Tuesday, 15 October 2002

Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998)

Edition: Little, Brown, 1998
Review number: 1125

Edward O. Wilson is best known as the author of Sociobiology, an early attempt to look at the social structures of human beings alongside those of other animals (he began his career as a researcher into the biology of the ant). The theme of Consilience is related - it is also about extending ideas of a particular kind into areas where they are not common or, to some people, welcome to go. The word "consilience", which literally means "jumping together", has been resurrected by Wilson to mean a unity of knowledge, or, more accurately, of ways to approach problems. The book is a manifesto arguing for the extension of the methods of science into the social sciences and the humanities, even to the interpretation of fine art and to ethics and religion.

This is not, of course, a new idea. Some of the weirder products of the popularisation of Newton's work, for example, were half-baked attempts to derive laws like his in other fields, driven by the idea that once the initial positions of particles were fixed, mathematics would determine their positions for the rest of time. More respectably, many philosophers have tried to base their ideas on mathematical style derivations, most notably Spinoza, Hobbes, and Descartes. However, this is not quite what Wilson means; his manifesto is based on a particular aspect of the way that science works.

One of the most powerful mechanisms in scientific thought is reductionism, which basically means looking at some aspects of a process in isolation from the whole, and in particularly designing experiments to test ideas about these aspects alone. The idea is that once the simplified versions are understood, explanations can be brought together to decipher the more complex. (Wilson points out that critics of reductionism typically ignore the last part, the synthesis back into increasingly complex explanations of the original process.)

There is a hierarchy of reduction in science; biology can (in principle) be reduced to chemistry, which (in principle) can be reduced to physics. (In principle because in many cases a detailed reduction would be too complex to carry out, or some small points are not yet understood; but nevertheless no one doubts the possibility. No one would want to attempt to document every chemical reaction which goes on in a cell, but everyone would expect the processes that happen to be fundamentally chemical in nature.) This relationship between different branches of science is what Wilson means by consilience, and his view is that the social sciences are the next step up in the chain from biology, particularly as the biological underpinnings of brain functionality become better understood. His feeling is that individual psychology will then become reducible to biology, and then that sociology and anthropology will be reducible to psychology.

This is not likely to seem particularly controversial to a scientist, especially given that (as Wilson points out) this kind of reductionism is the most successful kind of explanation known to the human race. However, from the social science side it must come as a shocking attempt to usurp long cherished methods and ideologies (from Marxism to postmodernism). Wilson doesn't soften the blow, ridiculing the achievements of academics in these areas to date - drawing attention, for example, to the evident inability of economists to predict the downfall of the Soviet system. He is clearly knowledgeable about these areas, but frustrated with their inability to move on away from exploded ideas such as those parts of Freudian psychology contradicted by modern studies of the brain. To Wilson, the issue is quickly increasing in importance and urgency, for he suspects that an integration of economic and sociological thought with science will be a necessary part of any viable solution to the world's environmental problems.

Consilience is very clearly written, in a style which manages to combine precision and accessibility. A reader would not need to agree with Wilson's thesis to be impressed, but he is also an able and convincing debater. A fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the future directions of either science or the social sciences.

No comments: