Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Overview

"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 ...

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Overview

"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

From the Publisher
"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

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
As elegant in its prose as it is rich inits ideas...a book of immense importance.
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."
Library Journal
With steadfast optimism and enlightened erudition, Harvard naturalist and evolutionist Wilson (In Search of Nature) argues that scientific inquiry is progressing toward a comprehensive view of this universe in light of the essential unity of all reality. He envisions a future synthesis of the special sciences and humanities that will support a pervasive materialistic worldview. Reminiscent of Auguste Comte, Condorcet, and Francis Bacon, Wilson gives priority to physical laws and objective evidence over all those concepts and beliefs that question the power of science to unravel the unity of nature. In particular, linking genes and cultures, he claims that even mental activity (including creativity) will be understood and appreciated in terms of the evolved epigenetic rules, anatomy, and physiology of the human brain. Other topics treated include consciousness, complexity, reductionism, and the deep origins of human nature. As a bold blueprint for ongoing human inquiry, this provocative book is recommended for large academic and public science collections.-- H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY
Booknews
Edward O. Wilson, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize and pioneer of sociobiology and biodiversity, argues for the fundamental unity of all knowledge and the need to search for consilience<-->the proof that everything in our world is organized in terms of a small number of fundamental natural laws that comprise the principles underlying every branch of learning.
Daniel J. Kevles
Wilson's book sweeps across vast areas of learning in lucid, unpretentious, often eloquent prose....In Consilience, he distills and integrates his ideas to argue that a unity of knowledge is possible -- and that it is sorely needed for more than purely intellectual reasons.
The New York Times Book Review
NY Times Book Review
The eminent sociobiologist envisions a grand reconciliation of science and the humanities.
Wall Street Journal
A dazzling journey across the sciences and humanities in search of deep laws to unite them.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
As elegant in its prose as it is rich inits ideas...a book of immense importance.
Kirkus Reviews
A tour de force from a scholar for whom such tours are par for the course. Wilson, who sowed the seeds of sociobiology decades ago, expands his agenda to the whole of human learning and behavior. All, in both the realms of art and science, can be reduced to a common set of unifying principles, or consilience. All can be subsumed under the basic laws of physics and their offspring in chemistry and biology. For instance, the reductionist new genetics and molecular biology have revolutionized our understanding of biology in terms of evolution, human development, and the brain as the vehicle of human behavior. Further, Wilson restates his notion of the co-evolution of genes and culture, but it is here that his argument is weakest, based on the premise that we are genetically programmed toward certain archetypal forms and themes which he finds in primitive and ancient art but which are dubiously applicable in the modern world. Wilsons arguments on achieving consilience in the h umanities will no doubt rile many of the faithful in these fields. For example, he rails against economists for their arid mathematical models that pay no heed to the irrational ways humans behave and he pretty well damns anyone who espouses cultural relativism; and he has very little good to say about philosophers in general. On the other hand, he writes knowledgeably about mind, making it clear that emotion is inextricably tied to reason, and his distinction between religion and ethics is well argued. In the end, Wilson invites scholars to explore the gaps in knowledge, as well as move toward synthesis: We are drowning in information, he says, while starving for wisdom. :He also pulls out all the stops onthe future of the biosphere, noting the potential for changing our genet ic make- up. No doubt many scholars will accuse Wilson of simplistic arguments, errors, and distortions. But how many have the guts to venture beyond the boundaries of their specialty to make a case for unity? For that reason alone, Wilsons proposal merits the attention and debate of the broad community of scholars.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679768678
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 182,472
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward O. Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929. He received his B.S. and M.S. in biology from the University of Alabama and, in 1955, his Ph.D. in biology from Harvard, where he has since taught, and where he has received both of its college-wide teaching awards. He is currently Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He is the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, OOn Human Nature (1978) and The Ants(1990, with Bert Hölldobler), as well as the recipient of many fellowships, honors, and awards, including the 1977 National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1990), the International Prize for Biology from Japan (1993), and, for his conservation efforts, the Gold Medal of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (1990) and the Audubon Medal of the National Audubon Society (1995). He is on the Board of Directors of The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the American Museum of Natural History, and gives many lectures throughout the world. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts with his wife, Irene.

