Customer Reviews: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
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In this ambitious work, Edward O. Wilson, one of the most distinguished scientists of our times, and a man I greatly admire, goes perhaps a bit beyond his area of expertise as he envisions a project that is perhaps beyond even the dreams of science fiction. "...[A]ll tangible phenomena," he writes on page 266, "from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics."

This in a nutshell is his dream of "consilience." It is also the statement of a determinist. My problem with such a laudable endeavor (and with determinism in general) is this: even if he is right, that the arts and the humanities will ultimately yield to reduction, how do we, limited creatures that we are, do it? It seems to me that in the so-called soft sciences like sociology, economics, and psychology, for example, and even more so in the world of the humanities and the arts, reduction is so incredibly complex that such an attempt is comparable (in reverse order) of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. It's ironic that Wilson uses almost exactly this metaphor on page 296 to explain why once the rain forests are chopped down, they're gone forever. He notes, "Collect all the species...Maintain them in zoos, gardens, and laboratory cultures...Then bring the species back together and resynthesize the community on new ground." Will this work? Wilson's answer is no. He writes, "...biologists cannot accomplish such a task, not if thousands of them came with a billion-dollar budget. They cannot even imagine how to do it." He adds, still on page 296, that even if biologists could sort and preserve cultures of all the species, "they could not then put the community back together again. Such a like unscrambling an egg with a pair of spoons."

This is exactly how I feel about the consilience of human knowledge. I cannot even imagine how reductionism could help us to understand a poem. There is a dictum among poets that "nothing defines the poem but the poem itself." No amount of reduction will allow us to understand what makes the poem tick. This is because the poem is an experience, a human emotional, intellectual, sensual experience dependent upon not only the literal meaning of the words, but on their connotations, their sounds, their rhythm, their relationships to one another, their syntax, their allusions, their history, their use by other poets, etc., and also what the individual reader of the poem brings to the experience. Reduce the poem and you do not have an understanding of the poem. At best you have an essay on the poem, at worst something alien to the esthetic experience. In essence, I should say that the problem with consilience is that our experience is not reducible.

I have read a lot of what Professor Wilson has written, including On Human Nature (1978), the charming memoir, Naturalist (1994), parts of The Ants (1990) and his controversial, but ground-breaking and highly influential, Sociobiology (1975). And I have read some of his critics, most recently essayist Wendell Berry's Life Is a Miracle (2000) and Charles Jenck's piece in Alas, Poor Darwin (2000). What has struck me in these readings is the disconnection between what Wilson has written and what some critics have criticized him for writing! For example it is thought that Wilson is a strict biological determinist when it comes to human behavior. But here he writes, very clearly on page 126, "We know that virtually all of human behavior is transmitted by culture." Wilson has had to weather more than his share of unfair criticism because, as the father of sociobiology, which some mistakenly see as a furtherance of a rationale for eugenics, he has been made the target of the misinformed. Additionally, Wilson is not the lovable sort of genius we adored in Einstein, nor the heroic scientist overcoming a terrible handicap as in the case of Stephen Hawking, but a slightly nerdish genius from Alabama who spent much of his life crawling around on the ground and in trees looking at ants. Some people make it clear that such a man should not presume to tell them anything about human beings and how we should conduct our lives or how we should view ourselves. But I think they are wrong. Wilson brings unique insights into the human condition, and he has the courage of his convictions. I think he is a man we should listen to regardless of whether we agree with him or not.

