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Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

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One of our greatest living scientists--and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for On Human Nature and The Ants--gives us a work of visionary importance that may be the crowning achievement of his career. In Consilience  (a word that originally meant "jumping together"), Edward O. Wilson renews the Enlightenment's search for a unified theory of knowledge in disciplines that range from physics to biology, the social sciences and the humanities.

Using the natural sciences as his model, Wilson forges dramatic links between fields. He explores the chemistry of the mind and the genetic bases of culture. He postulates the biological principles underlying works of art from cave-drawings to Lolita. Presenting the latest findings in prose of wonderful clarity and oratorical eloquence, and synthesizing it into a dazzling whole, Consilience is science in the path-clearing traditions of Newton, Einstein, and Richard Feynman.

368 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1998

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About the author

Edward O. Wilson

201 books2,182 followers
Edward Osborne Wilson, sometimes credited as E. O. Wilson, was an American biologist, researcher, theorist, and author. His biological specialty is myrmecology, a branch of entomology. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters. He was the Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 288 reviews
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.7k followers
February 23, 2017
At first, I wasn't sure I liked Consilience. E.O. Wilson is frank about his disdain for philosophy, a literary genre I enjoy, and it seemed to me that he might be one of those brash scientists who writes off everything that isn't science as old-fashioned nonsense. I suppose that characterization isn't entirely unfair; but Wilson has thought about it a lot and makes the case in a nuanced and interesting way. At the very least, he presents a useful target for the philosopher who wants to defend his subject from the attacks of reductionism and scientism. Refute Wilson, and you'll find most of the other guys easy.

"Reductionism" is often presented as a bad thing, but Wilson spends a large part of the book arguing that when correctly used it isn't just good, it's indispensible. A distinguished biologist born in 1929, he watched from the front row as quantum mechanics reduced chemistry to physics, then as DNA reduced biology to chemistry. He knows the details and is well aware of the problems involved. Of course each level of structure is hard to describe usefully in terms of the one below. Of course the higher level always presents emergent phenomena that hardly even seem to make sense at the lower level (you don't discuss software bugs in terms of the motion of electrons). But at the same time, the coherence - or, as he likes to say, consilience - of the different levels adds enormous power. It may at first seem out of the question to think about the behavior of living creatures as a chemical process. But once you've invested the necessary person-millennia of work and sequenced the human genome, it no longer comes across as ridiculous. There are pieces of DNA, that create proteins, that have effects on the body. You can trace all the links and conclude that a specific piece of molecular structure causes a specific disease; then you can design gene therapies to attack that disease.

The reductionist program has been stunningly effective in all the hard sciences. Geologists use physics to quantify the mechanisms of plate tectonics, cosmologists to explain the history and structure of the whole universe. Wilson's central claim in this book is that we now have to take the next step and extend it to the soft sciences. Economics, ethical philosophy and literary theory are all products of human thought, and are typically analyzed as depending only on human thought. But human thought depends on the human brain, which belongs to the realm of biology. There must be a bridge which goes from biology, through neuropsychology, to ethics: it must in principle be possible to analyse ethical behavior as a biological phenomenon. Wilson is an expert on ants; he gives detailed examples of how the program works there, and how the behavior of ant society can be broken down into the study of the chemicals individual ants use to communicate with each other. Of course, human society is enormously more complex. But just because the task is very difficult, there's no reason to give up and say it's impossible. In 1916, the reduction of biology to chemistry would have seemed at least as difficult. A century later, DNA splicing is mainstream technology.

The most surprising thing about the book is that one expects Wilson's underlying message to be cold and inhuman, but as it approached the final chapters I found the exact opposite was true. Critical decisions in the world are usually made by politicians who have received their training in the humanities, in disciplines that are not grounded in the empirical sciences. They are as a result cut off from the underlying biological reality, from empirical understanding of living creatures as they really are. As Hume pointed out over two centuries ago, conventional ethical reasoning is grounded in abstractions that have only a tenuous connection to the feelings of real people. In the same way, modern economics models human agents in terms of simplistic folk psychology, assumptions about "rational decision-making" that have little to do with the way people actually think. There is even less attempt made to model the complex ecosystems in which these humans are embedded. It's not hard to believe that some of the very bad decisions made by politicians and economists are due to the conceptual isolation in which they have placed themselves.

I find it difficult to make up my mind about Consilience. There is something naively utopian about it, and I am not sure that it will necessarily be a good thing to continue extending the empirical reductionist program until it reaches the human sciences. Maybe it will help us better see ourselves as part of the world's biosphere and stop destroying it; unfortunately, it seems at least as likely that it will just give the ruling elite more efficient ways to manipulate us. But there's no doubt that the book's worth reading. This should measurably change your view of the big picture.
Profile Image for Infinite Jen.
83 reviews291 followers
March 26, 2023
Here are some disparate musings:

If you are really good at manufacturing, you can basically make, at high volume, anything for a cost that asymptotically approaches the real raw material value of the constituents plus any intellectual property. Take for instance the Fleshlight, a ubiquitous household appliance which, as the name might suggest, illuminates the umbral darkness of sexual frustration and serves as a safety net for blind, flagellum propelled, sex cells which originate in the testes (i.e. Michael Phelps). This is a bad example, I’m sorry. But for those curious, perhaps some research into mineral oils and rubber polymers is in order. However, consider this innocuously garbed, cock-snuggy from another perspective: You’re giving the thing hell and your significant other surprises you by coming home early from work. You turn to them and say, “You see, this device has the curious ability to moderate my sensual appetite in a fascinatingly implacable way, to put it mercifully.” Sensing that your mate is still suffering through significant bewilderment, you clarify the issue, “Assembly theory compares how complex a given object is as function of the number of independent parts and their abundances. To calculate how complex an item is, it is recursively divided into its component parts. The 'assembly index' is defined as the shortest path to put the object back together.” Surreptitiously removing your cooling member from the Stoya Destroya. “This gives us a way to characterize the complexity of a thing in a experimentally verifiable way, unlike other molecular complexity algorithms which lack experimental measure.” Clearing your throat and sheathing your saber. “Complex molecules require many steps to be synthesized. And the more steps are required to synthesize a particular molecule, the more likely it is of a biological (or technological) origin. For example, the word 'abracadabra' consists of 5 different letters and is 11 symbols long. It can be assembled from its constituents as a + b --> ab + r --> abr + a --> abra + c --> abrac + a --> abraca + d --> abracad + abra --> abracadabra, because 'abra' was already constructed at an earlier stage. Because this requires 7 steps, the assembly index is 7. The string ‘abcdefghijk’ has no repeats so has an assembly index of 10.” Sweat forms on your brow as your partner remains unmoved, causing you to nervously turn and raise your arms until you’ve adopted an immaculate T-Pose, at which point you say, with the kind of solemnity expressed by total strangers at the death of a celebrity, “This is consilience.”

When a portion of the intestinal tract is reeled through the proximal aperture of your sewage system (i.e. your asshole) with the force of Ishmael (a professional bass fisherman) cranking as if high on methaqualone (i.e. quaaludes) and screaming at his unrequited quarry, “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering bass; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned bass! Thus, I give up the Hamachi XOS GT’n’Doggie Expedition Series Rod with SHIMANO Force Master 400 Electric Fishing Reel!” It is referred to as transanal evisceration. Following the first report of transanal evisceration by Brodie in 1827, more than 70 cases have been reported to date, the majority occurring spontaneously in elderly individuals. Straining, chronic constipation, rectal ulcerations, being ran over by a church van, and crossing the event horizon of a Black Hole, predispose to spontaneous perforation in this demographic. This has also occurred, several times, when an unfortunate soul loitered at the bottom of a pool with the distal terminus of their digestive system (i.e. their asshole) next to a uncovered drain, resulting in a tremendous eruption of giblets from their fargin’ shytehole (e.g. their asshole) (as up to 700 pounds of pressure holds them fast in what is known, scientifically, as: “suction entrapment”), and extrudes their vitals into the epoxy resin casing of the pipe like a giant sausage, requiring a lifetime of parenteral nutrition (i.e. wearing a Fenwick Liquid Titanium Therapeutic Horse Mask) [fact check needed] if survived, and a coat hanger for their sagging epidermal tissues if fatal. This is consilience.

It is interesting to think that, war, with all its attendant ghastliness, has served as a type of formatting device for future civilizational advancement after periods of ossification. With no method of clearing the bureaucratic plaque which accumulates in the creative arteries of all technologically advanced civilizations, do these layers of cholesterol eventually constrict the lifeblood of innovation until an erasure is precipitated? Perhaps, even now, within my brand-spankin-new, Nonvolatile Memory Express Drive (i.e. a next generation solid-state drive that delivers the highest throughput and fastest response times yet for all types of enterprise workloads by utilizing microscopic seraphim who were discovered dancing on the heads of pens) [Dubious] a virtual war rages over proper partitioning protocols, as pornographic data rains down upon fractal circuits like a biblical deluge of medical grade silicon, and binary pairs flee Ark-Ward to radiate renewed speciations from Mount Ararat. This is consilience.