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Read an Excerpt

The Ionian Enchantment

I remember very well the time I was captured by the dream of unified learning. It was in the early fall of 1947, when at eighteen I came up from Mobile to Tuscaloosa to enter my sophomore year at the University of Alabama. A beginning biologist, fired by adolescent enthusiasm but short on theory and vision, I had schooled myself in natural history with field guides carried in a satchel during solitary excursions into the woodlands and along the freshwater streams of my native state. I saw science, by which I meant (and in my heart I still mean) the study of ants, frogs, and snakes, as a wonderful way to stay outdoors.

My intellectual world was framed by Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist who invented modern biological classification. The Linnaean system is deceptively easy. You start by separating specimens of plants and animals into species. Then you sort species resembling one another into groups, the genera. Examples of such groups are all the crows and all the oaks. Next you label each species with a two-part Latinized name, such as Corvus ossifragus for the fish crow, where Corvus stands for the genus—all the species of crows—and ossifragus for the fish crow in particular. Then on to higher classification, where similar genera are grouped into families, families into orders, and so on up to phyla and finally, at the very summit, the six kingdoms—plants, animals, fungi, protists, monerans, and archaea. It is like the army: men (plus women, nowadays) into squads, squads into platoons, platoons into companies, and in the final aggregate, the armed services headed by the joint chiefs of staff. It is, in other words, a conceptual world made for the mind of an eighteen-year-old.

I had reached the level of the Carolus Linnaeus of 1735 or, more accurately (since at that time I knew little of the Swedish master), the Roger Tory Peterson of 1934, when the great naturalist published the first edition of A Field Guide to the Birds. My Linnaean period was nonetheless a good start for a scientific career. The first step to wisdom, as the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names.

Then I discovered evolution. Suddenly—that is not too strong a word—I saw the world in a wholly new way. This epiphany I owed to my mentor Ralph Chermock, an intense, chain-smoking young assistant professor newly arrived in the provinces with a Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University. After listening to me natter for a while about my lofty goal of classifying all the ants of Alabama, he handed me a copy of Ernst Mayr's 1942 Systematics and the Origin of Species. Read it, he said, if you want to become a real biologist.

The thin volume in the plain blue cover was one of the New Synthesis works, uniting the nineteenth-century Darwinian theory of evolution and modern genetics. By giving a theoretical structure to natural history, it vastly expanded the Linnaean enterprise. A tumbler fell somewhere in my mind, and a door opened to a new world. I was enthralled, couldn't stop thinking about the implications evolution has for classification and for the rest of biology. And for philosophy. And for just about everything. Static pattern slid into fluid process. My thoughts, embryonically those of a modern biologist, traveled along a chain of causal events, from mutations that alter genes to evolution that multiplies species, to species that assemble into faunas and floras. Scale expanded, and turned continuous. By inwardly manipulating time and space, I found I could climb the steps in biological organization from microscopic particles in cells to the forests that clothe mountain slopes. A new enthusiasm surged through me. The animals and plants I loved so dearly reentered the stage as lead players in a grand drama. Natural history was validated as a real science.

I had experienced the Ionian Enchantment. That recently coined expression I borrow from the physicist and historian Gerald Holton. It means a belief in the unity of the sciences—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. Its roots go back to Thales of Miletus, in Ionia, in the sixth century b.c. The legendary philosopher was considered by Aristotle two centuries later to be the founder of the physical sciences. He is of course remembered more concretely for his belief that all matter consists ultimately of water. Although the notion is often cited as an example of how far astray early Greek speculation could wander, its real significance is the metaphysics it expressed about the material basis of the world and the unity of nature.

The Enchantment, growing steadily more sophisticated, has dominated scientific thought ever since. In modern physics its focus has been the unification of all the forces of nature—electroweak, strong, and gravitation—the hoped-for consolidation of theory so tight as to turn the science into a "perfect" system of thought, which by sheer weight of evidence and logic is made resistant to revision. But the spell of the Enchantment extends to other fields of science as well, and in the minds of a few it reaches beyond into the social sciences, and still further, as I will explain later, to touch the humanities. The idea of the unity of science is not idle. It has been tested in acid baths of experiment and logic and enjoyed repeated vindication. It has suffered no decisive defeats. At least not yet, even though at its center, by the very nature of the scientific method, it must be thought always vulnerable. On this weakness I will also expand in due course.

