Consilience


Edward O. Wilson
1998

Much non-fiction has a pretty short “sell-by” date. The topics of occasional writing fade quickly into history, while scientific writing is quickly supplanted by the next discovery.

So why, then, would I read now an old book by an old scientist, a book that addresses an old fight between science and the humanities?

For one thing, the troops are still engaged on the field of battle. For another, Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge makes too much sense simply to be put it on the library shelf and forgotten.

Consilience is Wilson’s very cogent argument for linking the world of the physical sciences with the world of the social sciences and the humanities. Linking, not joining. That’s the key point that so many critics are unable or unwilling to understand. Wilson never argues that the social sciences and the humanities should somehow become hard sciences. Quite the opposite. He is quick to state that the social sciences and the humanities are too difficult (i.e., too complex) for their subjects ever to be completely understood empirically. What he argues, narrowly and convincingly, is that the social sciences and the humanities (SS&H, hereafter) cannot prosper by continuing to ignore – or even try to contradict – the facts of the physical sciences (science, hereafter).

For Wilson, linking science and SS&H means that “theories” that fly directly in the face of empirical fact – for example, the thoroughly discredited “blank slate” idea that there is no such thing as an inherited, evolved “human nature” – must be altered or abandoned. It’s not enough that such “theories” are internally consistent, or that they complement the social or political goals of their proponents. Historical, anthropological, archaeological and psychological “theories” based on introspection or ideology – from Cartesian dualism, to Marxism, to today’s Identity Politics – are insupportable to the extent that they ignore or deny the facts of science.

What Wilson advocates, rather, is that SS&H practitioners embrace some of the rigourous methodological discipline of science.

Science is neither a philosophy nor a belief system. It is a combination of mental operations that has become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations hit upon by a fortunate turn of history that yielded the most effective way of learning about the real world ever conceived.

To this end, Wilson advances a methodological reductionism. He is well aware of the evil reputation of that often misunderstood word, and he spends some time explaining, once more, the difference between reductionism as a means to an end and the kind of simplistic reductionism that is satisfied with the paltry understanding that results from being satisfied with mere descriptions.

The cutting edge of science is reductionism, the breaking apart of nature into its natural constituents. The very word, it is true, has a sterile and invasive ring, like scalpel or catheter. Critics of science sometimes portray reductionism as an obsessional disorder, declining toward a terminal state one writer recently dubbed “reductive megalomania.” That characterization is an actionable misdiagnosis. Practicing scientists, whose business is to make verifiable discoveries, view reductionism in an entirely different way: It is the search strategy employed to find points of entry into otherwise impenetrable systems. Complexity is what interests scientists in the end, not simplicity. Reductionism is the way to understand it.

Wilson writes that science and art (in which sphere he includes SS&H) are best seen as complementary approaches to truth: “The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science.”

Why are the methods of science important for SS&H? Without them, Wilson warns, the “truths” of SS&H can never rise above opinion and become knowledge.

He uses our attempts to fathom the depths of the human mind as a prime example. He writes: “Much of the history of modern philosophy, from Descartes and Kant forward, consists of failed models of the brain.”

(T)he fundamental explanation of mind is an empirical rather than a philosophical or religious quest. It requires a journey into the brain’s interior darkness with preconceptions left behind. The ships that brought us here are to be left scuttled and burning at the shore.

After this fundamental claim, Wilson indulges himself with an extended section devoted to the view that cultures are divergent expressions of innate cognitive tendencies. He calls this process “gene-cultural coevolution.”

He explains:

Culture is created by the communal mind, and each mind in turn is the product of the genetically structured human brain. Genes and culture are therefore inseverably linked. But the linkage is flexible, to a degree still mostly unmeasured. The linkage is also tortuous: Genes prescribe epigenetic rules, which are the neural pathways and regularities in cognitive development by which the individual mind assembles itself. The mind grows from birth to death by absorbing parts of the existing culture available to it, with selections guided through epigenetic rules inherited by the individual brain.

Wilson warns that only accepting this dual structure – both parts of which are entirely material – can lead SS&H thinkers out of the self-referential wasteland into which they had wandered by the mid-90’s.

Can the opposed Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, cool reason against passionate abandonment, which drive the moods swings of the arts and criticism, be reconciled? This is, I believe, an empirical question. The answer depends on the existence or nonexistence of an inborn human nature. The evidence accumulated to date leaves little room for doubt. Human nature exists, and it is both deep and highly structured.

If that much is granted, the relation of science to interpretation of the arts can be made clearer, as follows. Interpretation has multiple dimensions, namely history, biography, linguistics, and aesthetic judgment. At the foundation of them all lie the material processes of the human mind. Theoretically inclined critics of the past have tried many avenues into that subterranean realm, including most prominently psychoanalysis and postmodernist solipsism. These approaches, which are guided largely by unaided intuition about the way the brain works, have fared badly.

Rather a harsh assessment, but does anyone really doubt that, despite his own parochial pedantry, Wilson is essentially right? Is anyone ready to deny that the entirety of the human experience expressed by the arts and interpreted by SS&H is itself based on the facts of our biology?

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