The brain does a crazy amount of post processing on the vision signals from your eyes. Your brain is constantly trying to forget as much as possible. Memory is expensive and limited. It distills the things that you see into the smallest amount of information possible. It’s trying to not just get to a vector space, but get to a vector space that is the smallest possible vector space of only relevant objects. Two mediocre cameras on a slow gimbal have been charged with your survival, and so if your brain fails to parse the data of a gorilla dribbling a basketball, it’s only because you can’t be trusted with the calibration of your own attention, (much as you’re far too inept to oversee the rhythmic contraction of your cardiac tissues). You’re too stupid, you see. Too prone to wade the attentional thickets of extraneous detail while some beast avails itself of graceful predation in order to embed its natural weaponry in your Brown Pontiac (i.e. your asshole). This is consilience.

Have you ever, upon being drawn inexorably into the sundry notions of GR’s resident fuck-about, corkscrewed your indexical digit into the heart of a piping hot dinner roll, and, having finger-banged a subduction zone of molten yeast vapors, affixed the loaf-specimen to the portcullis of your enamel dungeon (i.e. your gob), before inhaling swiftly and severely in a kind-of Wim Hof Hyperbaric Wheat-Oxygen Therapy, excoriating your mucosa with thermally agitated comestible particulates and causing your consciousness to lurch violently away from the oversimplified simulacra that passes before your eyes like the tenebrous sock puppets which populate Plato’s Grotto (e.g. reality), whilst you initiate a violent upheaval of the night’s dinner arrangements by clobbering the table with your knees and belly, throwing your chair backwards in the neuromuscular deployment of a rapid vertical orientation, disfiguring the once artful presentation of Authentic Hungarian Goulash, ripping the pearlescent tablecloth as you pirouette towards the nearest window, wrapping yourself in the culinary garment like a philosopher king, inadvertently tripping over the raised hackles of the family tabby as you continue to suck down dough-driven convection currents, wreathed in a miasma of haunted bakeries, your frontal lobes rushing forward behind a phalanx of calcified soldiers (i.e. your asshole) [Correction: Your forehead] and battering a rectilinear, non-crystalline, amorphous solid in one violent motion, shattering this transparent human artifice and tumbling into the night with your final declaration stretching to grip the ledge of the balcony as the Doppler Effect shifts your voice an entire octave, “Thiiiiiiiiiisssss isssssssssss consilienceeeeeeeeeeeee!”

So how do these things relate, and what exactly is consilience? You may ask. To the first I say, “Fuck if I know. Although we can be certain that all these events carved channels of causality through a space-time which circumscribes what is possible, and thus none have blasphemed against the deep physical principles of the cosmos.” To the second I say, “It is a concept which stands in defiance of those stodgy gatekeepers who hold their individual disciplines sacrosanct and dare not pollute their sacred methodologies with pertinent tools adjacent to their narrow expertise. And make no mistake, it is with purpose that I reference the space of all possible knowledge in terms of physical proximity, for it is the contention of this new way of thinking that the boundaries between specializations have not been drawn by nature, but by man, and these arbitrary divisions obscure this central truth; all endeavors of the human mind are deeply interconnected. Different disciplines explore different regions of reality, the unity of knowledge (the subtitle of the book) represents the attempt to merge those disciplinary perspectives, and everything from art to mechanical engineering would benefit from the conjunction of these spheres. Although it is reasonable to suspect that interdisciplinary marriages between say, cosmology and plumbing, would not fruitfully multiply, Wilson had this to say, “The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics, so go look up Leonard Susskind, and then go fuck yourself.” (citation needed).
Profile Image for Jimmy Cline.
150 reviews189 followers
April 12, 2014
I was shelving in western philosophy the other week (I don't really have a choice against eavesdropping on bookstore conversations, and they're pretty much all inane to the point of inflicting brain atrophy on the listener, i.e. me). As I walked down the aisle with a handful of Wittgenstein, a customer approached. Sure enough he had a lame excuse for a beard, and deliberately mussed-up hair atop his excessively squinty facial constitution; fucking college kids. As I looked down I saw, of all things, a pristine Black Flag sweatshirt (as in, like, not a hoodie). I sigh; one that seems to have echoed in my head for the past month or so as a sort of mechanical reaction to the rich tapestry of assholes and contrived eccentrics that color my retail-working existence. He says that he's looking for a sort-of-general-introduction to philosophy. I don't want to be a complete asshole myself, but I hate this sort of question. I'm not really big on giving book recommendations in general, only because I've had nothing but miserable experiences with customers and the act of offering my own intellectual honesty regarding what they should read. So, I tell him that they would be shelved in philosophy anthologies. Of course, he attempts to sound somewhat snarky - the part which basically makes no sense to me - telling me that he is looking for an introduction. I sigh again, explaining why that would be shelved in anthologies. Then I make a passive attempt to placate him by recommending Bertrand Russel's History of Western Philosophy in the most sincere way possible, explaining that it's really funny and informative. Anyway, that's what I read, back when I gave a shit. Now he's changing his story though because he proceeds to ask me if there is any political philosophy in it. I feel inclined to say yes, and explain how and why, but my brain is seriously upset at this point and I just point him in the direction of general politics in the next aisle. He disappointedly intones, "OK thanks". I'm happy to clean my hands of the entire interaction though. I ask myself, "Who the fuck wears a Black Flag sweatshirt anyway, Neal Pollack?".

My days are full of interactions like this. It's not annoying that he was asking for help, and because I'm too hep to want to help a clueless tool like that. It's because, about eight years from now, that kid will probably be polluting a lecture hall with a bunch of made up bullshit about dialectical materialism and Gramscian hegemony. He'll do it effortlessly too because he isn't very bright, but he's confusing an artistic temperament with a desire to exercise serious critical thinking in order to solve incredibly ornate social issues, so he'll probably do just fine in the philosophy department. I'm assuming all of this because, as I mentioned, I was eavesdropping, and I was hearing a lot of not-so-confidently stated gibberish about Heidegger's methodology of phenomenology and something supposedly profound that his professor said about it. In other words, his professor said something profound about Heidegger basically saying something profound about perception that Heidegger stole from Husserl, or some bullshit. And believe me folks, it's bullshit. It just sounds profound, but profundity should never really cost that much. Most academic profundity is a complicated version of a street proverb dipped in gold. Fucking Black Flag sweatshirt?

I'm making sweeping generalizations about continental philosophy here. Feel free to call me out, but I've no delusions about what I'm doing. In fact, I feel entitled to make them because I can empirically explain some popular motives for getting into seriously complicated philosophical doctrines. I suffered from this same desire to alienate and condescend every person I came across, even if I knew for a fact that they were considerably smarter than myself. Reading philosophy, more specifically philosophy in the convoluted tradition of Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, etc, is sort of a notoriously popular shortcut to sounding intelligent. Not only is a majority of philosophy concerned with mental abstractions, metaphysical paradox, and unsolvable ethical dilemmas, which sounds like enough of a waste of time. There is also no way of scientifically testing a majority of the theoretical propositions that most heavy philosophy puts forth. Add to that, the fact that a lot of it - most specifically the tradition that I'm attacking here - is couched in such a dense, made-up vernacular, that the interpretations of "what so and so really said" are basically as endless as that of what Jackson Pollock's paintings were really trying to say. This should all seem fairly obvious, but I've come across far too many mentalities that are as serious about some of these ideas as some people are about the law of gravity. It just doesn't add up.

It does, however, sound appealing if you fashion yourself an intellectual, but have a bad memory and even poorer critical thinking skills. When I started working at the ole' bookstore, I was more than ready to become this self-styled, autodidactic intellectual. I wanted to be a leftist, spouting everything I knew about Lukacs that he knew about Marx. I attempted to pontificate on Kant's categorical imperative, on Derrida's notion of difference, and Nietzsche's call for philosophers to philosophize with a hammer. I thought I came close to understanding Zizek. Shit, I thought that had come such a long way from digging Plato's cave allegory. I thought that all of these ideas and tidbits of information were practical and useful knowledge that I would eventually be payed to write about. I alienated people, I talked about James Joyce a lot. I drank too much, and slept surrounded by partially read books. I also felt terribly scatterbrained half of the time, and luckily I never came across anyone (such as my older self, or any other reasonable intellect) who was willing to wittily put me in my place.

So, anyway, the thing about pontificating about Kant or Zizek is that even if someone is familiar with half of the esoteric phrases that you are randomly connecting and explaining, they couldn't logically criticize you for articulating shameless intellectual fallacies because their opposing take on it, at best, is really just a difference of opinion. Mathematical algorithms on the other hand, are pretty much set in stone. The table of elements; not much room for improvisation. You can't argue what the labor value of any given human organ is, or if one species of canine is socially oppressed by the other. Neuronal signaling is not an abstract mechanism in the big impressionist painting of the phenomenology of perception.