Even if its central thesis is wrong, Consilience is nonetheless an exciting book, full of information and ideas, elegantly written, dense, at times brilliant, a book that cannot be ignored and should be read by anyone interested in the human condition regardless of their field of expertise.
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on December 12, 1999
As an undergraduate in the early 1980s I was profoundly influenced by the paradigm-shifting academic movement begun by Professor Wilson in his work, Sociobiology. The idea that human social behavior was the product of thousands of years of ancestral genetic competition was a refreshing rejoinder to the dogma espoused at that time in conventional Sociology and Anthropology courses. In the years after university I have watched as Wilson's thesis has gradually achieved greater acceptance. Even many feminists and psychologists who once viewed Wilson's work as an anathema have come to realize that the ideas he popularized have changed forever their fields of study.
It was with this background that I jumped into Consilience, hoping for new insight. What I discovered was a cogent argument for the need to break down the very same academic barriers that I recognized years ago as an undergraduate. In another book I read recently, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, the philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that the fallout from Darwin's work on evolutionary natural selection has completely disrupted and changed forever the intellectual landscape in which we live. Wilson makes essentially the same argument, but his book is more often prescriptive than diagnostic. He argues that the same synthesis which has been tenuously achieved in "hard" sciences such as physics, chemistry and molecular biology can be achieved in all branches of learning. He suggests roadmaps for achieving this integration in the social sciences as well as the arts and religion.
Most interesting of all is Wilson's discussion of the need for greater understanding of the biological underpinnings of morality and ethics. Wilson correctly recognizes that for all of humanity's scientific and technological achievement, if our species is to thrive well into the future we must come to terms with ourselves and recognize certain truths that our biological history has imposed on us. That recognition will necessarily entail major changes in the way we live, both at the individual and the societal level. Ultimately, however, Wilson is a conservative - not in the ideological sense, but in recognizing the need to preserve many traditions that anchor us to our cultural heritage.
This is a wonderful, well-researched, engagingly-written book by one of the most important scientists of the 20th Century. Readers looking for a peek into the future of intellectual discourse need look no further than Consilience.
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on April 2, 2002
E.O.Wilson has come up with an arcane word for the title of his book, the meaning of which you will not find in your regular OED. I eventually read elsewhere that CONSILIENCE is the convergence, jumping, or bringing together of knowledge. The long time spent in frustrating dictionary searches has caused me to yield to temptation and toss an equally odd word at Wilson's book in this review. Is it indeed Procrustean by being a created and arbitrary standard that he demands intellectual conformity to, or is he simply ahead of his time and has a real vision of a coming "unity of knowledge"?
For persons in the humanities and social sciences this book may sting a little. Wilson is used to criticisms of his own work because of his insistence on using sociobiology as the lens through which he sees all. Long ago after having a jug of water dumped on his head and being told he "was all wet", Wilson seemingly realized that in order to be read he would have to develop a moderate, well reasoned, and mild writing style. You'll never read one of his books and come away thinking "diatribe" or "polemic". He even writes with a recognition and acknowledgement of his own biases. He says here that "ethics is everything" and for Wilson this largely means environmental ethics, and if after reading his book, critics want to say he's a reductionist, Wilson admits he's "guilty, guilty, guilty." Wilson however is quite able to give as good as he gets and the subject of his critical penmanship is the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and their "ideological committments" and lack of a "web of causal explanation." He thus sees them as weak in comparison to the natural sciences and poor templates for explaining all we see around us. Furthermore he looks back on the Enlightenment and says that those thinkers "got it mostly right" and achieved a wholeness in contrast to what we have now where divisions in academia are "artifacts of scholarship."
My background is in economics and geography and I don't have a problem with him saying there should be more rigidity and rules in those fields of study, and I agree that there should be more environmental awareness in economics. Maybe Wilson is onto something and sociobiology as a synthesis science might be a forerunner of the blended knowledge that will finally give us a clear view of the Big Picture. Who knows? His argument does tend to falter a bit though when he grasps for the humanities and discusses the laws that might be applicable in art and philosophy. It's a tenuous grip indeed as he is unconvincing in explaining how you achieve "objective truth" by "contemplation of the unknown" which he admits is was philosophy is. And please tell me what law governs the interpretation of a work of art?
It's a fascinating book and very well written. It's obvious Wilson has done a lot of research on the subject and he's a brilliant thinker and he may be mostly right. But Einstein the great unifier himself, once said that "imagination is more important than knowledge", so i'm inclined to go with that until Wilson or someone else can prove otherwise..
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on March 8, 2008
Anybody who has participated in University education can attest to its disarray. None of the disciplines communicate, and if they do it is only to hurl invective. I cannot count the number of times I have met a very bright student of history who was completely unaware of evolutionary psychology; or how many times I have talked to evolutionary psychologists who couldn't tell you what happened in 1066. The state of affairs is truely sad. We are learning more and more about less and less. We are seeing the blades of grass, but missing patterns in the fields.

E.O. Wilson's dream is to put an end to this nonsense. Consilience is the ambitious idea that all human knowledge fits together naturally- like a lego construction. There is no need to act as if humans are not a part of nature- we are.

The goal of uniting knowledge under rigorous scientific methodology and darwinian theory is laudable.

Here is a quick example of how it could work:

Let us say I wished to study love. Who de we love? Why? Etc.

From an evolutionary view, I could ask why natural selection would create a species where two members pair bonded.
From the neuroscientific view, I could explore the brain mechanisms and neurotransmitters responsible for creating this feeling.
From a Sociological view, I could look at who pairs up with whom, what effects it has on the surrounding society, and how love's expression has changed over time.

