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Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1998); 322 pp.; $26,00 cloth.

Edward O. Wilson's book is audacious, prophetic, and bound to become a recurrent touchstone to test intellectual progress in the twenty-first century. Much like what Alexis de Tocqueville's book on the United States has meant as a timeless analysis of American history, Consilience has the early look of a classic by which to understand our future world of knowledge. E. O. Wilson boldly seeks no less than a unification of all knowledge so that we might "know who we are and why we are here." He acknowledges that this Icarian reaching for the sun is dangerous but asks to "see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings."

The main thesis of the consilience world view "is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of the 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 is not mere reductionism. Wilson sees the hard sciences of physics, chemistry, geology, and biology as having largely attained not just a coherence of knowledge but a concurrence of information that remains enduring and logical from the most reductive analysis to the most complex integrated structures. It all fits together into a whole "web of belief," as philosopher W. V. O. Quine would put it.

Wilson observes that the humanities have gone astray, following unproductive byways, since they are generally neither consilient nor scientific. If the "proper study of [humankind] is the study of [humankind]," then we have failed in our primary study. We lack progress in psychology, ethics, economics, history, sociology, political science, and anthropology due to the refusal of those in the humanities to incorporate and build from the foundations of the hard sciences, most notably biology. Without consilience, they are doomed to failure.

Wilson sees much of the problem as the result of our discarding the humanist Enlightenment "vision of secular knowledge in the service of human rights and human progress [which] was the West's greatest contribution to civilization." (By the way, he notes that "the American Humanist Association is the leading organization devoted to secular and deistic humanism.") He feels that humans have lost faith in empirical knowledge and, so, lost their footing while grasping for transcendental foundations, such as pure reason or various forms of romanticism.

For example, the standard social science model (SSSM), arguing we are wholly products of culture, has been dominant in this century. This ideology, which discounts or minimizes human nature, is a reactionary result of the real abuses of social Darwinism of the past century and the pseudoscience of eugenics. The recent advances in evolutionary psychology--sometimes referred to as adaptationist psychology-and the earlier sociobiology originated by Wilson have shown that the nature-nurture controversy must not be so one-sided. In fact, all the social sciences are in some way affected by what Wilson terms epigenic rules--the constant tugging and interaction of our thinking and behavior by both our genetically favorable behavioral adaptations and our culture.

Little incorporation has actually taken place in the social sciences, and one of the tests for their future success will be how scientific and consilient they become in the twenty-first century. Some, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge, have criticized the scientific basis for evolutionary psychology, calling it so much just-so storytelling after the fact. Still, most all would agree that human nature does in fact exist-albeit in various cultural forms--and any whole account of humans must take into account the limitations, drives, and needs of our biological nature. At the end of the twentieth century, we can argue about the degree and type of influence of our biological drives but not whether they occur.

Most of the criticism of Consilience has come from ethicists who disagree with empirical foundations for ethics where Wilson contests the naturalistic fallacy: "You can't get from is to ought." Wilson does philosophically overreach himself here but not as grievously as many have stated. Without nitpicking some of the problems, his foundation is humanism--that is, that humans have multiple high values, with human welfare and concern being the highest, and only we are responsible for our world. Given that premise, "unified learning, universally shared, makes accurate foresight and wise choice possible." The naturalistic fallacy is itself a fallacy under these constraints--as science can show us how to act if we are in agreement with the goals. Wilson is right to show that knowing the biological basis for ethical inclinations is important to our understanding and doesn't undermine our commitment to rights and free will.

Wilson started out in science making important discoveries concerning the communication of ants by means of pheromones. This is a very narrow, reductive form of science. During his lifetime he consiliently expanded his knowledge to other animals, including humans--founding the new discipline of sociobiology, becoming a leading exponent of biodiversity, and finally originating this interdisciplinary grand integration. His own life has shown how big ideas can best be brought about when reductive knowledge is woven into a whole cloth of logical and factual consistency where we can then see the larger colors and patterns.

Consilience reaches too far at times but in the end offers hope that the twenty-first century can reignite the Enlightenment dreams of progress--certainly with more humility, but not succumbing to the fundamentalist/New Age/postmodern paralysis of thought that has occurred as this century ends. In an age doubtful of any "grand narratives," Wilson boldly presents a passionate, coherent narrative of reason and science in the service of truthmaking. This is not a book of perfection but, rather, one of wide scholarship, wisdom, and hope, whose overreaching is easily overlooked as a courageous testament of one who tests how close to the sun he can fly.

Michael Werner is a faculty member at the Humanist Institute in New York City and a former president of the American Humanist Association.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Werner, Michael
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Words:1007
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