The biologist E.O. Wilson is concerned with how seriously people tend to take some of this stuff. The focal point of his polemic, in terms of philosophy (a huge part of the social sciences), is the postmodern or poststructural variety and its intentional attempt to cause intellectual anarchy by proposing ideas such as science being a social construct, all knowledge being impossible, and some pretty over the top theoretical propositions about moral and cultural relativism. In the first chapter on the Enlightenment, Wilson discusses his dream of intellectual unity, and makes mention of his rule of thumb concerning philosophy and the social sciences, "To the extent that philosophical positions both confuse and close doors to further inquiry, they are likely to be wrong." Here are a few snippets on both Derrida and Foucault.

On Derrida:

"Nor is it certain from Derrida's ornately obscurantist prose that he himself knows what he means. Some observers think his writing is meant as jeu d'espirit, a kind of joke. His new "science" of grammatology is the opposite of science, rendered in fragments with the incoherence of a dream, at once banal and fantastical. It is innocent of the science of mind and language developed elsewhere in the civilized world, rather like the pronouncements of a faith healer unaware of the location of the pancreas. He seems, in the end, to be conscious of this omission, but contents himself with the stance of Rousseau, self-professed enemy of books and writing, whose work Emile he quotes: " ... the dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy. You will say I too am a dreamer; I admit it, but I do what others fail to do, I give my dreams as dreams, and leave the reader to discover whether there is anything in them which may prove useful to those who are awake."

On Foucault:

"To Foucault I would say, if I could (and without meaning to sound patronizing), it's not so bad. Once we get over the shock of discovering that the universe was not made with us in mind, all the meaning the brain can master, and all the emotions it can bear, and all the shared adventure we might wish to enjoy, can be found by deciphering the hereditary orderliness that has borne our species through geological time and stamped it with the residues of deep history. Reason will be advanced to new levels, and emotions played in potentially infinite patterns. The true will be sorted from the false, and we will understand one another very well, the more quickly because we are all of the same species and possess biologically similar brains."

I quote Wilson on these two particular philosophers because it elucidates his theoretical project of consilience. Throughout the entire book, Wilson goes through the long list of the academic social sciences, coming up with sound reasons why many of these disciplines truly require a little consistent natural science or basic empirical observation in order to make knowledge more communicable and useful; poststructuralism is many things, but a useful theoretical application it most definitely is not. To sort of paraphrase Wilson's thoughts on the social sciences, what he is basically trying to say is that many of these texts and ideas are kind of intellectually neat, but in the end they really just make for nothing more than very eloquent reading, or possess a purely literary value, including some commentary on subjects such as politics, economics, and social interactions.

I've come to feel the same way myself. Maybe it's a sign of aging, but I've have a hard time mustering up the energy to read a really long, dense philosophical text in recent years. I'll often just choose a novel instead because it's a way of reminding myself that this is the reading that I set aside for emotional escapism. These books are for that abstract, romantic, ponderous side of me, that, despite the way this review might make me sound, is definitely still there. In other words, I'm a dreamer, but I don't sleep all of the time.

Consilience was a wonderfully enhanced wake up call to many of my thoughts regarding philosophy, the social sciences, and the invariable superiority of the natural sciences. This is just one aspect of this great book, and a big part of Wilson's proposal to create a sort of synthesis of the two academic worlds. It's a lofty one, and also one that is probably neglected by practicing scientists because, as Wilson mentions, they are mainly specialists working in esoteric fields, with far too much work on their hands to dedicate any time to giving such a theoretical project much consideration at all. As for academics working in social science departments, they clearly wouldn't want to be involved because the notion of consilience, in essence, really utilizes a majority of the methods and approaches of the natural sciences to explore more complicated and abstract social concerns, thus eliminating the role that the actual sociologist or philosopher plays at this point. I actually have a few friends (ones who I disagree with a lot) with graduate degrees in social science departments who typically scoff at me when I mention Wilson's name, or the concept of sociobiology. That, in and of itself, is an entirely different Pandora's Box that I'd rather not crack open right now.

I've focused on one aspect of this wonderful book, but aside from its central thesis, there is so much practical information on evolution, neuroscience, biology, and basic intellectual history, to be gleaned from it. Not everyone will agree with Wilson; especially the sociologist, anthropologist, political scientist, or philosopher. However, those that are willing to acknowledge the inherent faults of the social sciences while embracing their value as mere earnest reflections on terribly complex social issues with no conceivable answers, will enjoy Consilience as a sort of canonical statement of intellectual honesty spread across several disciplines. None of this is to suggest that philosophy is a waste of time. It can truly be a lot of fun, but there seems to be a large crowd of readers out there who just aren't willing to admit how flawed it can be. That or they're just not curious enough about the natural world to want to read anything other than a bunch of esoteric babbling about the essence of their own being. In other words, life is too short to be a douchebag. I found this out the hard way, though I can say that I do know better than to wear a fucking Black Flag sweatshirt.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
488 reviews76 followers
May 20, 2020
"The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics." This is an obvious truth, and the fact that so many people passionately object to it tells us more about society than science. Some are committed to the numinous, where an ineffable presence guides humankind without reference to the physical processes of life. On a more practical, if not cynical, level many adherents of the soft sciences got there because they could not hack calculus, and are not kindly disposed to Wilson’s argument that their chosen fields of study could be improved with a better grounding in mathematics.

The book’s central theme is the relatedness of all knowledge, from physics to psychology. For those who don’t see the connection, consider this:

The etiology of culture wends its way torturously from the genes through the brain and senses to learning and social behavior. What we inherit are neurobiological traits that cause us to see the world in a particular way and to learn certain behaviors in preference to other behaviors. The genetically inherited traits are not memes, not units of culture, but rather the propensity to invent and transmit certain kinds of these elements of memory in preference to others.

Accepting this idea would add some rigor to the social sciences, which are notoriously squishy in terms of their underlying scientific background. It is easy to see why Wilson’s premise has met with such determined resistance and ridicule from those who have made their careers building ever more complicated theories of mind and society that do not take biology, chemistry, or physics into account. The deconstructionists and postmodernists, in particular, seem to bring nothing to the discussion but clever nihilism, asserting that all knowledge is contingent, all theories nothing but social constructs.

Despite the opposition, science continues to move toward Wilson’s vision of consilience. Biology today is incomprehensible without chemistry, and chemistry relies on physics to make sense of its data. Geologists, cosmologists, and many other branches of science are equally dependent on the recognition and acceptance of the fundamental forces at work. As time goes by the realization of this underlying unity may spread to the softer sciences as well. Consider how much ink and blood have been shed over the idea of free will as a metaphysical construct, and then see how Wilson brings it down to earth with a few empirical observations:

The hidden preparation of mental activity gives the illusion of free will. We make decisions for reasons we often sense only vaguely, and seldom if ever understand fully. Ignorance of this kind is conceived by the conscious mind as uncertainty to be resolved; hence freedom of choice is ensured. An omniscient mind with total commitment to pure reason and fixed goals would lack free will. Even the gods, who grant that freedom to men and show displeasure when they choose foolishly, avoid assuming such nightmarish power.

Another reason that Wilson’s view is gaining ground is simply that the nature of science is changing, from how much you know to how well you can interpret what you know. “Profession-bent students should be helped to understand that in the twenty-first century the world will not be run by those who possess mere information alone. Thanks to science and technology, access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on television and computer screens. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis.”

The book was published in 1999, and not all of Wilson’s predictions have come true. In one case, he repeats the now discredited geneticists’ maxim OGOD, One Gene One Disease. Further understanding of the genome has proven that not to be the case at all, which explains why, for all the understanding of genetics that we have gained over the past two decades, we still have a long way to go in identifying the root causes, much less finding cures, for many DNA-based diseases.

This is, nevertheless, a brilliant book, a masterful account of how science is moving toward a greater convergence of knowledge and understanding. Those social scientists who continue to reject Wilson’s thesis are whistling in the dark; unless they are prepared to add some science to their studies they will find themselves more and more detached from the kind of deep understanding which is, after all, their reason for being.
Profile Image for William Liggett.
Author 1 book241 followers
December 13, 2017
E. O. Wilson is one of my heroes. He is a life-long scientist with the courage to take on the deniers that his writing brings out. This book was the first of his that I came across almost 20 years ago now. What struck me was the breadth of his consideration of the scope of human discovery. His term "consilience" was defined as the coming together of all knowledge—the power of drawing insights from many disciplines in a era when science is increasingly compartmentalized. I especially appreciated his retracing the history of the enlightenment and the power of man's intellect. As we struggle with problems to be solved from climate change and the loss of species to political and economic unrest, we need the power of human intellect more than ever. E. O. Wilson models what this looks like.
Profile Image for Veronica.
102 reviews66 followers
December 29, 2018
Gene-culture coevolution, the Ionian enchantment, "dreaming is a kind of insanity, a rush of visions"...