In the traditional view, their would be no inherent connection between the different answers reached by different disciplines. In the consilient view, they all belong together and interconnect. If the sociological view is not consilient with what is known about human biology and neuropsychology than one or both views must be wrong. From the view of consilience, the more our mutually seperate investigations fit together, the more likely our answer is a good one. Not only that, but our answer is much more satisfying.

This is consilience in a nutshell. A way to unite knowledge and provide deeply meaningful and satisfying answers to the question of what it means to be human, while not losing any scientific rigour.

My only qualm with the idea of consilience is its almost metaphysical nature. Anybody who does research and actively reads scientific journals knows just how hard true consilience would be to achieve. There are so many methodologies, units of analysis, debates, uncertainties; and there is SO MUCH information. It is hard to see how all of it can be united in a reasonable manner. I wish that more people would work toward such a goal, but academics, like the rest of us, have egos and niches to carve out.

In the end, E.O. Wilson's vision remains an ideal yet to be realized. Is it realistic? Probably not. Is it worth striving for? Like true love, it most certainly is.
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on February 4, 2005
If the very idea that chemical and physical or biological and social phenomena could be causally connected takes you by surprise, then I strongly recommend this book to you. If you are like me, however, spending most of your days doing science and arguing for conceptual compatibility between psychology, biology and economics, you will find very few original ideas in this book, that has very few ideas altogether anyways.

The first part of the book is historical and it is pretty readable, especially if you are anxious to get to the real stuff. But the real stuff is very slow in coming, as the shocking truth that cell biology has something to do with cell chemistry, and that mind has something to do with the brain is very gradually (it takes about 200 pages) revealed to us. Unfortunately, apart from these general truisms you will find little else. I can recall only one example that is sort of worked out down the hierarchy from social to physical - the presence of serpents in rituals of some primitive peoples in distant corners of the world, something, I dare say, of no importance to anyone but a few scientifically minded shamans and a handful of anthropologists. And this is the general nature of the examples that Wilson uses to illustrate his rare points: they are little known, inconsequential or drawn from the least vital of the classical works (e.g. Milton's "Paradise Lost").

Although the book as a whole is relatively well structured, particular chapters are most often just loose patchworks of independent essays that share somewhat similar themes. This makes the book extremely repetitive and hard to follow as, despite most of its assertions ringing true, it is in a great need of a solid argument. One would expect the book that purports to show advantages if not inevitability of consilience to teem with examples, yet there are very few of them, each of them then being grossly overused in turn (e.g. Westermarck effect is referred to dozens of times, almost as if this were a book on sexual development).

All those flaws culminate in the chapter on arts. There is no even mention of the possibility that arts have something to do with status, and there is virtually no mention of music, movies and literature - as far as this book goes, the arts are about cave drawings and Mondrian's personal development. On the top of it, Wilson reinforces already very entrenched and unfortunate habit of hyperhumility towards the arts and artists (which exists precisely because interest in art is associated with status), insisting many times that arts and science are complementary, that what we get from arts we can not get from science etc. This of course, and perhaps sadly, is not true, if only because 1) one of the reasons for arts (especially literature and movies) is their transmission of social knowledge 2) increasingly, there are more reliable (scientific) sources for this knowledge 3) time available to us for learning is limited.

As some sort of partial compensation for the reading for the thousandth time that human nature is relevant for social phenomena, comes the penultimate chapter on ethics. It is refreshing to see one of the major figures in sociobiology pointing out the fallacy of the so-called naturalistic "fallacy" that so many evolutionary psychologists enthusiastically embrace. Wilson puts the matter succinctly: there is no other place for ought to come from but is. This does not mean that every particular act is right, but it does mean that it is wrong only if we say so. But even this chapter is too long for this simple, if important point. Almost no ethical implications of what we actually know about human nature are worked out - the chapter proceeds as if we know nothing about gender and race differences, origin of mental illness, cognitive biases and child development again into the wordy and uninformative hodge-podge.

