Edward O. Wilson


The Unity of Knowledge

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).
At the heart of this book is the problem that was identified in 1959 by C.P.Snow, when he wrote about what he called the two cultures, science and the humanities. It is fashionable nowadays to say that Snow was over-simplifying, but Wilson doesn't think so. There are two cultures, he believes, and many of our current social problems stem from this fact. But the gap can and must be bridged. "The misunderstandings arise from the ignorance of the terrain, not from a fundamental difference in mentality."

Wilson has set out to try to remedy this ignorance. This ambition explains his choice of the word "consilience", first used by William Whewell in 1840. It refers to a linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation, and Wilson's thesis is that we have lost the ability to make such linkages. We must, he believes, recapture it if we are not to encounter environmental disaster. The failure to make these connections has arisen relatively recently. The Enlightenment thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Wilson suggests, were on the right track. They were enormously optimistic, sure that humanity had at last found itself on the road that would lead ineitably to endless progress and improvement in the quality of life. Yet somehow this vision was lost.

Wilson is clear that it is not science itself that is at fault. Science, he tells us, is neither a philosophy nor a belief system, but is rather "a combination of mental operations that … yielded the most effective way of learning about the real world ever conceived." Wilson looks at how this new and revolutionary way of thinking has shown us the inner workings of the world and ourselves. In an impressive display of consilience in action, he moves easily, in the space of one chapter, from the dreams of an Amazonian shaman to the mathematics of complexity theory and its application to biology.

Is his display of consilience, perhaps, a little too impressive? Writing a book of this kind inevitably places the author at risk of spreading himself too thinly, of trying to cover too much; but, of course, it is Wilson's thesis that this is exactly the risk that needs to be run, and he faces up to the challenge pretty convincingly. Showing no reluctance to tackle really contentious and difficult topics, he moves on from his own subject (biology) to consider the nature of mind.

How does brain function relate to conscious experience? What about free will? Here Wilson inclines towards determinism, but a qualified determinism: a person's actions are, in principle, capable of being predicted by an outside observer who had access to all the facts, but only in principle; the amount of computing power that would be needed for prediction is so enormous, and the range of information that would have to be fed in is so difficult to specify, that the will is in effect free for all practical purposes.

Could we create an artificial mind? The answer given is yes, in principle, but no, in practice. Even if we understood everything about the brain and could reproduce its structure artificially, the manufactured mind would need access to all the emotional experience of a human lifetime if it were to be truly human. And it would have to be capable of artificial emotion as well as artificial intelligence. There is no real prospect that these things will ever be achieved.

From the individual mind Wilson goes on to consider how minds come together to build societies. He is probably best known today for his advocacy of sociobiology, so it is no surprise to find him devoting a good deal of space to the connection between genes and culture. Like a number of recent thinkers, he takes up Richard Dawkins's use of the term "meme", but he uses it rather differently, to mean a unit of culture, or node of semantic memory. I found this rather obscure and would have welcomed a more detailed explanation of the idea.

Wilson supports the genetic fitness hypothesis in relation to culture: he holds that widely distributed cultural traits confer Darwinian advantage on the genes that predispose to them. He quotes incest avoidance as providing the best test of this hypothesis to date. People avoid incest, the theory implies, because they are hereditarily predisposed to do so; they translate this predisposition into a taboo. Freud famously dissented from this view, maintaining that there would be no need for a taboo if there were an instinctual revulsion against incest. Wilson thinks Freud was wrong, and that there is indeed an inbuilt human aversion to incest, though this may be reinforced by observation of the frequently adverse results of incestuous matings.

The social sciences (anthropology, sociology, economics, and political science) are supposed to provide us with the knowledge we require to conduct our lives wisely. To do this they would need to make valid predictions, but generally they fail to do so. Wilson suggests that an important reason for this lack of effectiveness is that social scientists have generally rejected the idea of a unified human nature grounded in heredity, preferring instead to adhere to a multicultural outlook founded on ideals of political correctness. If the social sciences are to progress and to provide us with the guidance we require, Wilson maintains, they must learn to take account of the brain sciences and of genetics.

In his concluding chapters Wilson looks at the arts and at ethics and religion. Art, he believes, has its origins in biology; a fact which explains the near-universality of certain themes in fiction and the visual arts. There is a curious echo here of the ideas of C.G. Jung ― indeed, Wilson even uses the term "archetype" at one point ― and the same idea emerges elsewhere in his book, when he talks about the significance of snakes within culture.

Religion and ethics, for Wilson, don't depend on any metaphysical underpinning. Rather surprisingly, he declares himself to be a deist rather than an atheist, but the world, he implies, can get along perfectly well without a God to keep adjusting it; ethics, along with the rest of human culture, is ultimately based on our biological nature.

The final chapter of the book looks at the prospects for humanity. Here the relatively optimistic tone of much of Wilson's discussion seems to falter a little. He does seem to think that consilience will ultimately triumph, but he also has dire warnings about the ecological catastrophe that will ensue if it doesn't. Our real danger is hubris: "… imagining ourselves godlike and absolved from our ancient heritage, we will become nothing."

I have no doubt that this is an important book that ought to be read by anyone concerned about who we are and where we are heading. There are some pleasantly ironic touches here and there, but the general tone is serious and the book has to be read with close attention if its author's argument is to be grasped. The fact that Wilson chose such an uncompromisingly "difficult" word to use as a title is perhaps an indication of how much work he expects his readers to do. The work is, however, definitely worth while. The only pity is that there are probably few writers today who can match his breadth of learning.

%T Consilience
%S The unity of knowledge
%A Edward O. Wilson
%I Little, Brown and Company
%C London
%D 1998
%G ISBN 0 316 64569 9
%P 374 pp

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