Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge Reprint Edition
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"An original work of synthesis . . . a program of unrivalled ambition: to unify all the major branches of knowledge—sociology, economics, the arts and religion—under the banner of science." —The New York Times
"As elegant in its prose as it is rich in its ideas . . . a book of immense importance." —Atlanta Journal & Constitution
"Edward O. Wilson is a hero. . . he has made landmark scientific discoveries and has a writing style to die for. . . . A complex and nuanced argument." —Boston Globe
"One of the clearest and most dedicated popularizers of science since T. H. Huxley. . . . Mr. Wilson can do the science and the prose." —Time
"An excellent book. Wilson provides superb overviews of Western intellectual history and the current state of understanding in many academic disciplines." — Slate
"The Renaissance scholar still lives. . . . A sensitive, wide-ranging mind discoursing beautifully. . . . Wilson's buoyant intellectual courage is bracing." —Seattle Weekly
From the Inside Flap
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 synthesizi
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Wilson sees four major areas of study that need to be integrated: (1) Environmental Policy; (2) Ethics; (3) Social Science; (4) Biology. He makes the case for a return to valuing empirical scientific research as a key to this integration, and he sees postmodern relativism as the primary threat. He defines science as " the organized systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condense the knowledge into testable laws and principles."
He further says "the love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science;" and additionally, Wilson says "science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science." Despite his loathing of postmodern relativism he sees the need for criticism by stating that "new ideas are commonplace, and almost always wrong." Neither is Wilson a blind advocate for science, and he states clearly that new scientific discoveries lead to new challenges. Thus the need for an interplay between art and science.
Wilson sees original scientific discovery as a key to progress, and he celebrates researchers who venture out (for the chances of success are always slim). The qualities he sees as necessary for this journey include the possession of great knowledge and the courage to follow obsessive quests. Within this voyage of discovery, Wilson points to the study of complex systems as the most important focus and pressing need.
The social sciences are more complex than the physical sciences according to Wilson, and he laments the lack of interaction by these two camps. Then he goes on for a good bit to criticize sociologists, with good reason. Economists also draw his fire for arrogance and overly simplistic models that, for example, considers the natural environment as an "externality" to an economic system. What Wilson does see the need for models that are simple, widely applicable, congruent with other disciplines, and predictive.
This review just scratches the surface of the awesome book. Throughout the pages EO Wilson expounds on observations, hypotheses, theories and laws that cover both the sciences and the humanities. And he closes the book with an impassioned plea to work toward solutions to limit the destruction of our natural environment.
The principles of consilience are applicable across most organizations and disciplines. In my work as a marketing consultant I see soloed specialties separated by the competition for capital, budgets and status. I hear this familiar lament from colleagues in other disciplines and human endeavors. EO Wilson points the way toward a better, a more consilient, future.
Consilience is a watershed book and provocative read. A singular achievement.
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But Consilience is more than just a popular science book. It is a call for a new kind of science - a unified discipline, a thread of knowledge leading from physics, through the key element of biological evolution, to the social sciences and even the humanities, art, religion, and the ecology.
In a sense, Consilience is very similar to Daniel Dennet's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Both books deal with a huge array of items, also categorized as a chain leading from Physics to Ethics (and, in Dennet's case to God - or to the inexsistence of God. Wilson, more modest, stops at religion, and leaves a place for some sort of a deity in his cosmology). Ultimately, although Wilson's prose is superior, and some of his ideas are wonderful (especially early in the book. I loved the suggestion that Logical Positivism can be saved through biological information on how the brain works. There is a paradox there, but it is an approach to the question I never considered), Dennet's book is more considered and is the better of the two.
The reason for that is, as a scientific program, rather than as an ideology, Consilience doesn't hold water. First, the term is incredibly unclear. Sometimes, in its strong form, Consilience really is a call for one science, explaining a phenomena in all levels, from the human action to the evolutionary explanation for this phenomena, and finally to the physics behind the biology.
But one is struck by how little Wilson actually explains through this. His examples are remarkably minor. He can trace dreaming about Snakes to old world primates innate fear, and he explains which color words will be more frequant then others (black and white tend to be higher up the hirarchy then Orange - hmm), but no explanation to any discrete historical event is ever offered. Does Consilience, in this strong regard, has anything to say about Keyensian economics? Can you trace the fall of the Weimar republic back to physics? Do we understand Hitchcock's movies better through an evolutionary perspective on human motives like greed and love? I don't think so.
Then, sometimes consilience means only that different disciplines should engage in dialogue. There's nothing objectionable in that, but it is far from tearing down the discipline barriers. And it is constantly done anyway - the latest winner of the Noble price in economics won it for work in psychology.
Wilson's Consilience keeps switching between these two extremes. Part of the problem, in my view, is that Wilson over emphasizes the links between the different levels of explanation. In particular, in the 'nature vs. nurture', debate, Wilson clearly believes everything is in the genes.
Wilson constantly denies that he believes in genetic determinism. Strictly speaking, that is true, but if Wilson closes a door by allowing for culture, he opens a window by talking about predisposition - human culture works based on preexisting biological directions ("epigenetic rules") - it intensifies and elaborates them, but rarely or never ignores them. That's an interesting twist, but it amounts to little but a longer road to the same destination.
Ultimately, the greatest problem I had with Consilience is that it isn't pragmatic. Yes, Unity is a wonderful thing (and despite my reservations, I tend to agree to that), but how do we get there? Wilson offers very little concrete steps. At the end, Consilience leaves you with a vivid description of the impending ecologic crisis, and a warm fuzzy feeling that consilience can solve it - but with very little about how consilience will be achieved, or indeed, what it means exactly.
I don't want to end my review in such a sour note. Wilson's prose is powerful, and he is a fascinating thinker. Even if I don't agree with him, the vision is provocative and fascinating, and in a sense, that is the greatest compliment possible.
This book is a thought-provoking read and is challenging, but these are important ideas and worth devoting time and attention to exploring them. Wilson is a man of both depth and breadth of intellect and is courageous enough to use those talents to attempt to discover the possibilities of connecting our theories of various disciplines. Sure, it's speculative, but it is also amazing the power that he brings to his argument that the various areas of human understanding can be subjected to universal principles of understanding.
Top international reviews
Cognitions of natural sciences are progressing, but are not prone of errors. Also a natural scientist is imbued by the views of his era. How many scientist have measured human skulls to prove and expound the inferiority of certain human "races". Finally their conclusion have proved wrong, but in the meantime many million people have suffered by being graded as inferior. After discovering x-rays they were widely used (also for measuring the size of feet to produce the right size of shoes) disregarding their noxious effects. Nuclear power will be regarded by many scientists as a safe way for energy production but to the question where to dispose of the waste each one will answer: no in my backyard.
The book closes with deep concerns about sustainability of human life on earth. It is not clear whether the squandering of natural resources by the industrialised countries or the aspirations of the poor countries to come on equal footing with the former one will be the cause to earth's collapse.
If you read the book in view of possible contributions by biology to other sciences and humanities the book may be of some value although the author is not always up to date with the recent fields of research of other sciences and humanities.