Book Review: Wilson's "Consilience"

Keith B Miller (
Wed, 17 Mar 1999 14:46:26 -0600

To all:

Forwarding another post from the Templeton listserve. I thought it might
provide grist for discussion.


>Below is another review of E.O. Wilson's "Consilience" (see also Meta 017).
>The review is written by Michael Ruse at the University of Guelph, Ontario.
>"Consilience" has been out for about a year now and has generated a lot of
>discussion here on Meta and elsewhere. It is great to have yet another
>perspective to share now. Ruse notes below that "Consilience" has mostly
>received negative reviews, but wonders why then this book is now in its
>tenth-plus edition. There must be something there that the reviewers are
>missing. His review reads as an on-going dialogue with Wilson. In his
>respectful rejection of Wilson's thesis, Ruse turns confessional. He writes:
>"I am in nature an extremely religious person, but I find myself simply unable
>to respond to grand exhortations of ultimate meaning. 'Big' religions, like
>traditional Christianity and Wilsonian evolution are alien to the personal,
>almost mystical sense of awe, which I have inherited from my childhood faith."
>-- Billy Grassie
>From: "M. Ruse" <>
>Subject: Review of Wilson's "Consilience"
>E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, New York: Knopf, Inc., 1998,
>332 pp., ISBN 0-679-45077-7, $26.00.
>Review by Michael Ruse
>I begin this review with two snapshot reactions.
>First, there was the review of Consilience in Science: this appeared early in
>1998, and was written by a well-known philosopher of science who had himself
>written on some issues similar to those touched on by Wilson. To say that the
>review was negative would be to give negativity a bad name: it was absolutely
>scathing. Wilson was excoriated for his knowledge claims, for his logic, for
>his intentions, and for his conclusions. Consilience was truly judged to be a
>very bad book indeed.
>Second, there is the interesting little nugget of information that I ferreted
>out a week or two ago when I was in a large book store in Cambridge,
>Massachusetts. I saw there a pile of Wilson's books, including Consilience,
>and out of interest checked the copyright page. I discovered to my extreme
>interest that the book was first published March 27th, 1998 and that the
>edition I held in my hand was the tenth printing of September 1998. Now I know
>that these days print runs are fairly small; but any book which goes through
>ten printings in six months has to be saying something right, to someone,
>somewhere down the line.
>These two reactions bear out very much what I have discovered more generally.
>My intellectual friends, that is to say those in the academy, almost to a
>person condemn the book. They think that it is shabby, shoddy, loose, and lots
>of other things. (I am sure that Ed Wilson in his response to me is going to
>tell me that he has got many academic friends who think otherwise, but he knows
>that I mix with all sorts of wrong people, and that indeed that I rather like
>to slum.) However, the regular people that I talk to, for instance the folk I
>mix with in the group known as the "Institute on Religion in an Age of Science"
>-- which includes some liberal theologians, some clergy, some stock brokers,
>some school teachers, and many others of a general intellectual but not
>heavy-duty type -- think that Consilience is a wonderful book from a wonderful
>writer. They feel that Wilson has given much to their lives, and that this is
>a book which is the culmination of his gifts to others.
>In other words, there is not much middle ground on this book. Hence, the
>question I want to ask first of all is: "Why?" What precisely is going on
>here? Why is there such a difference? And how should we react to it? And,
>let me start off by saying that -- speaking now as a professional philosopher
>-- I can see lots of reasons why my fellow academics, particularly my fellow
>philosophers, are not going to like this book, particularly a book which has
>the pretension (or if you prefer the audacity) to use the name of
>"consilience": a term coined by a professional philosopher (William Whewell) to
>capture an overall embracing of knowledge. Indeed, I myself can find places
>where I get really rather tense. Let me pick out three such spots.
>As is well known, Wilson is an eminent sociobiologist, and as is also well
>known Wilson has been much criticized for his excursions into sociobiology,
>particularly of the human kind. One of the areas which has brought the most
>severe criticism on Wilson has been his supposed sexism. Truly offensive in
>the eyes of the morally pure is Wilson's confident assumption that there are
>indeed biological differences between males and females. General opinion is
>that the time has surely come for a retraction. Indeed, sackcloth and ashes
>and a self-flagellating pilgrimage to Canterbury -- or to the Harvard Women's
>Studies Program -- would not be amiss. But let me simply say that if you are
>looking for some kind of retraction in Consilience, I am afraid that you are
>going to be disappointed. If anything, Wilson is even more mired in a swamp of
>political incorrectness than ever before, thanks to his unchanging his views on
>male/female differences. Nothing has given offense quite like Wilson's
>suggestion that males are big and strong and outgoing and promiscuous, whereas
>females are "coy" and monogamous, and more careful and that sort of thing.
>Wilson states these outrageous views quite bluntly once again in Consilience,
>and uses exactly the same language. Not one bit of retraction has occurred.