"The labyrinth of the world is thus a Borgesian maze of almost infinite possibility. We can never map it all, never discover and explain everything. But we can hope to travel through the known parts swiftly, from the specific back to the general, and—in resonance with the human spirit—we can go on tracing pathways forever. We can connect threads into broadening webs of explanation, because we have been given the torch and the ball of thread. There is another defining character of consilience: It is far easier to go background through the branching corridors than to go forward."

"Take the ‘edge of chaos’, one of the most frequently cited paradigms of complexity theory. It starts with the observation in a system containing perfect internal order, such as a crystal, there can be no further change. At the opposite extreme, in a chaotic system such as boiling liquid, there is very little order to change. The system that will evolve the most rapidly must fall between, and more precisely on the edge of chaos, possessing order but with the parts connected loosely enough o be easily altered either singly or in small groups."

"The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics."

"Neuron systems are directed networks, receiving and broadcasting signals. They cross-talk with other complexes to form systems of systems, in places forming a circle, like a snake catching its own tail, to create reverberating circuits. Each neuron is touched by the terminal axon branches of many other neurons, established by a kind of democratic vote whether it is to be active or silent. Using a Morselike code of staccato firing, the cell sends its own message outward to others."

"Mind is a stream of conscious and subconscious experiences. It is at root the coded representation of sensory impressions and the memory and imagination of sensory impressions...Consciousness consists of the parallel processing of vast numbers of such coding networks.

"The etiology of culture wends its way torturously from the genes through the brain and senses to learning and social behavior. What we inherit are neurobiological traits that cause us to see the world in a particular way and to learn certain behaviors in preference to other behaviors. The genetically inherited traits are not memes, not units of culture, but rather the propensity to invent and transmit certain kinds of these elements of memory in preference to others.

"Genes prescribe epigenetic rules, which are the regularities of sensory perception and mental development that animate and channel the acquisition of culture. Culture helps to determine which of the prescribing genes survive and multiply from one generation to the next. Successful new genes alter the epigenetic rules of populations. The altered epigenetic rules change the direction and effectiveness of the channels of cultural acquisition."
Profile Image for Rob.
86 reviews85 followers
May 23, 2016
for me, this was so horrible that after 100 pages i simply could not bring myself to go on. i guess this book was written for congressional staffers to read, and all the flowery language was supposed to "inspire" them to tell their boss to give scientists lots and lots of money.

basically, i think Wilson knows he is never going to do any good science again, so the next best thing is to write a book about how scientists (i.e. himself) are the angels of humanity.

everything is simply asserted, then the reason it's important is because he quotes some old dead guy, then the reason it's true is because he says so, and the reason it's wonderful is because he uses a few four-syllable adjectives to describe it.

and maybe the most infuriating thing is that somewhere under all the pompous claptrap, his main point is actually pretty interesting: that science and the humanities, which parted ways centuries ago, did so to their mutual detriment; that there should be a unity to all knowledge; that all types of deep intelligence come from the same mental stuff but the connections have been lost in our time, and that this causes problems in society, academia, business, government, etc.

but i hated this book. it doesn't prove a thing.
Profile Image for Michael Austin.
Author 142 books238 followers
May 6, 2008
E.O. Wilson is one of the few people in the 20th century who can actually claim to have given birth to a movement that did not disappear. His early work in Sociobiology, once roundly rejected by liberal academia, became the nucleus of the stunningly successful discipline of evolutionary psychology in the 1990s and beyond. In Consilience, Wilson sets himself the impossible task of arguing that all human knowledge can be reduced to key scientific principles. This is a somewhat different task than actually articulating those principles, but he gets a pretty good start on what they might look like. And they look a lot like evolutionary psychology.

As a humanities professor, I should probably be more offended by Wilson's reductionism than I actually am. Without a doubt, he believes that everything dear to humanists--the universal human love of literature, the drive to find meaning in religion, the desire to construct and understand our own history--can be understood through a competent understanding of biology. I don't agree, but I am intrigued nonetheless.

I don't think that Wilson's model explains, or ever can explain everything. But I think that it can and does explain a lot of things, and that is quite a task for a single book.

Profile Image for Kunal Sen.
327 reviews46 followers
May 24, 2020
I may not have come across this remarkable book unless I read the review written by a fellow Goodreads reader, whose opinion I have come to trust. That, to me, is the greatest utility of Goodreads. Reading in an expensive activity, especially at my age. There are only so many books I can manage to read before my ability to absorb them fades away. Therefore I want to minimize the chance of reading something and then discovering it to be useless. I don’t need to agree with the author, but it is highly desirable that I am transformed in some way between the before and after. This book definitely met that criteria.

Transformative non-fictions come in two variety – books that expose some unknown intellectual territory, and books that connect things that were already known in some surprising way. This book falls in the later category. It allowed me to make better sense of my intellectual landscape, and more importantly, it covered all aspects of my curiosity, be it physical and biological sciences, philosophy, social sciences, or the arts. In fact that is the central thesis of the book.

Science, as a way of thinking, has surpassed all other modes of thinking in terms of successfully explaining the world around us. No other discipline can claim nearly as much progress in their entire history as much as achieved by science in just a few hundred years. If Plato attends a modern day academic seminar on Philosophy, once he crosses the barrier of language and terminology, should have little difficulty in following what is being said. But no such luck for a scientist from even two hundred years ago. The reason for this lies in the methodology of science. The entire body of scientific knowledge must ultimately agree with each other, no matter from which branch of science. No biological principle can contradict anything in chemistry or physics. If we find a single observation that contradicts a theory in physics then either the observation has to be proved false, or the theory is wrong, no matter how many great scientists may be involved in creating that theory. This rigor is what made science progress at the rate it has progressed.

The author wants to bring this same methodology and rigor into the humanities. He admits that the domain of humanities deals with systems and processes that are far more complex than what science deals with, and therefore, achieving similar success will be incredibly more difficult. However, that that is no reason to give up and not even try. Ultimately, all branches of humanities deals with activities of human beings, and as a creature we are bound by the same laws of physical sciences. No matter how we want to view ourselves, we cannot deny our biological self and our evolutionary history. Following this argument the author tries to establish why denying our biological nature is not only inadequate, but can actually lead to neatly self-consistent, but wrong understandings of reality.

Even though I agree with his argument, some people may find his dismissive attitude towards conceptual pillars such as Marxism, Post-modernism, and Cultural Relativism a little too harsh. I think Steven Pinker does a more thorough job of dismantling these views in many of his books. Anyone interested in this topic will probably benefit from reading this book along with Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, Enlightenment Now, and The Blank Slate.
Profile Image for Sam.
45 reviews
January 3, 2011
I don't agree with the overall thesis, nor do I agree with the way the arguement is made. I am especially skeptical of Wilson's use of history and art - fields of inquiry which he seems to be grossly oversimplifying in the service of his arguement. He may well be as versed in 18th century French history or the contemporary novel as he is in science, but if so this book does not establish it. There are some truly eye-rolling moments in his discussion of the Enlightment and in his two page dismissal of "post modernism" - which, think what you will about the subject, is certainly worth more serious treatment than Wilson is able to give it. The sections concerned with science are obviously more interesting and better written and his arguments are clearly more at home in the realm of the quantifiable. Overall, I disagreed but found the book interesting and thought-provoking, at least in certain ways. The argument is so wide-cast that it is a bit difficult to go into it without getting lost in a lot of details.
Profile Image for Stetson.
209 reviews148 followers
December 12, 2022
Consilience is a term coined by E. O. Wilson to describe the phenomenon of different scientific fields coming together to provide a more complete understanding of a particular phenomenon. In some ways, it is also a recognition that the project of science is unified. In other words, it's the idea that different fields of science can converge to provide a more comprehensive explanation of the world around us. Science often uses reductive approaches to ascertain truth. Wilson's idea prod science toward a synthetic approach.

Wilson believed that this convergence of knowledge was essential for understanding the complexity of the natural world, and that by working together, different fields of science could provide a more complete picture of the world than any one field could on its own. For example, by combining the findings of biology, chemistry, physics, and other fields, we can better understand the mechanisms of evolution and how life has evolved on Earth. By combining genetics, anthropology, geography, and paleontology, we've have learned an enormous amount about the history of the human species (See David Reich's Who We Are And How We Got Here).

In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Wilson argues that the pursuit of consilience is essential for making progress in science and for gaining a deeper understanding of the world around us. He also argues that the pursuit of consilience should be at the heart of all scientific endeavors, and that scientists should work together across disciplines to achieve this goal.

Consilience is a high impact work that prophesied many of the intellectual developments of the future (now our present) and will likely continue to be prescient on developments that have yet to come to pass (but are now clearly germinating). It is a wide-ranging and intriguing book that also contains some outdated figures and errant speculation. However, I don't think we should penalize this type of thing when it is done rigorous and carefully. This is exactly what E. O. Wilson did.

E. O. Wilson is a towering figure in the history of science, whose influence and importance is hard to overstate. I think many can benefit from reading more of his work.

