Fwd: Meta 017: Book Review "Consilience"

Ted Davis (TDavis@mcis.messiah.edu)
Thu, 28 Jan 1999 09:18:45 -0500

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For the interest of subscribers, I forward (as encouraged by the source)
Gerald Schroeder's review of E.O. Wilson's, Consilience.

Ted Davis

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Meta 017. 1/26/99. Approximately 194 lines

Below is a book review by Gerald Schroeder in Jerusalem, Israel. Schroeder
reviews E.O. Wilson's now famous 1998 book "Consilience: The Unity of

Meta is able to offer a limited number of paid book reviews. The honorarium is
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-- Billy Grassie

From: Gerald L. Schroeder <schoerde@netvision.net.il>
Subject: Review of Consilience

A review of the book "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" by Edward O. Wilson,
New York: Knopf, New York, 1998.

Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Ionian Enchantment
2 The Great Branches of Learning
3 The Enlightenment
4 The Natural Sciences
5 Ariadne's Thread
6 The Mind
7 From Genes to Culture
8 The Fitness of Human Nature
9 The Social Sciences
10 The Arts and Their Interpretation
11 Ethics and Religion
12 To What End?

Review by Gerald L. Schroeder <schoerde@netvision.net.il>

Had you encountered the word, consilience, prior to reading it in the title of
Edward O. Wilson's new book, you would be one of the very few who had. In fact,
Wilson, professor of biology at Harvard, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize,
and author of the acclaimed book The Ants, chose consilience for his title
because "its rarity has preserved it precision." Wilson uses the words of the
19th century philosopher, William Whewell, who defines consilience as "a
'jumping together' of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory
across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation." The whole of
Consilience is a plea to take the discoveries of the physical sciences and
apply them to the social sciences. This linkage would be "the greatest
enterprise of the mind." It was, Wilson tells us, the goal of the 17th and 18th
century Enlightenment thinkers. Wilson sees it as the essential step if we are
to right the wrongs of modern society.

Although the goal of unifying knowledge is meritorious, as I worked my way
through the book, I felt I was experiencing the Emperor's new clothes.
Considering Wilson's impressive credentials, I expected something profound. Yet
the science he presented was sophomoric at best. Anyone with even a moderate
exposure to the popular press has read time and again of the idea that the
ancestral hominid species split off from a primitive chimpanzee-like stock some
five or six million years ago, or, that 65 million years ago a meteor
extinguished the dinosaurs, or, that tropical rain forests are disappearing and
this means the destruction of valuable genetic material, or, that the ongoing
population explosion endangers all civilization. The list goes on and on. These
thoughts are so overworked they have become cliches. While debating the
relative influence of the environment and of our genes on human behavior, he
concludes that "Nurturists traditionally emphasize the contributions of the
environment to behavior, while hereditarians emphasize the genes." This
sentence could be a textbook example of a tautology. A nurturist is, by
definition, a person who emphasizes the contributions of the environment.

The closing pages are somewhat less hackneyed as Wilson enters a discussion of
the origin of morality and ethical behavior. We must learn the origins of our
morality, Wilson contends, if we are to rescue society from the moral
relativism of western philosophy which has, in his words, "left modern culture
bankrupt of meaning." Don't expect help from today's theologians. They are
"still encumbered by precepts based on Iron Age folk knowledge."

For Wilson, a materialist to the end, the union between the social and natural
sciences will reveal the sources of our morality, and with that knowledge show
us the way to correct our faults. "The biological exploration of the moral
sentiments. ... [will confirm the] hypothesis that every mental process has a
physical grounding and is consistent with natural sciences." In simple
English, morality is the product of evolution, an instinct that aided the
survival of our animal ancestors. Even vampires share their stolen blood with
members of their swarm who have fared poorly in their nightly hunt. In
evaluating society's ills, Wilson contends, social scientists would do well to
take these biological origins into account.

But Wilson falls short in proving his central premise, that every mental
process has a physical explanation. He presents a series of cases which, by his
own words, infer an existence that exceeds the material. Among these examples
is the "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.
For reasons that remain elusive to scientists and philosophers alike, the
correspondence of mathematical theory and experimental data in physics in
particular is uncannily close." Wilson brings the words of the physicist,
Eugene Wigner: This correspondence "border[s] on the mysterious and there is no
rational explanation for it."

From Wilson's account of his youth, his view of society seems less the result
of his genes and much more an emotional response to his experiences as a
child. Raised as a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, he felt "released from the
confinement" when, at college, he first learned about evolution. As a child he
had passed many hours wandering through open fields wondering at the grand
variety of nature. Now, with his discovery of evolution, "a tumbler fell
somewhere in my mind." What had once been to Wilson a "static pattern slid
into fluid process." Yet the Bible he had loved so in his younger years seemed
to have been unaware of this flow of life. In which case, could it really be
the word of the Creator?