>As it happens, I agree entirely with Wilson on all of this. It seems to me
>absolutely stupid -- and hypocritical to boot -- to suggest that males and
>females are as emotionally identical as they are physically different. Nobody
>who takes Darwinian evolutionary biology really seriously can possibly imagine
>that there are going to be no biological differences: in attitudes, in
>behaviour, in emotions, between males and females. And, of course, truly all
>but the ignorant know full well that there are differences between the sexes.
>Those who pretend otherwise are simply not speaking the truth. But, true or
>not, the general trend -- particularly in universities and particularly in
>faculties of arts and social science -- is to pretend that all is uniformity.
>No wonder his writing has brought condemnation down on Wilson's head.
>The second point where Wilson will upset and offend comes in the context of his
>discussion of free will. This is an area where he has been criticized before,
>particularly by Philip Kitcher in his harsh condemnation of sociobiological
>theory: Vaulting Ambition. Kitcher accused Wilson of sliding over many
>distinctions that philosophers hold sacred, particularly between that which
>claims that free will and determinism are compatible ("compatibilism" or "soft
>determinism") and that which claims that free will and determinism are
>incompatible ("incompatibilism" or "hard determinism"). Here I desert Wilson
>and join the critics. I really think that it would have helped had Wilson
>taken some of these criticisms seriously (for all that the tone of Vaulting
>Ambition was, like the very title, mocking and designed to give offence).
>Although Wilson seems to think there is a possibility of free will, given
>sociobiology, he gets it less from the compatibility of laws and freedom, and
>more from a form of indeterminacy which he sees in nature. But as philosophers
>have long pointed out, indeterminacy does not lead to freedom: it just leads to
>randomness. If my actions are entirely without cause, then I can hardly be
>held responsible for them. These are difficult matters I recognize, but I
>think that if one were to criticize Wilson at this point then one would have
>just complaint.
>The third place where I will pick up on philosophical criticisms of Consilience
>is with respect to Wilson's discussion of ethics. Wilson divides people who
>take ethics seriously into those who believe that there are empirical
>foundations for ethics and those who believe that there are idealistic, or
>rationalistic, foundations. Wilson criticizes philosophers for not working on
>this problem in sufficient detail and with proper ardor. But, quite frankly,
>if Wilson were to look into the literature he would find that the question of
>foundations, better known in the trade as "metaethics," is indeed a very large
>subject and has been discussed ad nauseam right through this century. There is
>a huge literature on the subject, starting with G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica
>in 1903. I am not saying that Wilson should have covered it all, or even part
>of it, but I think it would have been better had he looked at some of the
>material on this.
>So if you want to go after Wilson from an academic point of view, particularly
>from a philosopher's point of view, then there is certainly grist for the
>mill. I would not go after him in all the ways that others would, but I
>suspect that each and every one of us could find a place to criticize. But why
>then is there so much enthusiasm from others for Wilson's work? This brings
>me to the other side to the equation. The answer is quite simply that Wilson
>is not in the business of providing formal academic philosophy. He makes his
>position quite clear right at the beginning: in a way that I suspect
>professional philosophers simply skip over and do not regard as particularly
>pertinent, but which I would argue is absolutely fundamental both to the man
>and to his work. Wilson tells us -- as he has told us before -- about his
>childhood: about being a born into a fundamentalist Christian environment,
>about being "born again" and immersed and giving his life to Jesus, and then in
>his late adolescence about going to the University of Alabama, about falling
>amongst the evolutionists, and about being reconverted over the philosophy of
>Charles Darwin.
>Or rather: not to the philosophy of Charles Darwin, but to the religion.
>Wilson makes it very clear that, having lost Christianity, this does not mean
>that he wanted or was able to give up on religion entirely. Indeed, all who
>know Wilson will know that he is not only a deeply moral man, but a deeply
>religious man: as deeply religious as any fundamentalist, bible-thumping
>preacher. Edward O. Wilson takes very seriously the whole question of the
>meaning of life in some ultimate sense. Moreover, never a man to let a problem
>or an obstacle deter him, having lost the supports of Christianity, he is
>determined to find religious supports elsewhere.
>Indeed he has found them elsewhere, namely in evolution -- a fact which Wilson
>proclaims here as before in many places (notably in On Human Nature). Wilson
>finds evolution to be the "myth" that he needs to build his new religion. He
>sees evolution as a progressive move upwards: from the monad to the man, from
>the blob to the human, ever developing greater and greater intelligence and
>complexity and sociality and moral awareness. He sees a history from early
>beginnings -- just as one has in Christianity -- up to the present, with humans
>focused right at the centre -- again paralleling Christianity -- and then on to
>the future -- a further echo of Christianity, and other great religions.
>Moreover, Wilson makes it clear that, in true religious fashion, he sees this
>all bound up with moral issues. For the Christian, the great moral norm is the
>Love Commandment. One ought to treat one's neighbour as oneself. For Wilson,
>the great moral commandment stems from evolution. One ought to promote
>evolution: one should love not only oneself and one's fellow humans, but
>necessarily one should love and preserve and cherish and promote the rest of
>organic creation. Wilson is justly praised for his commitment to "biophilia":
>the belief that humans have evolved in symbiotic relationship with the living
>world, and as such need the living world. For Wilson, if we lived in a world
>of plastic, then we would quite literally wither and die. For Wilson,
>therefore, the ultimate moral norms are those which demand that we take nature
>seriously and promote its well-being.
