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Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge [Paperback]

Edward Osborne Wilson
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (171 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 30, 1999 067976867X 978-0679768678 Reprint
"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.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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."
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 30, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067976867X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679768678
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.2 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (171 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #46,750 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Regarded as one of the world's preeminent biologists and naturalists, Edward O. Wilson grew up in south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, where he spent his boyhood exploring the region's forests and swamps, collecting snakes, butterflies, and ants--the latter to become his lifelong specialty. The author of more than twenty books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Ants" and "The Naturalist" as well as his first novel "Anthill," Wilson, a professor at Harvard, makes his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
221 of 236 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A million years ahead of its time or impossible? October 21, 2004
Format:Hardcover
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.
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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book by an important thinker December 12, 1999
Format:Hardcover
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.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Procrustean argument or prophetic vision? April 2, 2002
Format:Paperback
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Very informative a interesting book a little over my head ...
Very informative a interesting book a little over my head but lots of new information to me to think about.
Published 2 days ago by dpopl4ama
3.0 out of 5 stars EO Wilson Writes Well
I was intrigued with the idea that he would talk about ways for ideas from the humanities and arts would come together with science, now that we've had some time for evolution and... Read more
Published 2 months ago by A. E. Burtlebe
3.0 out of 5 stars dissappointment
I wanted this book to live up to its title. The subject is exceptionally important at this point in our history, and it is questionable whether anyone else might have done as well... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Walter J. Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Required reading
One of my favorite books. I have purchased multiple copies for friends, family, and co-workers. E.O. Read more
Published 3 months ago by mp mcgrath
5.0 out of 5 stars Every word is brilliant
I have been interested in interdisciplinarity for many years, and have struggled with the right words to describe my belief that the connections between fields -- including the... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Brendan P.
5.0 out of 5 stars Groundbreaking
Mostly known as one of the world's great experts on ants, E. O. Wilson seems to toss off other little books in his spare time, and they revolutionize the thinking about humanity's... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Xander Barthes
5.0 out of 5 stars Mind Expanding
This is the kind of book you can open anywhere & become interested. Sounds like its for egg heads, but don't be offput. I love it enough to have it on my coffee table. Read more
Published 16 months ago by CowgirlBabs
2.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat disappointing
Your reaction to this difficult read will depend on your starting point. If you are reasonably scientifically literate and fairly widely read, the concept of consilience will not... Read more
Published 17 months ago by B. Newman
5.0 out of 5 stars I thoroughly stimulating book
The lateral and unifying thoughts of a great thinking scientist. I could spend hours on just considering one page. It's invigorating.
Published 17 months ago by UltraFeedback
5.0 out of 5 stars Sixteen years after publication, it stands as a book for the ages.
Though not his last, "Consilience" will probably stand as Wilson's capstone book. It is a magnificent survey of all of science. Read more
Published on March 14, 2012 by Graham H. Seibert
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