Meta 017: Book Review "Consilience"

Keith B Miller (
Fri, 29 Jan 1999 13:23:56 -0600

To all:

I thought the review below would be of interest to ASA members.



>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
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>-- Billy Grassie
>From: Gerald L. Schroeder <>
>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 <>
>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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Keith B. Miller
Department of Geology
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506