>At one point in Consilience Wilson discusses the naturalistic fallacy, the
>supposed fallacious transition from statements about matters of fact to
>statements about matters of obligation. To the professional philosopher (to
>me!), this discussion will be profoundly dissatisfying. Wilson simply shoves
>the fallacy to one side, roughly and with contempt. But to Wilson, and to
>those who read him in the right way, this approach is entirely right. The
>naturalistic fallacy is simply irrelevant: the only way that one can get
>morality is from nature, an evolved nature. We are as we are because we have
>evolved, and this evolution was upwardly progressive thus giving us and the
>rest of nature its value. It is therefore our moral duty to keep evolution
>going, and to preserve that which we have. The philosophers simply have to be
>wrong, and since it is they who (mistakenly) first raised the queries, let them
>find the answers to their own pseudo problems.
>I have argued at length with Wilson on this matter, but to me he still retains
>in many respects the "dispensationalism" of his youth. This is the extreme
>Protestant belief that Armageddon is approaching, and that there will be a
>great fight between the forces of good and the forces of evil: a time when we
>will all be tested. For Wilson here, as elsewhere (notably in Sociobiology:
>The New Synthesis) we have the forthcoming trials and tribulations brought on
>by the human population explosion and by the ever-decreasing range of
>biodiversity. For Wilson, we are approaching the man-made Armageddon and the
>challenge is that which lies before us. There is a fight to be fought between
>good and evil and we will all be tested. Wilson himself would deny that this
>is in some deep sense a religious concept, but I see this as very much part and
>parcel of Wilson's religion. And of Wilson the man. A conclusion I draw in a
>loving and favourable manner.
>What I argue, therefore, is that to read Wilson and particularly to read
>Consilience as a work of formal philosophy is to miss entirely the wood for the
>trees. If you want to go after the details, then you can criticize Wilson,
>without end, in almost every place. As of course is also true of Jesus and
>the four Gospels. If you want to go after the details, you can criticize Jesus
>in every detail in almost every place. In fact, there is something in Jesus's
>actions to offend just about everybody. If you are an Orthodox Jew, you get
>mad at the way that Jesus works on the Sabbath. If you are a promoter of the
>family, you get mad at the way that Jesus shows indifference to his mother and
>his relatives. If you are a believer in strength, then you get mad at the way
>that Jesus promotes pacifism. And if you are in favour of total abstinence or
>vegetarianism, then you get mad at the miracle at Cana and at the miracle of
>the loaves and fishes. Jesus not only ate the flesh of living beings but
>multiplied them enough to feed five thousand. But to read Jesus in this way is
>to miss the great strength of the Gospels. Likewise to adopt such a
>pettifogging attitude towards Consilience is to miss exactly that which Wilson
>I do not mean to end on a negative fashion, but I would say that having praised
>Ed Wilson for his vision I do not thereby imply that all should join it. I
>myself respect very much his vivid and vast imagination. I respect also his
>deep religious sense. But respect does not in itself imply agreement. I
>respect Saint Augustine above all other philosophers, but I cannot subscribe to
>Christianity. At the bottom line, it simply does not speak to me. I just
>cannot accept Jesus as my Savior. I have to confess -- as Wilson already
>knows, since he and I have wrestled over these issues many times -- I have the
>same reaction towards the vision of Wilson: a vision which can be found back
>through the history of evolutionary thought, notably in the work of such people
>as Julian Huxley, and beginning with Herbert Spencer, Darwin's fellow English
>evolutionist, and incidentally a man whom Wilson much admires.
>Perhaps this is all a question of background training. I grew up as Quaker,
>and although (unlike many American Quakers but like all English Quakers) my
>faith was Christological, when it fell away, or rather slipped silently away, I
>felt no need or urge ever to adopt another religion, spiritual or secular. I
>am in nature an extremely religious person, but I find myself simply unable to
>respond to grand exhortations of ultimate meaning. "Big" religions, like
>traditional Christianity and Wilsonian evolution are alien to the personal,
>almost mystical sense of awe, which I have inherited from my childhood faith.
>I find meaning, if anywhere, in still small voices within -- or from Schubert
>lieder without! -- not in the vast sweeps of history. Wilson came from a
>fundamentalist background: imprinted on his consciousness is the belief that
>the only religion which will satisfy is one which gives an overall picture to
>life, in the way that he himself has sketched.
>Therefore, for myself I remain a skeptic. But I salute greatly what Wilson has
>done in Consilience and, even though I as a philosopher feel inclined to
>criticize him in details, I confess that in respects I feel slightly ashamed of
>myself for doing so. In respects, I am a lesser person than Wilson. I lack
>the grand vision and imagination which illuminates Wilson's work and which
>makes what he writes so meaningful and so important to so many.
>Michael Ruse
>University of Guelph
>Ontario, Canada
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Keith B. Miller
Department of Geology
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506