Having finished reading that long Steven Pinker book, and blogging about it, I’m now returning to a contemporaneous book, published just a year after Pinker, E.O. Wilson’s CONSILIENCE, from 1998. After sampling it for years I read it through in 2016, and blogged about it over several posts, but only covered the first four chapters before getting distracted and not finishing. So now, I’ve reread the book from Chapter 5 forward and will finish posting about it.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Knopf, 1998, 332pp including 34pp of notes and index.) (Shown is 1st edition with no print number line, so presumably 1st printing. Purchased 13 Mar 1998.)

Here are the earlier posts, that covered the first four chapters, along with key points from those chapters:

Post 1, 13 Jan 2016: Chapter 1, “The Ionian Enchantment”

  • Wilson grew up in Alabama, a Southern Baptist, had been born again, and read the Bible twice;
  • He was enamored by ants and other animals, inspiring a career as a naturalist;
  • He discovered evolution in college, and suddenly everything made sense — he calls this his “Ionian Enchantment”;
  • He abandoned Baptist theology for lacking any provision for evolution;
  • Still, he understands why people must belong to a tribe, and have a purpose larger than themselves;
  • He hopes science will provide a better ground for human yearnings; science is religion liberated and writ large.

Post 2, 16 Jan 2016: Chapters 2 and 3, “The Great Branches of Learning” and “The Enlightenment.”

Chapter 2

  • Wilson defines “consilience”: “literally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.”
  • He provides an example of how environmental policy, ethics, biology, and social science all meet at some common center, despite having separate methods and terminologies;
  • He accepts charges of reductionism, or “scientism”;
  • He anticipates that cultural issues, including the humanities and the creative arts, will eventually be enlightened by science;
  • He rues that universities have abandoned the idea of any kind of common understanding.

Chapter 3

  • Wilson points out that the Enlightenment failed by neglecting human nature and the basis for morality, allowing tyrants to take over beginning with the French Revolution;
  • Then came the Romantic revolution, emphasizing naturalism and metaphysics, beginning a trend to individual expression rather than unified understanding, leading to multi-culturalism, post-modernism, and deconstructionism;
  • The flaw in Enlightenment scientists and intellectuals was that they were deists, for emotional reasons, setting reason aside;
  • Nevertheless Wilson is optimistic that once we accept that the universe was not made with us in mind, we will find meanings, emotions, and adventures through our understanding of our deep history, and reason will be advanced to new levels.

Post 3, 23 Jan 2016: Chapter 4, “The Natural Sciences.”

  • The divide among cultures on Earth is the one between the scientific and the prescientific;
  • The latter invent myths about the outside world, but they are wrong because the world is too remote from ordinary experience to be merely imagined;
  • Science is “the organized, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles”;
  • Science has five principles: repeatability; economy; mensuration; heuristics; consilience;
  • Wilson describes how typical scientists work;
  • He ponders whether an objective reality exists, and describes how logical positivism came to a dead end;
  • The reason: “Its failure, or put more generously, its shortcoming, was caused by ignorance of how the brain works. That in my opinion is the whole story.”

(The problem in 2016 was that I hadn’t taken any notes on the rest of the book, or perhaps I did on paper but didn’t get around to typing them up in a file. So now, eight years later, I’ve reread the book from Chapter 5, and taken detailed notes.)

With this chapter, Wilson introduces the theme of the book: the challenge of tracing the connections, of finding the analogies and similarities, among the various branches of science.

Chapter 5: “Ariadne’s Thread”

Key points in this chapter:

  • Wilson evokes the Cretan labyrinth, and the thread Theseus uses to find his way back out, as analogies to the complexity of science and how it’s easier to deconstruct rather than reconstruct;
  • Consilience requires understanding scales of time and space, and gives examples of how it’s easier to analyze than to synthesize;
  • The greatest challenge in all of science is the description of complex systems. Physics has done best. Biology involves emergence, and Wilson describes how complexity theory remains controversial.
  • And he asks, once a true theory of biology is found, to what extent will its principles apply to the mind and behavior?

Wilson evokes the Cretan labyrinth, in which Theseus enters and unravels a ball of thread given him by Ariadne, finds and kills the Minotaur, and retraces his steps following the thread to get back out. A quality of the maze of the sciences is that it’s infinite: we can never track every path, or explain everything. Theseus is humanity; the Minotaur our own dangerous irrationality; the thread the needed consilience. And it is easier to go forward than to go back. Thus the complexity of the cell (we can drill down to its components, but can’t reconstruct from those basic components). Example of ant pheromones, how author helped identify them, then tried to predict consequences, with difficulty. [[ As Wilson discusses in several of his book, he was fascinating as a boy by ants, and became a student of the social insects, developing ideas of “sociobiology” about them before extrapolating those ideas to other social animals, including humans. ]]

P71, Long discussion in which Wilson unpacks a magician’s dream all the way down to the atom – sacred plants; visions; interpreting dreams. Freud was reluctant to test his own theories (his  ideas were instead a kind of story-telling 74b), and his guesses were wrong. Discussion of dreaming, in chemical detail. P77, The function of dreams? Perhaps consolidation of memories; but it’s still unclear. Reactions to serpents aren’t so much built-in instincts as they are ‘prepared learning’, 79.5.

P81, Consilience among biological sciences requires understanding scales of time and space, e.g. why human interactions take just so long, and not much faster (like molecular interaction) or slower (like ecological time) p81-2. [[ This is an excellent example of how what people think of as ‘normal’ is simply due to our particular position in time and space, and our biology. ]] There are six broad divisions of biology, 83.4: evolutionary biology, ecology, organismic biology, cellular biology, molecular biology, biochemistry. Moving upward involves greater complexity; the principles of one division can be telescoped into those of the others. Yet it’s easier to analyze, than to synthesize, the latter loosely called holism. Detailed example of an island formed by the construction of the Panama canal, an illustration of unpredictable consequences.

P85, The greatest challenge in all of science is the description of complex systems. Physics has succeeded in part; details 86t. Levels beyond physics are infinitely more complex. Biology involves emergence; complexity theory was born in the 1970s, and became controversial by the 90s, in three camps. Skeptics, who believe brains and rain forests are forever too complex to be understood; advocates of complexity theory, led by Stuart Kauffman and Christopher Langton; and those who settle somewhere in between, where the author places himself. More information needed. Technical examples, p89. Description of complexity of biology, 91m. When successful, a true theory of biology will have been attained. Crucial unanswered questions in 1994: list 93b (e.g. “The molecular mechanisms of tissue and organ development.”).

Once these are solved, the stage is set to consider mind and behavior. Will biological principles also apply to those?


My comments: Complexity theory, and emergence, were hot topics in the ’90s, and I have several books on them, but you don’t hear about them much anymore simply because the parts that worked, or that were relevant, have become absorbed into mainstream science. (Just like chaos theory before them.) For example, the way to avoid the perils of reductionism (which, carried to absurd length, implies that the understanding of a play or a symphony can be found through the motions of atoms and molecules) is to understand ’emergence’ in the sense that levels of complexity are understood separately from one another, on their own terms. Sean Carroll’s THE BIG PICTURE (which I also read in 2016!) lays this out well as his notion of ‘poetic naturalism’, review here.

Also, more generally: Wilson’s style ranges from beautiful passages of philosophical insight, to intense passages of technical detail, as in the discussion of dreams in this chapter. The next chapter will have several quotes of such passages.

Next time: a chapter about the mind, where the interest as I reread it was to see to what degree it overlapped the Pinker book.

This entry was posted in Book Notes, Human Progress, Science. Bookmark the permalink.