*I may return to this review to address some of Wilson's ideas, arguments, speculations more directly and in detail.
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book712 followers
March 23, 2008
There are not enough positive things I can say regarding this book.
Profile Image for J.
730 reviews436 followers
July 19, 2014
I've been meaning to read Wilson for a while now, but I regret starting with this. While his wish to unite the various academic disciplines into a single corpus of knowledge seems to come from the right place, his actual efforts to explain what such a system would look like are dull, meager, and at times poorly reasoned. His effort to show linkages between the natural sciences and the humanities in particular falls completely flat. A few paltry examples culled from his own research, while interesting, really don't provide the necessary underpinnings for such a grandiose vision. For a such an ambitious stated intention, I was expecting something much more tightly reasoned with exactingly stated theoretical foundations. Instead he seems to just sort of vaguely point in a direction things might go. I do think he's right when he says that the social science and humanities would probably benefit from a better understanding of things like genetics and Darwinian evolution, I just think that these sorts of cross discipline synthesis need a stronger foundation than the one he provides. In truth, this felt more like a collection of loosely linked essays than a coherent work overall. When he writes about biology and ecological conservation he's very compelling, it's when he tries to venture into other territory that he comes across as inconsistent, clumsy, and just flat.
Profile Image for Graeme Roberts.
505 reviews37 followers
March 19, 2017
The most exciting, important and beautiful book I have ever read. A must-read for big picture thinkers who understand science.
14 reviews2 followers
August 18, 2007
With the way things are in academia, nobody in the world could be qualified to write this book. The disciplines are too boldly demarcated, it is often said, each a small nation state prowled about by a tight pride of leonine experts who snap at ignorant layman invaders. But accomplished scientist and human nature theorist E. O. Wilson is a dove among the hawks who perceives a need for increased cooperation among all branches of human knowledge. All of them, which he arranges vertically with particle physics at the base, combining into chemistry, flourishing mysteriously into biology, and then crossing the epistemological event horizon leading into the softer social sciences and even the humanities generously placed at the apex. His point is not, as some critics howl, to make each body of knowledge reducible to the more empirical discipline beneath, but rather to consider an aesthetic vision of human knowledge as unified, coherent from its loftiest theoretical heights to its foundation in the universal laws of nature. The most persuasive chapter, on the fundamental importance of the hard sciences for all successful societies, precedes more adventurous forays where Wilson can not help but flounder among more unfamiliar terrain. Though some opponents may jeer and indicate simplifications as he draws his thread through their expertise, Wilson's contribution is an awkward step towards an ideal of common goals among all inquirers of nature and mind, utopian surely, but at least his work supplies an unreachable point to which we can aspire.
Profile Image for Michael.
218 reviews44 followers
December 31, 2009
The summer before my freshman year at SMU, the required reading list included C. P. Snow's 1959 tract, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, which described the gulf separating the humanities and the sciences. When I entered the university in the fall of 1965, the curriculum was integrated in an attempt to bridge that gulf. All students were required to take an ambitious program of arts, sciences, humanities, and mathematics that included required courses for all in "The Nature of Man," "Twentieth Century Arts, Institutions, and Ideas," and two courses in "The Development of Western Civilization." Science majors acted in plays, and humanities majors dug up fossils. Wilson's book would have had an honored place in that curriculum. He well may be too sanguine about the possibilities of creating a unified theory of knowledge, but his advocacy of consilience is admirable. If mankind must drown before reaching the shores of understanding, at least Wilson's passionate appeal will have encouraged us to swim in the right direction. The book is dense with ideas and requires more than one reading as well as an exploration of at least some of the references in the excellent notes in order to get the full benefits of Wilson's work. As freshmen, we were charged in the inaugural lecture welcoming the class of 1969 to answer the question posed in the Psalms, "What is man that thou art mindful of him?" I strive still to answer that challenge and am deeply grateful to have Edward Wilson as a companion on the quest.
Profile Image for Joe Stack.
689 reviews6 followers
January 10, 2022
To understand the story of the human condition, genes and culture have to be studied together, not separately. Biology and brain science is the core to Wilson’s thesis, and he provides intriguing examples supporting his ideas about achieving unity of knowledge. The issue for me, the reason for the 2 star rating, is he provided me too much and I was disinterested before some of the chapters ended.

I give 4 stars to each of the last two chapters, “Ethics and Religion,” and “To What End?” In “Ethics,” Wilson offers a compelling presentation of the two world views of religion and science. He argues in favor of the strengths of science to “test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition” while acknowledging religion’s strength, “that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge.” Overall, deists, atheists, freethinkers in general, will rejoice in what he expresses in this chapter.

We often hear and read today that climate change is an existentialist threat. In the last chapter, “To What End?,” Wilson presents a clear and compelling case that climate change is but one of a number of threats. This is a dark, somber, and important chapter.

In the chapter covering the social sciences, Wilson provides a devastating, but polite critique of what their practitioners get away with and their failures. This chapter is a good example of he comes across as a polite person.

This review ends here. What follows are some factoids from the book I wanted to save:

“With one carbon atom, only a single molecule is possible. With 20 carbon atoms, the number is 75, with 20 i5nis 366,319, and with 40 it is 62 trillion.”

Creating a living cell is “a moon shot:”

-At its heart, nuclei codes compromised of 50,000–100,000 genes
-Each gene is a string of 2,000–3,000 pairs (genetic letters)
-Among the base pairs composing active genes, each triplet translates into an amino acid
-The final molecular product of genes are sequences of amino acids folded onto giant protein molecules
- There are about 100,000 kinds of protein in a vertebrate animal
- Nucleic acids are the codes
- Proteins are the substance of life, making up to half animal’s dry weight - give the body form, hold it together by collagen sinews, move it by muscle, catalyze all body’s chemical reactions, transport oxygen to all body parts, “arm” the immune system, & carry the signals from the brain as it scans environment & controls behavior
-Heredity & environment interact. Thousands of genes are active with the brain, sensory system, and all the other physiological processes interacting with the physical & social environment “to produce the holistic properties of mind and culture. “Through natural selection, the environment ultimately selects which genes will do the prescribing.”

Culture is not derived from environment alone or heredity alone. Culture rises from the interaction of the two. Genes and culture coevolve.

People tend to gravitate “to environments that reward their hereditary inclinations.” Parents are likely to create a family atmosphere that does same. “The genes, in other words, help create a particular environment in which they will find greater expression than would otherwise occur. The overall result is a greater divergence of roles within societies due to the interaction of genes and their environment.”

Religion has tribalistic roots. Devotees of religions compete as a tribe; thus, rivalries between religions, sects, and non-believers. Each religion has been used to "justify moral codes." "Doctrine draws on the same creative springs as science and the arts, its aim being the extraction of order from the mysteries of the material world." Mythic narratives are created to explain.
Profile Image for Alina Lucia.
40 reviews17 followers
April 28, 2020
The main question Wilson tries to address in “Consilience” is the following: What is the relationship between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare?

Wilson argues that answering such a question requires that the branches of learning unite, and erase the ill-defined boundaries, arisen from pure ignorance rather than a fundamental difference in mentality. And I could not agree more.

To me, both science and the humanities offer different perspectives on the same question; the question of human nature, a topic relevant only because we all have happened to acquire the ‘human condition’, which allowed this introspection in the first place. (Dogs don’t care about human nature, fact which is directly attested to by my husky which is enjoying a great slumber as I write this; in fact, I suspect my husky does not even ponder his own husky condition; naps seem much more important to him).

Arguing about which is more important, the sciences or the humanities, is a futile exercise due to its very presumption, namely that an ultimatum must be reached. Reaching such an ultimatum often means that some intellectual compromise must be made along the way, a compromise to which a truly inquisitive mind would not subvert. Even Wilson admits: “[…]absolutism; the dangerous Medusa of science and the humanities alike”. The answer often lies at some point within the spectrum, not at the extremes.

Thus, I would imagine that science is the subject of human nature, while the humanities are a projection of it. If one may use the analogy of old movie cassettes, such would follow: The movie itself is encrypted in the cassette tape, while what we experience is the projection of it. Two mutually inclusive events, equally important events, in the whole situation of ‘being at the movies.’ Science and the humanities are two mutually inclusive events, equally important events, in this whole affair of ‘being’.

A failure to grasp this view, a kind of lack of cohesion of thought, can only have chaotic effects at the individual level, and then propagate itself to the group level.
Profile Image for Keith Swenson.
Author 15 books50 followers
May 7, 2012
Wilson's point is that there was a time when a single person could know all the formalized knowledge that there was to know. Of course that was a long time ago. Today there is a zillion times more to know, and the problem is that to be an expert, we have to focus on one particular narrow domain. This is necessary, but the problem is that each stovepipe tends to be ignorant of the other stovepipes, and that is a problem.

This book, is then an attempt to encourage us to step back, and try to understand the big picture. It would be impossible to unify all knowledge in one book (as the subtitle claims) but if anything he gives us motivation to try and do this. Social scientists should know more about biology. Biologists should know more about ethics. Ethicists (if there are any in America) should know more about Physics. And so on. It is not suitable to isolate yourself in one narrow field.