Einstein, the architect of grand unification in physics, was Ionian to the core. That vision was perhaps his greatest strength. In an early letter to his friend Marcel Grossmann he said, "It is a wonderful feeling to recognize the unity of a complex of phenomena that to direct observation appear to be quite separate things." He was referring to his successful alignment of the microscopic physics of capillaries with the macroscopic, universe-wide physics of gravity. In later life he aimed to weld everything else into a single parsimonious system, space with time and motion, gravity with electromagnetism and cosmology. He approached but never captured that grail. All scientists, Einstein not excepted, are children of Tantalus, frustrated by the failure to grasp that which seems within reach. They are typified by those thermodynamicists who for decades have drawn ever closer to the temperature of absolute zero, when atoms cease all motion. In 1995, pushing down to within a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero, they created a Bose-Einstein condensate, a fundamental form of matter beyond the familiar gases, liquids, and solids, in which many atoms act as a single atom in one quantum state. As temperature drops and pressure is increased, a gas condenses into a liquid, then a solid; then appears the Bose-Einstein condensate. But absolute, entirely absolute zero, a temperature that exists in imagination, has still not been attained.

On a far more modest scale, I found it a wonderful feeling not just to taste the unification metaphysics but also to be released from the confinement of fundamentalist religion. I had been raised a Southern Baptist, laid backward under the water on the sturdy arm of a pastor, been born again. I knew the healing power of redemption. Faith, hope, and charity were in my bones, and with millions of others I knew that my savior Jesus Christ would grant me eternal life. More pious than the average teenager, I read the Bible cover to cover, twice. But now at college, steroid-driven into moods of adolescent rebellion, I chose to doubt. I found it hard to accept that our deepest beliefs were set in stone by agricultural societies of the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago. I suffered cognitive dissonance between the cheerfully reported genocidal wars of these people and Christian civilization in 1940s Alabama. It seemed to me that the Book of Revelation might be black magic hallucinated by an ancient primitive. And I thought, surely a loving personal God, if He is paying attention, will not abandon those who reject the literal interpretation of the biblical cosmology. It is only fair to award points for intellectual courage. Better damned with Plato and Bacon, Shelley said, than go to heaven with Paley and Malthus. But most of all, Baptist theology made no provision for evolution. The biblical authors had missed the most important revelation of all! Could it be that they were not really privy to the thoughts of God? Might the pastors of my childhood, good and loving men though they were, be mistaken? It was all too much, and freedom was ever so sweet. I drifted away from the church, not definitively agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist no more.

Still, I had no desire to purge religious feelings. They were bred in me; they suffused the wellsprings of my creative life. I also retained a small measure of common sense. To wit, people must belong to a tribe; they yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. Could Holy Writ be just the first literate attempt to explain the universe and make ourselves significant within it? Perhaps science is a continuation on new and better-tested ground to attain the same end. If so, then in that sense science is religion liberated and writ large.

Such, I believe, is the source of the Ionian Enchantment: Preferring a search for objective reality over revelation is another way of satisfying religious hunger. It is an endeavor almost as old as civilization and intertwined with traditional religion, but it follows a very different course—a stoic's creed, an acquired taste, a guidebook to adventure plotted across rough terrain. It aims to save the spirit, not by surrender but by liberation of the human mind. Its central tenet, as Einstein knew, is the unification of knowledge. When we have unified enough certain knowledge, we will understand who we are and why we are here.

If those committed to the quest fail, they will be forgiven. When lost, they will find another way. The moral imperative of humanism is the endeavor alone, whether successful or not, provided the effort is honorable and failure memorable. The ancient Greeks expressed the idea in a myth of vaulting ambition. Daedalus escapes from Crete with his son Icarus on wings he has fashioned from feathers and wax. Ignoring the warnings of his father, Icarus flies toward the sun, whereupon his wings come apart and he falls into the sea. That is the end of Icarus in the myth. But we are left to wonder: Was he just a foolish boy? Did he pay the price for hubris, for pride in sight of the gods? I like to think that on the contrary his daring represents a saving human grace. And so the great astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar could pay tribute to the spirit of his mentor, Sir Arthur Eddington, by saying: Let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The Ionian Enchantment 3
Ch. 2 The Great Branches of Learning 8
Ch. 3 The Enlightenment 14
Ch. 4 The Natural Sciences 45
Ch. 5 Ariadne's Thread 66
Ch. 6 The Mind 96
Ch. 7 From Genes to Culture 125
Ch. 8 The Fitness of Human Nature 164
Ch. 9 The Social Sciences 181
Ch. 10 The Arts and Their Interpretation 210
Ch. 11 Ethics and Religion 238
Ch. 12 To What End? 266
Notes 299
Acknowledgments 321
Index 323
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First Chapter

