Consilience – Wilson

Consilience is a major work by a major author. It just might be the best book you.ve read in the last decade, or, maybe even two decades. It.s one of those books that, even if you disagree (many will), you have to admire Wilson for his daring and the passion with which he lays out the groundwork of consilience.

Consilience Cover

Consilience Cover

What is Consilience?

I had originally thought it was a Latin word from con + sileo meaning ‘a silencing together’. But this made no sense. It.s actually from con + salio ‘a jumping together’. Consalio doesn.t appear in the Oxford Latin Dictionary, so it must be a made up word. And that.s strange how the ‘a’ in ‘salio’ becomes an ‘i’. At any rate, consilience is a ‘jumping together’ and from the subtitle ‘The Unity of Knowledge’ it would appear that Wilson is talking about how knowledge converges into a unity through a jump.

The jump is metaphorically the leap of faith that a reductionist approach works. He is humble enough to mention that all bets are off if he is wrong. His thesis is that ethics and religion can be reduced into art; art can be reduced into the social sciences, the social sciences can be reduced into the hard sciences; finally, everything will be expressed in the terms of physics and pure math. He calls this the Ionian enchantment. It is the dream of Thales of Miletus, who thought that water was the basis of all things. Einstein was also ‘Ionian’ in his thought, who thought to find a Grand Unified Theory of physics.

Wison.s background is that of a biologist. His original claim to fame is the study of ant pheromones: in the 1950s he devised an experiment to test his hypothesis that ants communicate through chemical secretions. He might have even been the first to have come up with the idea of pheromones. I wouldn.t put it past him. It is to his credit that in his discussions on pheromones he does not draw undue attention to himself. In the 1980s he came up with the theory of gene-culture coevolution.

I.m sure Consilience will piss off a lot of humanities people. How could the claim that art can be reduced into biology not? Although that.s not his point–that science is superior to art–it can come across like that. He.s arguing for interdisciplinary work, but not with science and the humanities on an equal footing: his approach is built from the sciences up. Science to him is like figured bass in baroque music: it anchors and provides foundation.

But he makes some good points which are too good to ignore. Here.s an example of a ‘consilient’ interpretation of snakes. There.s a lot of people who have an aversion to snakes. Snakes populate myth (i.e. snake in Garden of Eden). Snakes are part of many shamanistic South American rituals. There are a disproportionate amount of dreams featuring snakes (why not elephants or deer?). So far so good? It should be: up to this point things are well documented. So there is something going on between us and the snakes. But what? Well, if you ask Freud you will get one explanation. If you ask the anthropologists you will get another. Their explanations are wrong. Their explanations are wrong because they used too much intuition and not enough analytical science. In Consilience, Wilson argues that our fascination with snakes is genetically based. It is a ‘memory’ encoded in our genes from our descent from the Old World primates. Old World primates and chimpanzees actually have an instinctive fear of poisonous snakes. It is not learned. They make either a chattering sound or a Wah! sound when they see a poisonous snake. This in turn calls their friends to gather around and they carefully watch the snake until it leaves the territory. Our fascination with snakes, then, is part of human nature. His theory is based on hard science: evolution. Take that Freud!

To Wilson, everything–ethics, art, music making–can be reduced into biology which can in turn be reduced into chemistry, physics, and math. He argues with passion, because if he is wrong, then the deconstructionists, postmodernism, Derrida, and de Man are right. And gosh darn it, they can.t be right because they are bad people and they are wrong! Wilson is for hierarchy, order, and meaning. There can be meaning. His adversaries will fight for the opposite. The fight for meaning, order, and hierarchy is the good fight. I tend to agree.

Wilson reminds me a lot of Plato. Plato didn.t think too highly of art. Art distracted one from philosophy, which was emotionless and rational. But Plato would have made a damn fine artist. He is constantly using images and metaphors to explain his philosophy: think of the image of the cave or think of his image of love as two horses guiding a chariot. Even his Socrates is sort of a fictional character. Plato.s philosophy is cold and rational. But the way he gets there is full of art and warmth. While Wilson is not an art denigrator to quite the extent that Plato is, he takes the side of science. What do you expect?–he is a scientist! But he explains things in the terms of myth and art. He uses the image of the Minotaur.s labyrinth to explain consilience. He calls it Ariadne.s thread. In his labyrinth, there are dangerous minotaurs wandering around (I wouldn.t be surprised if they took the form of de Man or Derrida…). Near the entrance to the labyrinth is math. Physics is further in, but still close. Deeper yet in the cave are biology and chemistry. You get the idea. Next are social sciences and then art and ethics are really deep in the cave. If you get lost there, you are minotaur dinner! But what will save the adventurer is Ariadne.s thread. Ariadne.s thread is the faith that it all is rooted in the sciences. And it will guide you into the deepest parts of the cave and you will still be able to find your way out.

Wilson is a damn fine writer too. He writes memorable lines like:

The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science.

Even if you don.t agree, don.t you think it.s a beautiful phrase? Oh, have a heart!

He ends Consilience with a look ahead. The problems of the future: ethics of modifying human DNA, dwindling biodiversity (remember, he.s a biologist), too many people and not enough resources. I can.t help but wonder if there.s a certain sadness or tragedy behind achieving consilience: the closer we get, the more resources are expended. This might not be Wilson.s point, will have to reread. It.s a lot to take in in one go.

I will be buying Consilience and rereading it. That should tell you how much I.ve enjoyed it. His chapters on art actually were the most illuminating. I thought they would be weaker since he.s a scientist but he is truly widely read. He.s got lots of other books as well, On Human Nature is supposed to be a classic.

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m Doing Melpomene’s Work by reading books outside my comfort zone. That was the best advice I got from a certain professor: ‘If you want to get anywhere, read outside your field’.

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