Grendelkhan's Reviews > Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Consilience by Edward O. Wilson
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's review
Dec 02, 2009

Read in February, 2009

I received this book as a gift; I was intrigued because it seemed to be a synthesis, a book about really big ideas, like Gödel Escher Bach or Guns Germs and Steel . There's a certain sensation of my horizons expanding, my perceptions widening, which is the apex of my experience in reading nonfiction.

The central idea, the "unity of knowledge", wasn't completely unfamiliar to me, but what affected me most profoundly in the book was its full-throated, high-octane defense of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that crowned reason and empiricism the best methods for determining truth, rather than revelation. It's something we take for granted nowadays, that we live in a universe which is not only comprehensible but largely comprehended, that questions have answers, and that mysteries are only mysterious because we haven't yet unraveled them.

It's a stunningly romantic idea, and what's more, it's fragile. There's nothing inevitable about the coherence of the universe and our use of empiricism to make sense of it. Wilson goes to considerable trouble to emphasize that our ancestors were just as clever and inquisitive as we are; they simply didn't have the same mental tools--which can be explained in a page or two--which we take for granted nowadays. It's amazing just how valuable our knowledge is, especially given the degree to which we take it for granted.

As for bringing together the sciences, especially with the humanities and the arts, he points out the alternative to basing our understanding of what's effective in art and what the basics of human nature are in the humanities on science is simply basing these things on folk understanding and bare intuition. Folk logic and intuition aren't useless; they are, in fact, reasonably good at describing matters on a human scale. However, the argument goes, a deeper understanding of the empirical basis on which these fields are build might lend them more depth, more meaning. While there's not much on what the results of a coherent bridging between the sciences, the humanities and the arts would actually look like, it's certainly well-sold as a worthwhile goal. It's much more about describing a direction than a destination.

Wilson says, "The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic." Indeed; I'm reminded of Neil Gaiman's description, from Anansi Boys , of how the stories were once Tiger's, full of violence and all about who was bigger or stronger, but when Anansi stole them, the stories people told were about trickery, about getting by using wits and cleverness rather than force. (Wilson wrote before Gaiman; I don't know if either is familiar with the other's work.) The story is more meaningful to me because it's true; it's the story of how we humans became humans.

I think that Wilson comes dangerously close to committing the naturalistic fallacy in claiming that our biology is ineluctably our destiny, and that seeking to change it will lead only to disaster and pain, is, indeed, morally wrong. It's a short hop from here to claiming that it's morally wrong to fight against our natures... but by our natures, we want happiness but are seldom satisfied, we are afflicted by the scourge of tribalism, and we are consigned to the same (boring!) failures that doomed our forebears. How disappointed they would be if they knew that we turned away from an opportunity to escape their troubles! I'm disappointed to see our innate nature described as simply the way things are rather than a challenge to be overcome.

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.

Contrast this blast of naturalism against the ethos of hard science fiction. The two perspectives share an iron-strong belief in a sensible universe and in humanity's ability to comprehend it. But whereas the SF author believes that it's good, even morally obligatory for the human race to transcend its humble origins, Wilson believes that it's profoundly evil. It is a deep conservatism lurking at the heart of a very technologically progressive outlook. In a work which trumpts the seemingly limitless potential of human endeavor, it proposes a hard limit.

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Quotes Grendelkhan Liked

Edward O. Wilson
“Science, its imperfections notwithstanding, is the sword in the stone that humanity finally pulled. The question it poses, of universal and orderly materialism, is the most important that can be asked in philosophy and religion.”
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

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