The Ionian Enchantment

I remember very well the time I was captured by the dream of unified learning. It was in the early fall of 1947, when at eighteen I came up from Mobile to Tuscaloosa to enter my sophomore year at the University of Alabama. A beginning biologist, fired by adolescent enthusiasm but short on theory and vision, I had schooled myself in natural history with field guides carried in a satchel during solitary excursions into the woodlands and along the freshwater streams of my native state. I saw science, by which I meant (and in my heart I still mean) the study of ants, frogs, and snakes, as a wonderful way to stay outdoors.

My intellectual world was framed by Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist who invented modern biological classification. The Linnaean system is deceptively easy. You start by separating specimens of plants and animals into species. Then you sort species resembling one another into groups, the genera. Examples of such groups are all the crows and all the oaks. Next you label each species with a two-part Latinized name, such as Corvus ossifragus for the fish crow, where Corvus stands for the genus--all the species of crows--and ossifragus for the fish crow in particular. Then on to higher classification, where similar genera are grouped into families, families into orders, and so on up to phyla and finally, at the very summit, the six kingdoms--plants, animals, fungi, protists, monerans, and archaea. It is like the army: men (plus women, nowadays) into squads, squads into platoons, platoons into companies, and in the final aggregate, the armed services headed by the joint chiefs of staff. It is, inother words, a conceptual world made for the mind of an eighteen-year-old.

I had reached the level of the Carolus Linnaeus of 1735 or, more accurately (since at that time I knew little of the Swedish master), the Roger Tory Peterson of 1934, when the great naturalist published the first edition of A Field Guide to the Birds. My Linnaean period was nonetheless a good start for a scientific career. The first step to wisdom, as the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names.

Then I discovered evolution. Suddenly--that is not too strong a word--I saw the world in a wholly new way. This epiphany I owed to my mentor Ralph Chermock, an intense, chain-smoking young assistant professor newly arrived in the provinces with a Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University. After listening to me natter for a while about my lofty goal of classifying all the ants of Alabama, he handed me a copy of Ernst Mayr's 1942 Systematics and the Origin of Species. Read it, he said, if you want to become a real biologist.

The thin volume in the plain blue cover was one of the New Synthesis works, uniting the nineteenth-century Darwinian theory of evolution and modern genetics. By giving a theoretical structure to natural history, it vastly expanded the Linnaean enterprise. A tumbler fell somewhere in my mind, and a door opened to a new world. I was enthralled, couldn't stop thinking about the implications evolution has for classification and for the rest of biology. And for philosophy. And for just about everything. Static pattern slid into fluid process. My thoughts, embryonically those of a modern biologist, traveled along a chain of causal events, from mutations that alter genes to evolution that multiplies species, to species that assemble into faunas and floras. Scale expanded, and turned continuous. By inwardly manipulating time and space, I found I could climb the steps in biological organization from microscopic particles in cells to the forests that clothe mountain slopes. A new enthusiasm surged through me. The animals and plants I loved so dearly reentered the stage as lead players in a grand drama. Natural history was validated as a real science.

I had experienced the Ionian Enchantment. That recently coined expression I borrow from the physicist and historian Gerald Holton. It means a belief in the unity of the sciences--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. Its roots go back to Thales of Miletus, in Ionia, in the sixth century b.c. The legendary philosopher was considered by Aristotle two centuries later to be the founder of the physical sciences. He is of course remembered more concretely for his belief that all matter consists ultimately of water. Although the notion is often cited as an example of how far astray early Greek speculation could wander, its real significance is the metaphysics it expressed about the material basis of the world and the unity of nature.

