- Paperback: 384 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 30, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 067976867X
- ISBN-13: 978-0679768678
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 192 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,060 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge Reprint Edition
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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.
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As Wilson points out, the unity of all knowledge is at this time more metaphysical yearning than scientific fact. We've barely begun to map genes to specific behaviors; we're only starting to understand how the brain and body generate a mind; and hard historical data about how we evolved into this particular configuration is spotty at best. The endeavor seems to be about where America was in 1700: a few promising toeholds on the continent, large gaps between them, and vast tracts of unexplored territory.
Wilson wants to guide us through the wilderness, and, like many prophets, he takes his share of abuse. The book seems to have become a litmus test for how willing people are to let the natural sciences encroach on other fields of intellectual endeavor, and several reviews posted here offer pugnacious critiques of the limits to Wilson's approach. Some of the significant objections to his brand of consilience are:
Flawed methods. The skill of good science is to pose questions in ways that make answers possible, which is to effectively reduce the complexities of the world to problems that can be solved. While the scientific method has led to huge advances in understanding the natural world, it's questionable whether philosophy, art, religion or day-to- day living will yield up their secrets through this process. Many respected thinkers argue that applying scientific reductionism to the complexities of human existence leads us down false and constraining paths. Real progress comes when we're rigorous but not reductive in our search for truth.
A bloodless humanism. Both the Greeks and the Christians proposed to fix human flaws by attempting to eliminate in people what made them human in the first place. Wilson's scientific humanism, which would have us go forward based on empirical knowledge and a disinterested search for truth, is another tautological ascent. People recently descended from Paleolithic tribes don't find it congenial to think like world-class scientists. In fact, whenever rationalist thought gains political ascendancy, large masses of humanity feel compelled to daub themselves with blue mud and dance around the campfire. Scientists who try to take away our funk and magic will get tossed on the campfire too.
Political pitfalls. Suppose the linchpin activity of Wilson's consilience - identifying which genes trigger a specific behavioral response - actually gets accomplished. Do we then abdicate human agency to the keepers of the genetic code? Do molecular biologists become the new shamans, and scientific humanism the new orthodoxy? As Isaiah Berlin and others have pointed out, when grand schemas are operating, the rights of individuals tend to get trampled. Communism and Christianity should have taught us to beware the bearers of the One Big Truth.
On the other hand, an infusion of empiricism may damp down the need for ritual, magic and blood sacrifice that still drives so much of human behavior. Scientific humanism, resting on firmer intellectual foundations that either religion or political science, may prove to be wiser and more far seeing in the administration of human affairs. If we have more knowledge about the genetic basis of our humanity, maybe we'll have a greater ability to steer our cultures in positive directions.
Wilson's scheme for linking the social sciences and the arts to the natural sciences may not be useful or possible in all its details. Maybe group behaviors will prove too complex to tie to specific genes, or we won't want to make PET scans of our brain while we read a poem or listen to a symphony. But he does articulate several urgent and important tasks that can move humanity forward.
-using our DNA to flag or cure disease. This will also spur political acceptance of scientific values because of the tangible benefits being delivered.
-decoding the physical basis of the embodied mind, so we better understand how thoughts and emotions drive our behaviors.
-deciphering the social and psychological foundations of the religious impulse so we can construct empirical ethical systems and finally pull free from the intellectual muck of primitive monotheism.
Wilson deserves credit for being bold and provocative in his thinking, for brilliantly condensing so much science, history and philosophy into such a brief space, and for presenting his arguments in lucid sentences that rise on occasion to the level of poetry. While people may pick at the particulars, many of us can resonate to his central exhortation. Let's use the tools of science to gain more control over our future than intuition, superstition, demagoguery, magical thinking, and theism have given us over our past.
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.
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