It is an extremely intriguing idea. He then takes us on a romp through a number of different field, to show how they are related and how they should be more involved with each other.

In the chapter on natural sciences, he talks about complexity, and how reductionism from the enlightenment is cause of separate domains of knowledge. Science is the practice of reductionism. This is "why so many accomplished scientists are narrow foolish people, and why so many wise scholars in the field are considered weak scientists." Wilson, both a wise scholar and an accomplished scientist, did not write this to take a cheap shot at some scientists, but rather to say there is something going on at a level of complexity which can not be seen when you reduce to simple, experimentable problems.

In "Ariadne's Thread" he touches upon the intersection of mysticism and science. On dreams, and on the relationship between symbols and dangers that our ancestors had to know to avoid without training. Again complexity theory enters to which he gives his own definition as "... the search for algorithms used in nature that display common features across many levels of organization."

Chapter 6 is on the "supremely important" subject of the mind. "Today, people know more about their automobiles than they do about their own minds." He touches on consciousness, moods, and free will. "The hidden preparation of mental activity gives the illusion of free will." At the same time, not only do we have free will (at out level of organization) but belief in free will is a survival instinct.

Chapter 7 ponders the genetic roots of art and culture. Genes prescribe epigenetic rules (regularity of sensory perception and mental processing). Culture forms from this, and also controls which genes survive in a kind of feedback loop. Chapter 8 on Human Nature poses similar questions, followed by chapter 9 on Social Science, and Chapter 10 on Arts and Interpretation. There are patterns that appear only if you consider multiple fields at the same time.

Chapter 11 brings us to Ethics and Religion, a chapter worth reading several times. He has built up to this point, and you know there are no simple answers. Then the book is capped off with a summary chapter.

There is no question it is an important book. It is not a light read either, but a book that is rich and profound. The goal is audacious: the unify knowledge. No single book can do this, but what he achieves is some compelling examples of how things are more related than we might think. What he motivates, is the idea that true understanding of the real universe will take a non-reductionist view of the big picture in order to see the phenomena that occur only at the aggregate level.

And ... it also greatly expanded the list of books I now need to read as a follow up.
Profile Image for Ivan Soto.
91 reviews
October 8, 2011
Loved it! Loved it! Loved it! E. O. Wilson's writing is such a delight. The book argues for mutual cooperation between biology and other branches of knowledge, as well as for protection of and conservation in the planet. Here's the concluding paragraph:

"I believe that in the process of locating new avenues of creative thought, we will also arrive at an existential conservatism. It is worth asking repeatedly: Where are our deepest roots? We are, it seems, Old World, catarrhine primates, brilliant emergent animals, defined genetically by our unique origins, blessed by our newfound biological genius, and secure in our homeland if we wish to make it so. What does it all mean? This is what it all means. To the extent that we depend on prosthetic devices to keep ourselves and the biosphere alive, we will render everything fragile. To the extent that we banish the rest of life, we will impoverish our own species for all time. And if we should surrender our genetic nature to machine-aided ratiocination, and our ethics and art and our very meaning to a habit of careless discursion in the name of progress, imagining ourselves godlike and absolved from our ancient heritage, we will become nothing."
Profile Image for György.
121 reviews6 followers
March 7, 2019
The book "Consilience..." written by a biologist Mr. Edward O. Wilson is an evidence of our eternal struggle toward the peace of mind. Every attempt of a human to unify the bodies of knowledge on disposal, is a prove that we, the highest order complexity beings, can't stand the chaos.
But, no matter how beautifully devised this book is, and no matter how joyful this read is, I've clearly missed the loud A-HA. I felt like something, like the "corpus callosum" not that does not connect, but is to noisy to transfer clear bits. Personally, and it's only a matter of taste, I wish the author kept the same high standard in being a laconic as he did of being magically eloquent. It's very difficult to be eloquently laconic or laconically eloquent, I assume, but I like the laconic way of expression - it's a way of noise reduction in information transfer. If you remember the "IF" or the "with it or on it! :)
I'm afraid, despite of the awesome trial, the unification still remains as a "song of the sirens", we need more time, more deep understanding of our realm.
Five starts, for tremendous knowledge, effort and writing skills. Bravo and cheers!
Profile Image for Jigar Brahmbhatt.
296 reviews126 followers
December 29, 2016
I have been fascinated by the idea of a convergence of different schools of thoughts into a single whole. Call it "theory of everything", or consilience, a word chosen with great care by Edward Wilson. He tries nothing less than proposing to bring not only the sciences but humanities under a single umbrella.

The stars given are not a judgement on the writer's erudition and intentions at all, but show my inability (and the lack of enjoyment as a reader) to grasp everything the writer was trying to do here and my lack of interest when it came to physiology, the evolutionary sciences, and some such topics.
Profile Image for Nathan.
233 reviews191 followers
September 17, 2007
Basically, Consilience is a well-written manifesto in favor of inter-disciplinary studies. Edward O. Wilson argues that fields of study may have become too rigid and isolated, at the expense of the "unity" of human knowledge. A good case is made for a wider relationship between arts, sciences, histories and religions.

Profile Image for RAD.
104 reviews10 followers
December 31, 2021
The Latest (Last?) Queen

In the 13th century, Aquinas christened theology as the queen of the sciences in his Summa Theologica. Kant stole that mantle in the 18th century and placed it on the shoulders of philosophy. In the next century, Gauss insisted that the true queen was mathematics. Einstein transferred that title to physics early in the 20th century. (Just a few years later, Yeats could be said to have used literature to clear the decks with “The Second Coming”, rendering all of it moot). But physics has persisted, giving rise to superstrings and TOEs in subsequent decades—by most accounts, remaining queen to this day.

In his magisterial, audacious Consilience, Edward O. Wilson argues (argued; the book is nearly 25 years old) that it is biology that will take the crown, or at least oversee a group effort. Consilience argues for a synthesis of numerous disciplines, if relegated to chamberlains and courtiers. Even theology is present at court. But for Wilson, who trained as an entomologist and has done extensive research with ants, the queen is at the nucleus, and the queen is biology. (In his Introductory Essay to the 50th Anniversary Edition of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , Ian Hacking confirms that in 1962, when Structure was published, physics was, in fact, "the queen of the sciences", but that "Today [i.e., 2012, the time the Introductory Essay was written], biotechnology rules" (p. ix). Wilson's agenda was on track then, and seems to be so today, another decade or so later).

What gives Wilson the right? Leibniz is claimed by many to have been the last man who knew everything; Wilson, like everyone else, understands that complexity requires specialization. This myopia is the problem: no one can see the forest for the trees. How, then, can Wilson? It is an unanswered (even debunked, for him) dilemma: one which would require a Yeatsian lack of a central referent, a logical reductio ad absurdum, or at the very least, an “outside” view. Postructuralism and deconstruction (which Wilson, admirably, addresses) to the rescue! No; for Wilson, a more pragmatic logic is necessary.

This is not to suggest that Harvard’s Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus is not up to the task; he needs little introduction. While specialists may snicker, Wilson pushes ahead. Harkening back to his days as an Alabama youth searching the woods for insects, he investigates everything in his path, both real and imagined, with an objective, scientific point of view. The depth and breadth of his knowledge, and his willingness to poke and prod and pilfer along the way, should suffice any specialist to willingly suspend their own disbelief, and obediently follow along.

Wilson begins in medias res, with the Enlightenment. He frames his work as the intellectual heir of Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. Yet humbly: Wilson notes that Condorcet (unlike himself) wrote “with no books, relying only on his prodigious memory” (p. 19). Condorcet’s belief was that culture was governed by laws, and his aim, analogous to Wilson’s own humanitarian agenda, is equality among nations and peoples.

Wilson was woke (before woke was cool, to paraphrase Barbara Mandrell). He acknowledges that “it has become fashionable to speak of the Enlightenment as an idiosyncratic construction by European males in a bygone era…to which the only decent response is yes, of course—to a point” (p. 22). It was Bacon’s founding of the philosophy of science, Descartes’ systematic doubt, and Newton’s establishment of order “where magic and chaos had reigned” that are foundational. Still, “science given too much authority risks conversion into a self-destroying impiety” (p. 34).

As important as the Enlightenment was, it was equally damning in that it spawned specialization. The unity of knowledge was not on the horizon by the early 1800s. “The vast majority of scientists have never been more than journeymen prospectors. That is even more the case today. They are professionally focused; their education does not orient them to the wide contours of the world…It is therefore not surprising to find physicists who do not know what a gene is, and biologists who guess that string theory has something to do with violins” (p. 39). (Kuhn also made this point in Structure 35 years earlier: "Though many scientists talk easily and well about the particular individual hypotheses that underlie a concrete piece of current research, they are little better than laymen at characterizing the established bases of their field, its legitimate problems and methods" (p. 32)).