The Enchantment, growing steadily more sophisticated, has dominated scientific thought ever since. In modern physics its focus has been the unification of all the forces of nature--electroweak, strong, and gravitation--the hoped-for consolidation of theory so tight as to turn the science into a "perfect" system of thought, which by sheer weight of evidence and logic is made resistant to revision. But the spell of the Enchantment extends to other fields of science as well, and in the minds of a few it reaches beyond into the social sciences, and still further, as I will explain later, to touch the humanities. The idea of the unity of science is not idle. It has been tested in acid baths of experiment and logic and enjoyed repeated vindication. It has suffered no decisive defeats. At least not yet, even though at its center, by the very nature of the scientific method, it must be thought always vulnerable. On this weakness I will also expand in due course.

Einstein, the architect of grand unification in physics, was Ionian to the core. That vision was perhaps his greatest strength. In an early letter to his friend Marcel Grossmann he said, "It is a wonderful feeling to recognize the unity of a complex of phenomena that to direct observation appear to be quite separate things." He was referring to his successful alignment of the microscopic physics of capillaries with the macroscopic, universe-wide physics of gravity. In later life he aimed to weld everything else into a single parsimonious system, space with time and motion, gravity with electromagnetism and cosmology. He approached but never captured that grail. All scientists, Einstein not excepted, are children of Tantalus, frustrated by the failure to grasp that which seems within reach. They are typified by those thermodynamicists who for decades have drawn ever closer to the temperature of absolute zero, when atoms cease all motion. In 1995, pushing down to within a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero, they created a Bose-Einstein condensate, a fundamental form of matter beyond the familiar gases, liquids, and solids, in which many atoms act as a single atom in one quantum
state. As temperature drops and pressure is increased, a gas condenses into a liquid, then a solid; then appears the Bose-Einstein condensate. But absolute, entirely absolute zero, a temperature that exists in imagination, has still not been attained.

On a far more modest scale, I found it a wonderful feeling not just to taste the unification metaphysics but also to be released from the confinement of fundamentalist religion. I had been raised a Southern Baptist, laid backward under the water on the sturdy arm of a pastor, been born again. I knew the healing power of redemption. Faith, hope, and charity were in my bones, and with millions of others I knew that my savior Jesus Christ would grant me eternal life. More pious than the average teenager, I read the Bible cover to cover, twice. But now at college, steroid-driven into moods of adolescent rebellion, I chose to doubt. I found it hard to accept that our deepest beliefs were set in stone by agricultural societies of the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago. I suffered cognitive dissonance between the cheerfully reported genocidal wars of these people and Christian civilization in 1940s Alabama. It seemed to me that the Book of Revelation might be black magic hallucinated by an ancient primitive. And I thought, surely a loving personal God, if He is paying attention, will not abandon those who reject the literal interpretation of the biblical cosmology. It is only fair to award points for intellectual courage. Better damned with Plato and Bacon, Shelley said, than go to heaven with Paley and Malthus. But most of all, Baptist theology made no provision for evolution. The biblical authors had missed the most important revelation of all! Could it be that they were not really privy to the thoughts of God? Might the pastors of my childhood, good and loving men though they were, be mistaken? It was all too much, and freedom was ever so sweet. I drifted away from the church, not definitively agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist no more.

Still, I had no desire to purge religious feelings. They were bred in me; they suffused the wellsprings of my creative life. I also retained a small measure of common sense. To wit, people must belong to a tribe; they yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. Could Holy Writ be just the first literate attempt to explain the universe and make ourselves significant within it? Perhaps science is a continuation on new and better-tested ground to attain the same end. If so, then in that sense science is religion liberated and writ large.

Such, I believe, is the source of the Ionian Enchantment: Preferring a search for objective reality over revelation is another way of satisfying religious hunger. It is an endeavor almost as old as civilization and intertwined with traditional religion, but it follows a very different course--a stoic's creed, an acquired taste, a guidebook to adventure plotted across rough terrain. It aims to save the spirit, not by surrender but by liberation of the human mind. Its central tenet, as Einstein knew, is the unification of knowledge. When we have unified enough certain knowledge, we will understand who we are and why we are here.

