Consilience - The Unity of Knowledge by Edward Wilson


ISBN: 978-0679768678

READ: 2016-08-24

AUTHOR: Edward O. Wilson



Consilience is one of the four cardinal principles of the scientific method: theories which prove to conform with established knowledge from other disciplines have shown greater profitability in prediction and experimental evidence than those which don’t. Others, by authors’ canons, are parsimony, generality, and predictiveness.

Wilson advocates the search for consilience between natural and human sciences, and centres his argument around the emerging field of genetics and culture – gene-culture coevolution – back in the end Nineties. At the time he writes, rift between those who stood for a genetic account of culture and postmodernists loomed large, but both biological and psychological discoveries led to the emergence of new fields, such as sociobiology and behavioural genetics. If such enterprise could be achieved, it would just help us understand the world more profoundly, and impose a sense of even greater order to the chaotic resemblance of the universe.

I could not understand how a theory of human behaviour could be approached without help from biology and the natural sciences in general. Although I believe this obstacle has been largely overcome already, the present work offers all the obstacles that have been lied down amidst the endeavour. Other allegedly considered sciences – such as economics – have a long way to include the whole biological equipment in it theories, and prove therefore to be more sound and empirically practical.

But the issue looms still large within ethics, and it resides in the rivalry between transcendentalists and empiricists. It signals that there still is much disagreement about where human nature should be traced, whereas transcendentalists fundamentally deny consilience by excluding epigenetic causes to human behaviour, and posits the existence of human laws as impermanent, and just to be discovered “as they truly are”.
The proposed transition from genes to ethics has been widely challenged by the ought-is objection, namely that what it is (epigenetic rules) cannot shape what ought to be (ethical behaviour), also named the naturalistic fallacy. Wilson argues that transcendentalists conversely posit an unlikely independent truth which would determine everything humans ought to do: which of the two alternatives is more likely? By empiricists’ explanation, ought simply derives from material processes.

Wilson doubts that transcendental positions, especially in their religious forms, would ever disappear, for they are part of the very genetic equipment that made humans fit until now. He manages however to draw precisely how that would need to interacts with empiricism to remain alive:

“Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly humbling challenge, while religion must somehow find the way to incorporate the discoveries of science in order to retain credibility. Religion will possess strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge.” (p.290)

What waits ahead of us is the possibility to “decommission natural selection, the force that made us”. Wilson predicts that we will embrace a genetic conservatism: we are not equipped to change anything beyond genes which are eventually responsible for diseases, for we would recognise any other intervention as driving us away from what is considered to be human.
How would we make use of our superpowers? Humans have become a force comparable to asteroids and tectonics: we are shaping the planet in unprecedented ways. The environmental issue posits the next big threat to our very existence, and it should be tackled by both those who believe in human boundless technological abilities which would allow him to live on Mars, and by those cautious environmentalists who see how complex Earth mechanisms are, and that reproducing them might not be so easy as depicted.

Being an acclaimed biologist, Wilson supports the conservative part, that “The only way to save the Creation with existing knowledge is to maintain it in natural ecosystems.” (p.324) Technology will be of great support to tame the demographical problem, but let’s not forget that each technological prothesis makes us, and the world which sustains us, more fragile.