His lambasting is multidisciplinary: “The same professional atomization afflicts the social sciences and humanities. The faculties of higher education around the world are a congeries of experts.” Wilson flexes his synthetical view to an impressive catalog of Modernist painters, poets, and architects who “tried to achieve the new and provocative at any cost. They identified the constraining bonds of tradition and self-consciously broke with them.” He concludes: “Thus the free flight bequeathed by the Enlightenment, which disengaged the humanities during the Romantic era, had by the middle of the twentieth century all but erased hope for the unification of knowledge with the aid of science. The two cultures described by C.P. Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture, the literary and the scientific, were no longer on speaking terms” (pp. 38-40).

Nevertheless, it is science (or one branch thereof) that has led (and will lead) the way: “Today the greatest divide within humanity is not between races, or religions, or even, as widely believed, between the literate and illiterate. It is the chasm that separates scientific from prescientific cultures” (p. 45). Mathematics is merely “tautological…that is, every conclusion follows completely from its own premises, which may or may not have anything to do with the real world” (pp. 62-63). Science is the only way to understand the world. “Complexity is what interests scientists in the end, not simplicity. Reductionism is the way to understand it. The love of complexity without reductionism is art; the love for complexity with reductionism makes science” (p. 54). It follows that “complexity theory needs more empirical information. Biology can supply it” (p. 90).

Having established the historical framework, and his justification of biology, Wilson spends the next chapters continuing his argument. Everything is reducible. Humans (and their various societal groupings) are the apex of complexity. Even the concept of mind, stemming as it does from the brain, is a biological construct. And if mind is physical, then so is culture, and art and its interpretation, ethics, and religion. Biology is all. Biology is queen. Physics remains important: “The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics” (p. 266). Yet to understand this and the culture from which it arises requires humans and humanity, rendering biology to be the most relevant scientific discipline (p. 267).

“The human condition is the most important frontier for the natural sciences. Conversely, the material world exposed by the natural sciences is the most important frontier of the social sciences and humanities. The consilience argument can be distilled as follows: The two frontiers are the same” (p. 267). While there is a need for holism and interdisciplinary studies, theology itself has “done badly” and “Western philosophy offers no promising substitute” (p. 269).

A synthesis—consilience—is necessary, because “access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost” (p. 269). (Wilson does not address the corollary that nonfactual knowledge is rising as fast, or faster). But this subsequent need for information assimilation doesn’t turn humans into data processors or aggregators; rather, it positions them to enter a final stage of evolution—“volitional evolution” (p. 275). Homo sapiens is “about to decommission natural selection,” evolving to a new species: homo proteus, or “shapechanger man” (pp. 276-278). All of this takes place on earth—there’s no discussion of planetary colonization—and thus there is a necessary biological ethos, an emphasis on maintaining biological diversity. None of this can be done without consilience: “a united system of knowledge is the surest means of identifying the still unexplored domains of reality” (p. 298).

Such a brief synopsis cannot do justice to the scope of Wilson’s thesis and supporting evidence (or beliefs). His ability to synthesize is yet to be equaled, in my view. How is it that he, a very specialized scientist, has been able to step across (and pull together) such disparate intellectual boundaries? Whether or not he is “correct” is less important than the step, or leap, towards his solution, which is a call to action. Biology is Wilson’s queen, but he understands that all disciplines have a role to play.

To return to that first queen identified by Aquinas: theology. It is worth noting that Wilson was raised a Southern Baptist, and remains “sensitive” to Christianity’s perspective. He has “drifted away from the church,” but does not consider himself agnostic or atheist. But even if theology has “done badly” in his words, Wilson is apparently blind to the possibility that Aquinas may have been right after all. Wilson’s description of “gap analysis,” or blank spaces that remain unknown, is a popular topic in the religion versus science debate. Science dismisses religion’s reliance on God as an explanatory mechanism; religion maintains that science is its own humanistic religion by having blind faith in science’s ability to fill in all those gaps. Both have the same teleological view; they just posit different means. (Interestingly, Hacking addresses this point as well in his aforementioned Introductory Essay to Structure: "The thought that there is one and only one complete true account of everything is deep in the Western tradition. It descends from what Comte, the founder of positivism, called the theological stage of human inquiry," and is deeply ingrained in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cosmology (p. xxxiv).) But for Wilson, theology is outside science, like poststructuralist thought, which he also disdains. Consilience could be more conciliatory; but this was Wilson’s book to write.

Bacon is one of Wilson’s heroes, despite his flaws (and Wilson's awareness of them). And Bacon said it well (though not referenced in the present book): “some books are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” This was my second journey through Consilience, and I'm still chewing.
Profile Image for Miles.
464 reviews150 followers
August 31, 2016
This is probably my favorite of the books I’ve read by Edward O. Wilson, although it did not alter my worldview as profoundly as On Human Nature did when I read it back in early 2012. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge is an eloquent explication of the ideas and dispositions I hold in highest regard. It is arguably the most enterprising work of an ambitious career, which makes it both stunning as well as outlandish. Despite my awareness of numerous respectable critiques of Wilson’s propositions and methods, I must confess to being swept away by the sheer grandeur of this vision. Such reverie no doubt dulled my critical faculties, although I will still attempt to outline some areas of disagreement between Wilson and myself.

First, however, I will share Wilson’s definition of consilience and provide a brief sampling of the topics he addresses in order to flesh it out. “The central idea of the consilience world view,” Wilson writes, “is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics” (291). It follows that all natural phenomena can ultimately be explained (and perhaps altered) by scientific inquiry. Although I will concede that this idea might eventually be revealed as unverifiable or even outright false, I’ll also cop to participating in a recent discussion with a friend in which we both agreed that it’s hard to communicate clearly with (let alone trust) anyone who doesn’t believe that the universe––at whatever level of chemical, biological, or technological organization––is “dominoes all the way down.”

If you can get on board with the cause-and-effect essence of consilience, then this book will be a fun ride through one of humanity’s greatest living brains. Drawing from an interdisciplinary set of sources, Wilson weaves seemingly disparate ideas and observations into one impressive (if not comprehensive) intellectual web. Here are some of my favorites:

––A healthy balance of praise and admonishment directed toward the existing scientific establishment
––A concise and informative summary of the Enlightenment’s historical significance
––An engrossing theory of gene-culture evolution (now deepened by Wilson’s recent work on “multilevel selection”)
––An examination of the problem of subjective experience (qualia) that is more accessible and scientifically informed than that of most philosophers (especially non-contemporary ones)
––A fascinating description of the mental mechanisms that produce dreams
––A careful look at the strengths, limitations, and hubris of modern economics
––A healthy and empirically-driven respect for the humanities and the arts
––A remarkable ability to embrace the difficult reality that humans are stone-age dingbats who’ve nevertheless developed complex societies and technologies that allow us to throw our weight around like little gods

While Consilience is certainly teeming with information that is accurate and still relevant more than 15 years after original publication, it also contains some inconsistencies and less than brilliant moments. One problem is that, like many other interdisciplinary thinkers, Wilson fails to map out how societies can actively pave the way for the practice of consilient inquiry. He aptly exposes the shortcomings of academic hyper-specialization, but fails to offer a practical model for how individuals are supposed to overcome the suffocating dichotomy faced by curious individuals from all backgrounds: learn everything about one thing or learn a little about everything. Wilson’s assessment is accurate but frustratingly vague: “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely” (294). It follows that the training of competent “synthesizers” ought to be one of humanity’s major priorities, but Wilson gives no account of the necessary steps we should take to realize this goal. If synthesizers play a key role in bringing consilience about, then we need to know: what are the conditions most conducive to the flourishing of syncretic people and communities?

Wilson’s critique of the social sciences is a similar jumble of incomplete insights. He musters a terrific takedown of postmodern relativism, but also downplays the massive and potentially insurmountable obstacles that render complex systems opaque to traditional tools of scientific analysis. I concur with Wilson that the social sciences and arts are theoretically reducible to causative rules, but am more skeptical that we are anywhere close to possessing the knowledge and/or technology to tackle these disciplines the way we currently do physics and chemistry. Wilson admits that “the social sciences are hypercomplex” and “the magnitude of the technical problems facing the social theorists is…extremely daunting,” but doesn’t take seriously enough the possibility that humanity (at least in its current form) might prove incapable of properly examining problems of sufficiently intractable complexity (199, 227). In the face of climate change and potential ecosystem collapse due to human consumption, it seems even less likely that the tools required to collect, aggregate, analyze, and act on the data most relevant to these hypercomplex problems will be produced in time to turn the tide. If ecosystems and human communities become too unstable to support scientific projects, it won’t matter if consilience is true or not because we won’t have the resources to find out.