If those committed to the quest fail, they will be forgiven. When lost, they will find another way. The moral imperative of humanism is the endeavor alone, whether successful or not, provided the effort is honorable and failure memorable. The ancient Greeks expressed the idea in a myth of vaulting ambition. Daedalus escapes from Crete with his son Icarus on wings he has fashioned from feathers and wax. Ignoring the warnings of his father, Icarus flies toward the sun, whereupon his wings come apart and he falls into the sea. That is the end of Icarus in the myth. But we are left to wonder: Was he just a foolish boy? Did he pay the price for hubris, for pride in sight of the gods? I like to think that on the contrary his daring represents a saving human grace. And so the great astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar could pay tribute to the spirit of his mentor, Sir Arthur Eddington, by saying: Let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings.
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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, April 6th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Edward O. Wilson, author of CONSILIENCE.


Dale from Williamsburg: When did the concept of unified learning first capture your interest, and where did the theory originate?

Edward O. Wilson: The idea of unity of knowledge which I am calling consilience is a word which began at the very dawn of Greek times, with Thales of Miletus, of Ionia, who proposed that all the universe is made of water. He was wrong, of course, but the idea of the world composed of discreet elements that could be understood by progressing from simplicity to complexity became a cornerstone of Western thought. In my own epiphany -- which has been repeated in different versions so many times in so many people of past centuries -- the Ionian enchantment came with my personal discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection. That is one of the two great unifying and driving ideas of the biological sciences, that all life evolves from early forms of life and principally by natural selection. The other great driving idea is that all life has a material basis and is obedient to laws of physics and chemistry.



Stephanie from London: Out of curiosity, what is your religious background, and does your spiritual upbringing affect your approach to studying science?

Edward O. Wilson: Good question. My religious background is fundamentalist Christianity, in particular, Southern Baptism. This is apart from the theology and the mythic structure of a very unifying view of the universe. When I shifted my own thinking as a college student to a secular metaphysics, I was naturally predisposed to seek in a new form a similar unifying view of the world. There is nothing very unusual about this kind of connection between early religious or other intellectual background and the adoption of a unifying material view of the world. Among giants of the past in science, Newton was interested in reading the two books of the universe -- the one was of space and motion, and the other book was that of God, which he hoped to decode. In that he was considerably less successful. Einstein was deeply affected by the poetic vision of Goethe.



Dale from Williamsburg: As a college historian, I see that the professional study of history would seem to suggest that the diversity of knowledge is increasing -- fields are becoming more specialized and complex. At the time of the Enlightenment, it is easy to see how the early theorists may have believed that their limited knowledge could be unified, but how can we believe that we can unite our vast knowledge now? Is this not impossible with the trend towards diversification?

Edward O. Wilson: The vision of unity on the basis of existing knowledge in the Enlightenment in the 19th century was an illusion, because the available specific knowledge required to create a full webwork of causal explanation was not available. What has happened in the 20th century is that the true specialization and the acquisition of vastly greater amounts of knowledge has made possible the webworks of causal explanation that unify the sciences. Today there is such a webwork extending from quantum physics to molecular biology, reagent chemistry, and now to the disciplines of extreme complexity, ecology, and brain sciences. In other words, the specialization of armies of science over two centuries has permitted the emergence of holistic synthesis all across the natural sciences.



Emily from Westbury: It seems that your work varies between two extreme poles -- tiny microscopic ants on one side and "consilience" on the other. How did the study of ants lead you to the theory of the unification of knowledge? Are your books part of a bigger unified project?

Edward O. Wilson: No. I wish that I could claim that I had this great vision of the unity of knowledge, but it was the other way around. I started as a naturalist -- in fact, I still am -- fascinated by insects and other animals and plants; focused on ants as a principle group for scientific study as a student; progressed into wider issues of social organization; eventually attempted a synthesis of existing knowledge of social behavior in all animals; couldn't stop myself and progressed on to human behavior. It ended up with a deep interest in ants and other small animals along with the broad questions of the human sciences.



Randall from San Diego: Mr. Wilson, in your opinion, why was -- and still is -- there so much controversy surrounding your theories of sociobiology and biodiversity? Why do people find so appalling the idea that social behavior may be genetically, rather than culturally, determined? With all the recent information on genes, this doesn't seem like anything too radical. Thanks.

