allow comparative studies to leap forward, but I doubt it.  Many historians and ethnographers have shared Wilson's belief in a common human nature that renders all cultures understandable to each other, and I do, too.  So what?  The variety of human experience is nonetheless enormous, and the difficulty of generalizing from that diversity remains insurmountable.

Here again we meet the problem of what constitutes an explanation.  Wilson has missed the insight, which goes back at least to Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), that humanistic scholarship has a different goal than scientific studies. While the scientist aims at a perfect description of the world, the historian or literary scholar aims to know what it feels like to be another person.  It is all very well to apply the right statistical analyses to historical data, and the right dating techniques to disputed works of art, but that is hardly the point. As Isaiah Berlin put it, "to understand history is to understand what men made of the world in which they found themselves, what they demanded of it, what their felt needs, aims, ideals were."  The essential problem in humanitic scholarship is to understand what it is like to be somebody else, and the only tool that can provide answers is a sympathetic imagination.

Art, as Wilson realizes, presents even greater difficulty for his program.  He has a go at explaining the works of a South American painter, Pablo Amaringo, through the neurobiology of psychedelic drugs and our evolutionary fear of snakes, but he can't even suggest why should prefer Amaringo's paintings to any other dreamscapes with snakes in them.  Yet it is when he turns to ethics and religion that, I suspect, Wilson will make the most people mad.

Wilson is quite clear on his principles, at least, which puts him well ahead of many ethical "thinkers."  He thinks that, ultimately, the scientific and religious points of view cannot be reconciled.  He thinks that ethics should be rooted, not in holy writ, but in our understanding of human biology and psychology.  He is dismissive of the notion that the "is" of social science cannot be translated into the "ought" of ethical rules: 

For if ought is not is, what is?  To translate is into ought makes sense if we attend to the objective meaning of ethical precepts.  They are very unlikely to be ethereal messages outside humanity awaiting revelation, or independent truths vibrating in a nonmaterial dimension of the mind.  They are more likely to be physical products of the brain and culture.
I am sympathetic to Wilson's position--after all, I don't believe in holy writ, either, and I share his distrust of ethical systems based on absolute principles, like those of Rawls or Gandhi.  Ethics should be empirical, in the sense that it should be rooted in our knowledge of humanity.  But whereas Wilson seems say that our knowledge of the brain and how it evolved must be brought into play, I would emphasize our working knowledge of human societies.  Wilson is fascinated by the way human polities recreate the dominance patterns of a wolf pack, but I am more impressed by the way we have crafted representative democracy over the past two centuries.  In this marvelous system, those ambitious men and women who want to assume alpha positions must seek them by courting the approval of the rest of the pack.  It certainly has no precedent among hunter-gatherer bands, but in the enormous nations of our industrial age, it works.  While there may be bits of timeless wisdom we can adopt to our age, we live in an unprecedented world, and we cannot assume that any piece of our evolutionary heritage, or anything else from our past, will necessarily help with our unprecedented problems.

Wilson has been active in environmental causes for many years now, and he concludes Consilience with a plea for environmental consciousness.  Here we can perhaps see his plan in the most positive possible light.  One can certainly see how more certain knowledge of phenomena like global warming could lead to more sound policy and even, perhaps, more sound ethical reasoning.  But let's suppose we had such a good knowledge of environmental science, and economics, that we could estimate precisely the degree of damage that would be done to the environment by a new mine-- the exact number of every species that would be killed, the exact number of days of human life that would be lost to pollution-- and also a precise estimate of the amount of economic benefit.  Would that, in itself, be enough for us to decide whether to approve the mine?  I don't think so.  Our answer will depend on how we value wealth, how we value nature, and on how highly we regard the freedom of property owners to do what they like with their own land.  Science cannot provide those answers, and it never will.  There are, it seems to me, limits to scientific rationalism; indeed, I would even say that acceptance of those limits is a central part of any truly rational philosophy.

February 18, 2001

From the 
Commonplace Book

"I abhor the dull routine of existence. 
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--Sherlock Holmes


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