My hand-wringing is not meant as a justification for nihilism or a refutation of Wilson’s consilient ambitions, but it does serve to reveal one of his great blind spots: the contingency of the foundation on which the scientific project is constructed. Wilson, in other works as well as this one, is inconsistent in his assessment of exactly how fragile humanity’s continued quest for knowledge might be. He is comfortable pronouncing that, “Every contour of the terrain, every plant and animal living in it, and the human intellect that masters them all, can be understood as a physical entity” (258). He doesn’t hesitate to assure us of humanity’s eventual moral progress:

"New answers might be found for the truly important questions of moral reasoning. How can the moral instincts be ranked? Which are best subdued and to what degree, which validated by law and symbol? How can precepts be left open to appeal under extraordinary circumstances? In the new understanding can be located the most effective means for reaching consensus. No one can guess the form the agreements will take. The process, however, can be predicted with assurance. It will be democratic, weakening the clash of rival religions and ideologies. History is moving decisively in that direction, and people are by nature too bright and too contentious to abide anything else. And the pace can be confidently predicted: Change will come slowly, across generations, because old beliefs die hard even when demonstrably false." (280)

Wilson’s steadfast optimism and faith in progress make me love him all the more; I cannot, however, personally adopt such positions with his unequivocal zeal. I fervidly hope these visions come to pass, but refuse to labor under the false god of their supposed inevitability. Wilson’s personal view appears inconclusive; despite these overly sanguine moments, he devotes much of the book’s final chapter to a compassionate but disquieting tour through the myriad contemporary threats to the viability of human communities and biodiversity.

I am passionate about my melioristic worldview, but I also try to take it with a grain of salt. That grain of salt inflames the wounds of history, reminding us that all human endeavors take place under the penumbra of a stayed execution. We can pray the axe does not come down, can even invent ways to keep it hovering above us for a while longer, but we cannot stop it forever. Still, why not get consilient while we wait?

This review was originally published on my blog, words&dirt.
Profile Image for Yates Buckley.
645 reviews23 followers
January 29, 2022
A difficult book that tests your definitions of science, progress and beliefs. The author crosses issues looking both ways and taking careful account of the scientific ecosystem and into the broader human condition.

The term consilience is applied to many scenarios so it is not always crystal clear. The author suggests that extending our investigation into the natural world by connecting activities to their biological, neuroscientific fundamentals we could understand social sciences like even economics as emergent from principles that go as far down as the physical sciences.

The author’s definition of free will is my favoured one that ultimately the argument on its existence is pointless given the impossibility of reconciling the scale of degrees of freedom, sensitivity to natural phenomena. Those that state it does not exist have no realistic way to demonstrate as much.

The book initially does not indicate what the big picture choices of values could or should be. It is not tech positivist but rather science method-ist bridging to all areas of human activity. The idea is we should study all without limits in the key of biological sciences particularly looking at impact of heredity and adaptation.

In the first part of the book the author takes as a fundamental truth a certain kind of enlightened progress. The idea is that consilient knowledge would help humanity “advance”. The problem with this is the author does not address how some areas of study themselves can be pandora boxes for important risks. From dividing society to technological developments that increase existential risk. Though the author underlies the importance of ethics there is little dedicated to precautionary principle, particularly where in the bioscience we have already run into problems.

At the end of the book the author introduces the problematic balancing of the growth based economies of the world and the impact on environment. This end is a sudden twist to the plot becaus now we take into implicit consideration the values of sustainability of civilisation. This consideration and focus should have been a lens from the beginning of the book as it would reframe consilience and its potential controversies around the bigger risk of environmental collapse.

I am surprised that the author does not directly address how some new ideas, technology and knowledge can increase existential risks over the long term. Consilience between areas of knowledge is not exempt from this problem. Case in point the author describes economics with a glossy picture (very different from my own) and explains that connection to psychology and neuroscience can unlock a whole new world of possibilities. I would say that since publicatiom many neuroeconomics learnings are applied in an exploitative way. Who cares? But this is the sort of activity could drive tail risks way up…

Basically across most of the text what is good for the author is a kind of evolutionary transformation of knowledge. But in this area he does not consider the risks in some of his ideas and directions. And when we reach the drama of the final chapter and it presenting only the space for a narrow escape for humanity I wonder how he can reconcile that it would be thanks to consilience that humanity “survives”?

Basically the issue is scientific investigation according to whatever style or means is almost always a consequence of a political direction. It seems simplistic to think consilient knowledge would solve these problems alone.

Profile Image for Carlex.
505 reviews90 followers
October 30, 2017
Four and half stars.

(I know there could be some mistakes in this review. I’m trying to improve my English, thanks)

Previously I had read from Eduard O. Wilson "The Diversity of Life", an impressive work that among other issues announces the sixth great extinction caused by human activity (previously of the Elizabeth Kolbert's best known book). So this is my second reading by this author and "Consilience" not dissappoints me.

Explained in a very summarized way, a very interesting treatise that introduces one of the most fundamental problems in human knowledge: the gap between “hard” and “soft” sciences. That is, natural vs. social sciences.

Also the book deals with another old question: our behaviour works by genes or by culture? The answer is both, of course, but how? The former is investigated from the sociobiologist (and geneticist) paradigm and the latter from the perspective of social sciences (psychology, sociology, economics,anthropology, etc.). Also the author considers other forms of non scientific knowledge: arts, ethics and religion, also from the sociobiology point of view.

From the perspective of “Consilience”, Wilson proposes an integration of all of this forms of human knowledge.

For me, this book is a great contribution to know the state of the matter.
2 reviews
April 10, 2012
I read this soon after reading Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, and it was a nice basis of contrast for Wilson's eloquent, off-the-charts intelligent, narrowly conceived, and misleading book. Most of Wilson's proposed compromises for "Consilience" are expected from the arts and social sciences and it is a stunning demonstration of how the positivist torch has been passed, and it could prove a perfect reference point for an updated take on Marcuse's ideas. This book is an incredibly well thought out praise of the scientist and the accomplishments of science, but it lacks any understanding of most areas of study outside of the natural sciences except for those with direct application of principles of biology, as found in biological anthropology. Having been raised Baptist, he gives a very balanced consideration of religion and ethics, as he has elsewhere, but fails to do so in other departments, especially modern art, philosophy, and sociology, most likely due to his own lack of a firm grasp of them. Natural science may understand, to an extent, the genetic basis of "bricks" of human nature, but it currently says little about the societal structures that we have built with them, and his near complete neglect of social science in this regard is stunning. The most mind-blowing part of the whole book for me was his dismissal with a "it's not so bad" of Michel Foucault's analyses of the diffuse nature of power and its evolution in the west. The crude characteristics sketched by the epigenetic basis for human nature still have little to offer such analyses 30 years after Foucault's death. Overall, I think what this book most clearly demonstrates, further shown by near-unanimous praise of Wilson, is that natural scientists are increasingly out of touch with the humanities, and are themselves preoccupied with seeking the "holy grail" of specific mechanistic determinants which have little bearing on the immense problems we face today. These problems are largely political and far beyond the current scope of epigenetics, and this has not changed in the 14 years since the book was written. There is, of course, ample room for astounding breakthroughs which could clearly be achieved by interdisciplinary collaboration between those with highly focused scientific training and social scientists, but instead what wilson proposes is a largely one-sided demand that the humanities need to get on board with science. If you want a well-written book on consilience within the natural sciences, which gives lip-service to other disciplines, this is pretty good. If you are looking for an olive branch, look elsewhere. For someone trained as a scientist, it is really kind of incredible to me how much of a book strictly about natural science this is, for all of its pretenses.
Profile Image for Matthew.
31 reviews12 followers
February 10, 2008
The entire thesis of Consilience is one so shockingly obvious that I was astounded to discover that true controversy surrounded it. The thesis is simply that all realms of knowledge, from biology and geology to psychology and politics, are ultimately reducible in explanation to more fundamental explanations in another discipline - physics. This seems abundantly obvious in virtually every discipline I could imagine:

Example: My psychology is determined by physical states (both biological and chemical) in my brain. The biological states are reducible to more complex explanations in chemistry, and all of the chemical explanations are themselves reducible into more complicated statements couched in the language of physics. Ultimately, there may be an additional explanatory discipline more fundamental than physics. Who knows?

What is obvious is that if we accept the fundamentally physical nature of the universe and the physical phenomena that occur within it, the thesis of this book is so trivially obvious as to barely warrant comment. Nevertheless, apparently there are far more supernaturalists and brain-mind dualists out there than I would have hoped.
Profile Image for FiveBooks.
185 reviews72 followers
May 5, 2010
New York Times columnist David Brooks has chosen to discuss Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject – Neuroscience, saying that:

“…In Consilience Wilson makes the prediction that a lot of the disciplines we have separated human behaviour into are obsolete, and that we are on the verge of unifying knowledge in an inter-disciplinary way. And that is actually happening with neuroscience: there’s a field of neural economics, neural this and that, basically neural everything: literary critics, historians. People in many different disciplines are using this work on the brain to illuminate their thinking. I think what they’re finding in our unconscious mind will have the same sort of influence that Marx had, and that Sigmund Freud had, namely an entire new vocabulary, that will help define a lot of different fields...."

The full interview is available here: http://fivebooks.com/interviews/david...
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