Edward O. Wilson: I don't believe that today sociobiology, which is also known as evolutionary psychology, is controversial. It was extreme in the 1970s when I first attempted a synthesis of it, and the primary reasons it created so much heat at that time were twofold First, we really didn't have much information on human behavioral genetics and the functioning of the brain. Now we do, and the evidence leans strongly towards the idea of a biological basis of human social behavior. The other reason for resistance in the 70s was distaste over the idea that human beings are organic machines. Nowadays this is less repellent a notion, partly because through science we are learning just how magnificent and adaptable those organic machines are.



Carmen from Washington: You write in the chapter on religion that "[humanity] evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another." What do you mean by that, and why is that "the essence of humanity's spiritual dilemma"?

Edward O. Wilson: Traditional religious belief with unquestioning obedience to authority and dogma have always conferred Darwinian advantage to belong to a group of tightly organized tribesmen united in single purpose; the belief in divine sanction has always been a better way to survive and reproduce your genes than free thought and independent action in a world dominated by warring tribes. It is natural to suppose that human beings are hereditarily disposed to gravitate towards such belief systems, but this worldview, as powerful and as practically efficient as it has been for millennia, is increasingly contradicted by the secular worldview of the material universe being developed by science. That is the heart of the conflict.



Brady from Alexandria: Do you think that it will ever be possible for science to prove or disprove the existence of God?

Edward O. Wilson: No, at least not of a deistic God who set the universe into being. But it does seem possible to establish one way or the other whether or not divine intervention was needed or is in any way evident in the evolutionary unfolding of the universe that followed. So we may find -- in fact, many natural scientists believe we have found -- that the most complex systems including the human species could have been self-assembled without direct divine guidance.



Ray Miller from Pittsburgh, PA: I believe that your recent writing in The Atlantic Monthly made reference to xenophobia as a companion to altruism, as having evolutionary value for survivability. There has been much written about altruism and morality as having sociobiological derivations. Is there a study being done today on xenophobia in the same sense? Would you care to comment on the survival value of exclusion, or the hatred of others?

Edward O. Wilson: Unfortunately xenophobia appears to be the dark side of the force; in other words, people find it very easy, for reasons that are now easily explained by genetic or sociobiological theory, to be altruistic to members of their own group, and especially kin. They find it equally easy for reasons that are not hard to explain to be suspicious and react with hair-trigger hostility to unfriendly behavior from members outside their group. The combination of these instincts has great survival value for individuals but is the primary source of tribal antagonism and war throughout history.



Paul from Morris Plains, NJ: Hello, Mr. Wilson. I learned of your new book via the Time magazine review. Do you read your book reviews?

Edward O. Wilson: Yes, unfortunately.



Bronwyn from Cambridge, Mass: I started my bachelor's degree in history, switched midcourse to philosophy of science, and am now a graduate student in contemporary media. And what has struck me throughout these eight years of study is the focus on "explaining" rather than "knowing." What do you think?

Edward O. Wilson: I have heard that distinction made before, and I am not sure just what it means. If knowing means emotional feeling and nonrational sensory experience, which of course are extremely important parts of human consciousness, then I suppose that's more knowing than understanding. But the whole point of consilience in this realm (which you can read in the chapter on the arts in the book) is that we have the prospect of understanding knowing. If we understand the nature of knowing, then this would represent a conjunction of some of the best advances in science and the humanities.



Derrick from Houston: I've read things by scientists that predict that within the next 25 years or so we will know everything there is to know about the physical world -- we'll understand the universe, gravity, light, etc. Does this seem likely to you?

Edward O. Wilson: I believe that you may be referring to the Theory of Everything, also known as TOE, which is envisioned as the final perfect theory of physics. You will get a lot of debate on the prospect of TOE among physicists. But if that great achievement is made, it does not lead immediately to an explanation of all of the ways in which elementary particles, atoms, and molecules are assembled into organisms and thinking brains. What I believe a fully consilient explanation will show is that a complete theory of physics is foundational to chemistry, biology, and even the social sciences, but its laws and principles by themselves, naked and alone, cannot account for the assembly of the more complex systems to which the energies of the other natural sciences are directed.



Stephan from California: 1) What do you see as the relationship between science and the humanities, and 2) why do you think bridging the gap between the two is vital to human welfare?

Edward O. Wilson: The natural sciences are related to the humanities in the attention and deeper understanding they promise and, in fact, are achieving of human nature, the evolved genetic predispositions of social behavior that lead to the quite idiosyncratic universals of human culture. It is vital to explore this connection, in my opinion, because knowledge of it will be more instructive for moral and legal systems -- both in human relations and the environment -- than ignorance and progression by dead reckoning.



