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The Purpose of Understanding: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?

Eminent naturalist Edward O. Wilson talks with Amazon.com about the common goals of science and the arts and why it is important to bridge the gaps between the branches of human knowledge

Over a long career, biologist Edward O. Wilson has made major contributions to population genetics, evolutionary biology, entomology, and ethology. He has also steeped himself in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences to produce his new book, Consilience. The title comes from a term meaning "a jumping together," in this case of the many branches of human knowledge. In the book, Wilson encourages scholars to bridge the many gaps that yawn between and within the cultures of science and the arts. No such gaps should exist, Wilson maintains, for the sciences, humanities, and arts have a common goal: to give understanding a purpose, to lend to us all "a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws."

Surrounded by exhibit cases full of insects and shelves of books in his office at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, Wilson talked with Amazon.com's Gregory McNamee about his book.

Question: How did you come to write Consilience?

Edward O. Wilson: Consilience has been in the making for many years, at least for much of my adult life. Like most scientists, I started as a specialist--in my case, an entomologist. But I'm also a generalist, and I've been gradually expanding my interests in many directions since 1967, when I wrote a book on island biogeography with Robert MacArthur. Since then I've done more syntheses; I moved on to insect societies in 1971, writing everything I could about insect ecology; I added vertebrates and human beings, which caused a lot of controversy, with Sociobiology. Then I moved on in the 1980s to biodiversity and the relationship of cultural evolution and genetic evolution, very large issues. In the early 1990s I returned to insects, when Bert Holldobler and I wrote The Ants--at seven pounds, probably the heaviest book ever to win the Pulitzer Prize--but kept on tracking the big picture. I monitored the Human Genome Project, evolutionary psychology, and many other fields. It seemed to me then that the time was right to talk about unifying these and other sciences, renewing the Enlightenment program to open a new discourse in which all branches of human learning would come into play, and opening a new kind of nondogmatic discourse. Consilience is a proposition, really, to inaugurate this new kind of synthetic thinking.

Question: Is the term consilience your own?

Wilson: No. There's a joke in the sciences that's unfortunately true: a scientist would rather use another scientist's toothbrush than use his or her terminology. I borrowed consilience from William Hewell, a philosopher of science who coined it in about 1840. He meant it to describe the interlocking of cause-and-effect explanations across disciplines. An example would be the discoveries of the so-called molecular revolution of the 1950s, which came about when DNA was isolated. This made possible major advances in the consilience of biology and chemistry by showing that heredity, a biological phenomenon, has a chemical basis, and that the laws of chemistry and biology are one and the same.

Consilience is a relatively rare term, kept alive by philosophers and historians of science, and I'm glad to think that it might come into wider use now.

Question: At the heart of your book lies a set of complex scientific assumptions. Do your readers need to have a scientific background to appreciate your arguments?

Wilson: No, I don't think so. There are no prerequisites for reading Consilience. For 40 years I taught basic biology at Harvard University to non-science majors, to future business executives, doctors, lawyers, humanities scholars, and the like. I did this voluntarily because I thought I would do the world more good by introducing scientific ideas to this audience than by teaching science to scientists, who would get it somewhere else anyway. I learned from this how to present very complex ideas in simple ways, without condescending. I learned, too, how to present such ideas in books that nonscientists would be able to read.

Question: Did you have any particular models in mind when you wrote your book, any classics of scientific interpretation that you wanted to emulate?

Wilson: As a writer, I have to say, I have been more influenced by fiction writers than by scientists. There's a wonderful passage at the start of Robert Stone's novel A Flag for Sunrise in which the protagonist goes scuba diving. There, under the sea, he senses the presence of other creatures swimming all about him, but he can't quite make any of them out. I so admired Stone's ability to conjure up apprehension in just a few words that I used similar imagery in my book The Diversity of Life when I wrote about how scientists enter an unknown ecosystem--in this case, the Amazonian rain forest--and describe it scientifically.

The ideal scientist, I say in Consilience, thinks like a poet, works like a bookkeeper, and writes like a journalist. At least that's what I try to do. The important thing is to get it right.

Certainly I admire Darwin. I have been influenced by many other scientists as well; I sit here in my office surrounded by their work, with my books and my yellow pads. There are too many to list, and I wouldn't want to be too specific for fear that I'd leave someone out. If you locked me in a room for a few days, you might be able to pry that list out of me, I suppose.

Question: No, I think if I locked you in a room you'd find something wonderful in it to study.

Wilson: Yes, that's right. One of the great things about being a naturalist, and especially an entomologist, is that you can find something to study, something to do, just about anywhere you go. I'm one of those types that could probably be a happy prisoner of war as long as there was a bug in my cell to look at.

Question: In Consilience you take quite a number of swipes at your postmodernist peers. How did you come to dislike postmodernist philosophy so much?

Wilson: I see postmodernism as a descent into chaos, which is the exact opposite of what my nature tolerates. I work to detect unity and pattern in nature. There is nothing more antithetical to this quest than postmodernist philosophy.

Question: Then we'll cast postmodernism aside. Much of Consilience is about unity and pattern and also about our quest for self-knowledge. You write that "Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us.... Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become." What should we wish to become?

Wilson: That will be one of the major debates of the next decade, deciding what we should be now that we can remake ourselves genetically. This volitional evolution, as I call it, is a troubling thing in many ways. I think for the time being we'll remain existentially conservative. Apart from eliminating a few genetic diseases, that is, we'll probably not alter ourselves in big ways. Our human nature--the intricate, interwoven set of emotional and intellectual responses to the world--is precisely what makes us human. I don't think we'll want to tinker with it too much.

Question: Can you tell me one thing that you want your readers to take with them after reading Consilience?

Wilson: Well, one thing is this: the borderland areas between the great branches of learning--the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities--are now being traversed and mapped. This discovery is profoundly exciting because it is giving us a new view of what our human nature really is and because it will make us rethink just who we are.

Question: Congratulations on the success of Consilience. It's attracting a great deal of attention, and it seems to have touched a chord among many readers.

Wilson: It's hard to write a book entirely about ideas. I'm very gratified to see it doing so well. Thank you.

Featured Titles

Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson
The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson
Promethean Fire : Reflections on the Origin of Mind by Charles J. Lumsden, Edward Osborne Wilson (Contributor)
Journey to the Ants : A Story of Scientific Exploration by Bert Holldobler, Edward O. Wilson
The Behavior Guide to Africa's Mammals : Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, Primates by Richard Despard Estes, et al
The Theory of Island Biogeography by Robert H. MacArthur, et al
The Insect Societies by Edward Osborne Wilson
The Ants by Bert Holldobler, Edward O. Wilson
A Flag for Sunrise : A Novel by Robert Stone


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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