Consilience

CONSILIENCE: THE UNITY OF KNOWLEDGE
By Edward O. Wilson

Is there a unity of knowledge that underlies the fragmentation of learning we find in today’s universities? Edward Wilson, one of the world’s foremost science writers and a leading researcher in his own right, thinks there is.

Wilson calls such unity consilience – the theory that all of nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can be reduced. Every thread on the loom, from atoms to ecosystems, from quantum mechanics to Shakespeare, can be traced back to these master blueprints of the material world.

So far it is just a theory. Most of Consilience is “gap analysis,” focused on what we don’t know about life, the universe and everything. On his home turf of the natural sciences Wilson has the easiest case to make, but he has no intention of stopping there. Human history can be a natural science too, and so can the rest of the humanities. All that is needed is an agreement among academic disciplines on a common body of abstract principles and evidentiary proof.

The wider Wilson spreads his net, and it gets pretty wide, the patchier the argument starts to look. There are many valid generalizations made about the arts, but the devil is in the epigenetic details. Consilience in literature, for example, seems only to be warmed-over archetypal criticism (archetypes being expressions of our single genetic human nature). Obviously we have a way to go.

As it stands, consilience is most useful for the critique it provides of the social (or pretend) sciences. The book takes special aim at economics, and performs the practical function of reminding us that it is not really a science at all. At bottom, economics is dressed-up folk psychology with little foundation in empirical research and virtually no predictive power. For a self-professed disciple of the Enlightenment, this will not do. “The time has come for economists and business leaders, who so haughtily pride themselves as masters of the real world, to acknowledge the existence of the real real world.”

This is the voice of wisdom calling.

The best is saved for last. Even readers who reject the theory of consilience entirely should take a look at the brilliant final chapter, “To What End?” Here Wilson looks at the future of the human race, beginning with the “volitional evolution” of the species through genetic engineering (clearly the major ethical debate facing science today).

Of primary concern is the approaching “bottleneck” in the world’s population – set to peak sometime in the next century. Wilson makes it clear that in order to avoid rigorously Malthusian solutions to the problems of overpopulation and scarce resources we must learn to become creative conservationists, and fast.

Ending on such a challenging note is no mistake. Consilience is a deliberately provocative book, filled with ideas that demand attention and discussion. One may disagree with what it has to say, but it should not be ignored.

Notes:
Review first published May 9, 1998.

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