Joseph from NYC: Do we really want to understand our world so well that our lives become pre-dictated by a series of laws ?

Edward O. Wilson: Not if your premise were correct. But what fuller knowledge of how the world works and of how human societies evolve and create culture opens opportunities and increases options; it doesn't close them. Innovation and individual development are stunted by political ideologies and traditional religions that insist on narrow, poorly informed views of the world and how it works. They are improved as knowledge and intellectual freedom open new avenues of research and learning.



Moderator: Thank you for joining us tonight, Edward O. Wilson, for what has been a fascinating and thought-provoking chat. We hope you will join us again with your next book. Before you go, any closing comments for your online audience?

Edward O. Wilson: Thank you very much.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2008

    Biology Rules - Maybe

    Wilson`s Consilience is imaginative, bold and provocative. In fact, it is rare that thinkers these days dare to venture beyond the narow confines of their fields and attempt an uber-theory. Wilson should be congratulated for his guts and for his intellectual audacity. The work necessary for the true consilience he seeks is still a ways off, and may end up proving contrary to Wilson`s biological determinism. Nonetheless, the complexity aspects of large scale biology (ecology, population dynamics, etc.) for which Wilson is best known, do seem to offer a cogent model for understanding a wide range of human activities.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2003

    Enthusiastic and Imaginative!

    I like the imaginative and enthusiastic attempt by the author at putting knowledge in the sciences and the arts together. I think Wilson has put together a wonderful storyline with many scientific findings to support various parts of it. The best thing about this book is that you can feel the author's enthusiasm and energy in this book and this makes the book difficult to put down. Although his vision may or may not be completely accurate (only time will tell), his enthusiasm for it is what makes this book so enjoyable. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has wondered why about important questions in life. I also recommend 'The Ever-Transcending Spirit' by Toru Sato if you have wondered about consciousness, human systems, and evolution. They come from different perspectives but both are absolutely fantastic books!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2000

    Consilience, a subject for everyone

    I read this book at the suggestion of two friends who are also bibliophiles with a broad spectrum of interests. They both enjoyed it and I have to agree with them. The book is densely packed with information on a variety of subjects as diverse as French philosophers and the newest advances in brain/mind research. There is virtually something for everyone in this volume, whether it's something you've studied for years or something you've always wondered about. Furthermore, the end-volume footnotes are as full of useful information as the text itself. They include the usual additional commentary on the text and also resources for follow up reading. As Wilson suggests, one can definitely see consilience among of the various disciplines of the physical sciences. Certainly the dialogue that the theory of astroid impact as a causative factor in KT boundary extinction created among the various sciences in the 80s is evidence of that, as is the ongoing exchange between the technological--especially computer technology--and medical sciences. I'm not sure to what degree the social sciences will be able to meld with the physical sciences however. These disciplines seem at odds with one another and practitioners are even more suspicious of those in the 'hard' sciences than they are of one another. Furthermore, the notion that the arts will at some time be consilient with both is almost scarry! The book is well worth reading. Plan on taking it slow, though, as much of it requires considerable thought.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2000

    Another in the tradition of excellent writing

    Dr.Wilson is truly one of the most brilliant minds of our time. I found this book incredibly interesting and absolutely engaging. I've never reread a book (for pleasure), until now (I am currenlty on my third read of consilience). I highly recommend this book. Take time to think about Wilson's message. The book is not meant to be a literary treatise on the humanities.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2009

    Updating old themes

    The idea of the unity of knowledge is very old and Wilson adds little to its content, but he updates the nuances of the subject with great skill, clarity and learning, bringing it from the basement of philosophy and science into the vocabulary of the 21st century. A provocative, engaging and intellectually sweeping feat of philosophical synthesis and popular science writing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2000

    Absorbing

    An avid general interest reader for many years, it isn't often that I can say a book has provided me with a clearer vision of the contemporary intellectual landscape. Consiliance contains richly woven detail drawn from many fields. Obviously, it is the product of one of the most learned people of our time, and while I find myself taking issue with some of the details, the author's major premise allows him to picture for the reader what today's foremost scholars are pondering. Awesome in scope, I am far better informed for having read it.

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