Let us set the record straight. Whether or not the Bible is divine is a
separate question. However, not withstanding statements by misguided clerics,
the Bible is well aware of the development (or evolution) of life. In Genesis
1:20 - 26, it states that simple aquatic animals were followed by land animals,
mammals and finally humans. This is the same sequence found in the fossil
record, though of course the fossil record has many more details than these few
biblical verses contain. The Bible makes no claims as to what drove these
developments. That it leaves to science to discover. As for cavemen and
cavewomen, the 1,500 year old Talmudic commentary on Genesis is replete with
descriptions of hominids having the same shape and intelligence as humans, but
lacking the essence of humanity, human spirituality.

In a debate Wilson constructs with a theist (a person who believes God is
active in the universe), Wilson exposes a woefully narrow understanding of
biblical theology. As with many persons, his knowledge of the Bible appears
frozen at the level of a pre-college teen. Matched against the sophisticated
mind of an adult, of course it looks naive. Having rejected his biblical
roots, Wilson turned to what he refers to as the "Ionian Enchantment," which he
sees as the "unity of nature."

I imagine re-inventing the wheel has some merit, but better we go to the
source. The unity underlying all nature, in fact all existence, and hence all
knowledge, was described a thousand years before the Ionians perceived it. "The
Lord is one" is the most important biblical statement for Jews (Deut. 6:4) and
Christian (Mark 12:29) alike. The message here is not that there is one God,
though that is a monumental concept in itself. The "one" in that verse is not a
one after which might come two and three. Rather it is the expression of the
infinite Creator as made manifest within the limits of our temporally and
spatially finite universe. The simple phrase gained prominence because the
closest we can come to perceiving the infinite, eternal Whatever which for lack
of a better word we have labeled as God is an all-encompassing unity. The
Kabalah juxtaposes "the Lord is one" with another verse in Deuteronomy: "You
shall know this day and place in your heart that it is the Lord in heaven above
and earth beneath, there is nothing else" (Deut. 4:39). According to the Bible,
everything, stars and space and life itself, is a manifestation of a single
wisdom. There is nothing else.

Wilson tells us that "the Enlightenment thinkers ... got it mostly right the
first time. The assumptions they made of a lawful material world, the intrinsic
unity of knowledge, and the potential of indefinite human progress are the ones
we still take most readily into our hearts." Unfortunately, their "dream of a
world made orderly and fulfilling by free intellect" is a dream based on
gossamer. It has nothing to do with reality. As Wilson describes in great
detail, it was the intellectual freedom of the Enlightenment that sowed the
seeds for the Enlightenment's failure. According to Wilson's own words, the
Enlightenment prepared the ground for the French revolution's rain of terror in
which many of France's leading intellectuals were slaughtered. The Spinozian
ideal, in which we might find our way to perfection by rational processes
alone, is an age-old fleeting dream. The nature of the human psyche makes it an
unrealistic goal.

Wilson correctly urges us to integrate all sources of knowledge. Unfortunately,
the conclusion he draws, that such an integration in itself will lead us on a
path toward civil harmony, is very flawed. The lesson learned from his plan
teaches just the opposite. Paleontology and molecular biology imply that we
developed from lower animals. Comparative anatomy reveals the r-complex of our
brain, the reptilian layer just below the cortex, with its aggressive and
territorial drives. And then the history of society confirms the presence of
these deep seated traits. It repeatedly brings an unwelcome message and one
which we often strive to ignore: the unfettered use of human logic does not
lead to a just and moral society, not withstanding the claims of Spinoza and
others. The human genome, upon which Wilson so heavily relies, is programmed
for pleasure and survival, not for morality. For morality we need a perspective
that transcends material desires of the moment.

Millennia passed before humanity in the person of Albert Einstein discovered
that the basis of tangible matter is something as intangible as energy, that
matter is actually condensed energy. It may take a while longer for us to
discover that underlying the energy is something even more ethereal. That all
existence is the manifestation of a single wisdom, an idea. As quoted in John
1:1, "In the beginning was the word." And 1,500 years before John, in Psalms,
"With the word of the Eternal, the heavens were made" (Psalms 33:6). Based on
this, the Jerusalem translation of Genesis 1:1 reads, "With wisdom, God created
the heavens and the earth." When the eternal idea which underlies all existence
is learned, we will have discovered not only consilience, but more important,
we will know the reason for the underlying harmony that allows "a jumping
together" of all knowledge.

Gerald Schroeder earned his B.Sc., M.Sc., and Ph.D. all at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology with his PhD in two fields: Earth and Planetary
Sciences; and, Nuclear Physics. He is the author of GENESIS AND THE BIG BANG,
published by Bantam Doubleday, now in six languages; and, THE SCIENCE OF GOD,
published by Free Press of Simon & Schuster in hard cover and Broadway Books of
Bantam Doubleday in soft cover. Schroeder lives in Jerusalem with his wife, the
author Barbara Sofer, and their five children.

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