Consilience

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I'm getting pretty deep (in a geological layer sense) into my nonfiction to-be-read pile. This book, Consilience, by the famous biologist Edward O. Wilson, is from 1998. It seems I picked this paperback edition off a remainder table for $6 sometime after that. My motives for doing so are lost in the mists of time.

The book was written around the time Wilson retired from Harvard, and could be seen as kind of a farewell address. Although the research that made him famous was on ants, he quickly became interested in much broader fields, and that's more than evident here.

His thesis here is the "unity of knowledge". To use some labels he (admittedly) dislikes: reductionism and scientism. (As he says: "sins made official by the hissing suffix.") He pleads for the use of scientific insights to illuminate all fields of study: economics, sociology, anthropology, of course. But also the arts, philosophy, ethics, and even religion.

He makes a decent case, probably the best that can be made. His arguments on "sociobiology", applied to humans, argues how our genetic inheritance constrains culture, and made him some of the right enemies. (See this Wikipedia entry for examples.)

I wish he had devoted more space to an issue that's bothered me for a while: the probable finitude of intelligence. We don't seem to have any problems with applying this concept to animals; we don't try to teach calculus to dogs, even very smart, very good dogs. And yet we don't seem to seriously carry this observation over to human intelligence. There might be some things we can't know. There might even be things we can't even tell that we can't know. (In the same way your dog doesn't understand that he can't learn calculus.)

Wilson seems to brush up against this issue at points, but I didn't notice any serious consideration. And yet it indicates that there might be impassible barriers to the "unity of knowledge".

Wilson's style reminds me of Hayek's: gently argumentative with an frosting of sweet reasonableness, maybe a little too flowery for my tastes. Sweet reasonableness, at least until the last chapter, which (for me) kind of goes off the rails. In discussing what the likely future holds:

We will also come to understand the true meaning of conservatism. By that overworked and confusing term I do not mean the pietistic and selfish libertarianism into which much of the American conservative movement has lately descended. I mean instead […]

Oh, well. Never mind what he means instead. This kind of drive-by slur probably went over well at Harvard faculty soirées, but for me it's a signal that Wilson likes to pontificate in areas in which he really hasn't done his homework.

The last chapter also contains an environmentalist aieee-we're-all-gonna-die jeremiad, hitting all the scary scenarios trendy at the end of the previous century. Nearly two decades later, it seems more than a little alarmist. Weren't we all supposed to be dead by now?