The goal of Enlightenment thinkers from Francis Bacon to the Marquis de Condorcet was to free the human mind from superstition and error by basing all inquiry and knowledge on a sound empirical, rational basis. That dream ended with the Romantic rebellion and its reliance on emotion and has since been complicated by the knowledge explosion and the fragmentation of academic specialties.
In CONSILIENCE: THE UNITY OF KNOWLEDGE, Edward O. Wilson attempts to resurrect the Enlightenment dream of unifying all knowledge (consilience) and argues that such a goal is not only attainable but essential to survival. His argument begins by noting that considerable degrees of consilience have already been achieved in the natural sciences both through methodologies (reductionism and mathematical modeling) and in cross-disciplinary studies such as biochemistry and neurobiology. The next great challenge is to extend this unifying drive to the social sciences and the humanities.
Wilson’s program is no dilettantish exercise. He severely chastises the social sciences for their unscientific methods, folk psychology, and inadequate theories. Similarly, he finds the humanities crippled by postmodern skepticism that disclaims the possibility of knowledge and reduces even scientific truth to mere “constructs.” In Wilson’s view, both humanists and social scientists need to abandon their inadequate methods for a more rigorous, scientific approach that relies on discoveries in the neurobiology of the brain to attack such problems as human behavior and aesthetics. Even religion and ethics, Wilson believes, will ultimately be found to have roots discoverable by evolutionary biology. In his view, all knowledge will thus be unified under a single system of cause and effect.
Needless to say, Wilson’s ideas and programs have not been universally accepted. Scientists claim that there is less unity among its branches than Wilson’s diagnosis admits, while social scientists and humanists are skeptical that understanding the workings of the brain will prove relevant to their investigations. Many camps are doubtful that the link between genes and behavior is as direct as Wilson suggests.
Nevertheless, this is a formidable book—well and clearly argued, stylishly written, modestly advanced, and compelling in its vision. It would be a shame if academics and intellectuals dismissed its arguments and programs. It deserves to become the focus of interdisciplinary reading circles at colleges, universities, and think-tanks everywhere. Wilson claims that every college student should be able to explain how the humanities and sciences relate to one another and why their relation matters. It is an important question that academics and the general public need to face squarely and honestly.
Sources for Further Study
American Scientist. LXXXVI, May, 1998, p. 280.
Commonweal. CXXV, July 17, 1998, p. 23.
The New England Journal of Medicine. CCCXXXIX, July 16, 1998, p. 205.
New Scientist. CLIX, August 22, 1998, p. 42.
The New York Review of Books. XLV, April 23, 1998, p. 14.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 26, 1998, p. 11.
Newsweek. CXXXI, June 22, 1998, p. 59.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, January 26, 1998, p. 76.
Scientific American. CCLXXVIII, June, 1998, p. 97.
Time. CLI, April 6, 1998, p. 75.
Edward O. Wilson’s latest book borrows its title and central term “consilience” from the nineteenth century writer William Whewell. He prefers this term over such alternatives as “coherence” because it is less ambiguous; by it, he means “the intrinsic unity of knowledge”—not merely in the natural sciences but in all branches of learning, from physics and chemistry to the social sciences and the humanities, including ethics and religion. At present, consilience is an assumption, a working hypothesis, that has proven itself in the natural sciences, “from quantum physics to the brain sciences and evolutionary biology,” and that is beginning to make itself felt in the...
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