In several places Wilson laments over intellectual specialization that is common among contemporary inteligenzia. It seems to him that we need more synthesizers, but that is hardly as obvious as he appears to think. Distributed systems have had considerable success in many areas and it is quite possible that scientific enterprise is best served by thousands of specialists oblivious to the regularities in the greater project that they are a part of. Besides, even a relatively poorly researched book like this one depends on the work of at least several dozens specialists, and there are probably not much less synthesizers that could have written it. I therefore expect that we will soon be reading a more successful attempt at the same topic.
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on June 26, 1998
Consilience, by Edward O. Wilson,1998, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, Hardcover, 336 pp., $18.20 U.S. (from
"Still, scientific theories are a product of imagination--informed imagination. They reach beyond their grasp to predict the existence of previously unsuspected phenomena. They generate hypotheses, disciplined guesses about unexplored topics whose parameters the theories help to define. The best theories generate the most fruitful hypotheses, which translate cleanly into questions that can be answered by observation and experiment. Theories and their progeny hypotheses compete for the available data, which comprise the limiting resource in the ecology of scientific knowledge. The survivors in this tumultous environment are the Darwinian victors, welcomed into the canon, settling in our minds, guiding us to further exploration of physical reality, more surprises. And yes, more poetry."
If you have the vocabulary to easily grasp the author's message in that paragraph, you will probably enjoy this book.
Consilience, the title word (not in the average dictionary), means, according to one review, a "jumping together," but in my old 1913 dictionary is defined as "the coming into agreement of generalizations from widely differing inductions" and thus the author's theme is that it is time for the various scientific disciplines to share with each other in those areas of mutual interest. And he points out that many of the most momentous disciplines have a great many areas of overlapping interest.
Edward O. Wilson was born in a good year, 1929, which is also the year of my birth. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and received his B.S. and M.S. from the University of Alabama, and in 1955, his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard, where he has since taught.
He is the author of two Pulitzer prize-winning books, "On Human Nature," 1978, and "The Ants," 1990. His specialty, throughout his career as a scientist, has been ants, on ! which he is probably the world's foremost expert.
But, as this book shows, he has not neglected other areas of human knowledge. Indeed, he might well be classed as a "generalist," for his wide range of interest and accumulated knowledge. Indeed, two chapters, "The Mind," and "Ethics and Religion," held me enthralled, although I am still trying to decide how to disagree with him.
He makes a seemingly air-tight case for the mind's being simply a result, mechanical necessity, if you will, of the brain's electro-chemical processes. All of which is carefully documented and researched, labeled and identified.
My problem with that is the phenomenon of awareness: self-knowledge. I know that I exist. If awareness is only a by-product of chemistry, electricity and physics, then the creation is surely greater than its creator. The brick overshadows the bricklayer.
I have similar problems with his thoughts on religion, specifically: God.
Wilson is a nominal Baptist, and calls himself a Deist, rather than a Theist. An empiricist, rather than a transcendentalist. And, he admits that he might be wrong.
But, the purpose of this review is not to argue with him. In the first place, his formal educational credentials far exceed mine, and in the second place, I would not wish to detract from his book. It is the kind of book that you find once or twice in a decade: one that holds your interest with reasoned argument, and in which the author is worthy of your complete respect. His arguments are cogent, well-reasoned and careful, and the result of a long lifetime of careful observation.
And that, alone, is refreshing in this age when every half-educated, semi-literate ignoramus eagerly exercises his right to loudly proclaim an opinion on any and every subject that crosses his mind, no matter how transiently, in seemingly inverse proportion to the amount of data he has on the subject.
Those who are blessed with a decent vocabulary and an inquiring mind will enjoy this book,! whether you find yourself in total agreement with the author, or not. Those described in the last paragraph would be better off to save their money.
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on January 28, 2001
After reading this book I was left with a quizzical, ambivalent intellectual feeling about its contents, something like any of the well-known ambiguous figures used in Gestaltpsychology perception tests. Either this was one of my most meaningful encounters with the philosophy of science or this was one of the best-contrived visual tricks arranged by a renowned scientist to disguise his extrascientific hopes (geopolitical?) under a seductive scientific packaging. First of all the book stands out for the quality of writing and Wilson is surely another name to add to the already rich list of science's loans to high-quality narrative: I wish many a rive-gauche-style intellectual could only approximate in his/her works Wilson's clarity and overall textual pleasantness. The book is from start to end a passionate but only occasionally convincing effort to promote the goal expressed concisely by its crisp subtitle: the unity of knowledge! An ambitious goal, indeed, and one on which very few could dissent just on the vague ground of good and advisable general principles. But once you think it over the subject matter grows astonishingly complex and a little post-meditation forces a lot of questions and further issues to spring up like spiteful little devils on the way to fulfilling Wilson's respectable desires. One of the most lamented splits in today's culture, Wilson tells us, is the ancient, unsolved problem of science's divorce from the humanities. The author's opinion is that art, literature and the social disciplines are altogether blocked in their progress and capacity for real deeper insight by their distance from a sound acquantaince with the fact-based truths of science. And, since man and his brain are the very tools by which all culture is built, the humanist side should adhere to the uncontroversial tenets of the sciences which have the most to say about human beings and their brains: biology and, especially, neurobiology. It is of course understandable - but not philosophically justifiable - that Wilson, being himself a biologist, inclines to view the world thru the glasses of biology, but the gaps he has to close - jumping from neuron to brain to mind to art and so on - are so wide that the few examples of possible unification he presents leaves me doubtful on the actual feasibility of this grand design by the adoption of too simplistic an approach: that of a collapse of the humanities into a sort of sophisticated appendix of science and, more specifically, of biology. And, in the end, you are forced once more to ask an old, trivial but always apt question: has Wilson really avoided the pitfall of trying to explain cathedrals by the mere composition of the stones they are made of? How can we cope with the complexities of emergent qualities like mind, consciousness and aesthetics by the long leash of biology-based "epigenetic rules" without stretching that leash to a length such as master and dog are no more recognizable as two related creatures?
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on April 19, 2003
I think E.O. Wilson's powers as a populizer are overstated. Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Gould, Daniel Dennett, Philip Kitcher and Michael Ruse have written more lucidly on science, especially evolution. Two of my three stars go to this book as a broad intellectual history, where it succeeds. As for the book's main argument, that all the strands of human knowledge can and should fruitfully converge, I am less convinced.
The writing is part of the problem. Even when the individual sentences are well-assembled and the words well-chosen, which is is usually the case, Wilson tends to change topics and allow arguments to dissolve before completion.
The controversial portion of the argument seeks to establish that assorted fields like economics, ethics, and the arts can be somehow improved if they are more firmly grounded in "real" psychology and a "real" apprehension of human nature, conceived as products of humankind's evolutionary history. How would these fields be improved under conditions of consilience, according to Wilson?
Applied to a quoted passage from Milton's Paradise Lost, Wilson points out that Milton's description conforms to evolved, hard-wired conceptions of beauty. Fine. So what? Says Wilson: "Works of enduring value are truest to these [evolved] origins. It follows that even the greatest works of art might be understood fundamentally with knowledge of the biologically evolved epigenetic rules that guided them." Well, no, it doesn't necessarily follow -- for starters, knowledge of origins doesn't necessarily confer understanding -- this sounds like the beginning of what might be an intriguing inquiry; unfortunately, however, this is presented as a conclusion in this book.
It is entirely possible that others will come along to flesh out one or more of the intriguing inquiries begun in this book. In turn, such treatments may create truly useful linkages that are currently unknown or barely understood. E. O. Wilson will deserve credit for having sketched the frame of such inquiries. But if you are looking for consilience per se, and not just an encomium to the idea of it, keep looking.
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on April 10, 2000
Wilson, a 70-year-old biologist, presents an excellent persuasion of the world through a naturalists eyes, and in the process explains why the naturalist has more justification in his philosophy then a religious person who accepts what he sees without explanation because it would appear too complex, thus must be a result of God. The topics in this book are vast - ranging from theories of consciousness and thought to ethics and religious beliefs and why they exist - Wilson's experience shows. I recommend this book to anyone with a similiar interest in a journey for knowledge and truth (if such a concept is possible). This book should be read with an open mind - anything less would be a naïveté. Some sections, partiularly on epigenitic rules and consciousness, may shock the reader, as they depict reality and life in a way completely different from the normal religious or indifferent view most people have embraced as explanation. If the reader does not wish to broaden his or her horizons and provoke thought, I recommend reading the Regulations for the US Tax Code...for those of us who are intrigued by knowledge and wish to find a true justification for life, then I highly suggest reading Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.
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on January 18, 2000
I first heard of this book at one of those dreary Washington cocktail parties. I was about to leave early as I usually do on such occasions when I heard someone say he had just read the obituary of postmodernism. The remark was sufficiently interesting to make me stay for a bit. Having read the book I now know what the cocktail party sage meant. In reading this book I realized that the postmodern attempt to dethrone science from its privileged place in modern civilization has failed miserably. Far from being just one among many ways of looking at the world, science now seems poised to permit humans to control their own speciation. The entire human future may revolve around that fact. The achievements of science are simply rendering postmodernism uninteresting. I used to be seriously interested in questions of "theory." But after reading this book, I have come to believe that the whole deconstructionist thing has foundered on the shoals of scientific empiricism.
Let's get out our hankies but admit that theory is now just "20th century stuff."
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