Friday, June 2, 2017

Book Review: 'Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge' by Edward O. Wilson

Review by Limelite (Nom de plume)
Described as the only living heir to Charles Darwin, Edward O. Wilson is, to me, more like the T. H. Huxley of all science.  He has won two Pulitzers for On Human Nature, 1978, and The Ants, 1990.  Most recently, he has authored his first novel, Anthill.  Novelist, popular science writer, and preeminent biologist and naturalist, Wilson is a most Enlightened Man.
Not to be outdone by physicists, he offers in this book a philosophical consideration of the proposition that there is a Grand Unified Theory of Knowledge, arguing that all knowledge is unified, whether physics, biology or art, by a few basic natural laws that, interlocked, are named “consilience.”

Before we begin the discussion, let me provide Wilson’s definition of what may be a new term to readers: Epigenetic Rules – in biology, the full range of inherited regularities of development in anatomy, physiology, cognition, and behavior.  The algorithms of growth and differentiation that create a fully functional organism.
Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge is Wilson’s great experiment in thinking that begins with the story of his personal experience with the Ionian Enchantment – the conviction that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws.  Less like a guide and more like a hurtling roller-coaster, Wilson takes the reader on a journey of unification from the Enlightenment, across the mind, through epigenetics.
Like Huxley on Darwin’s magnum opus, Wilson brings it.
He touches on the Westermarck Effect, dismisses the chimeric origins of Sociology embodied in the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) as claptrap that can only be saved by cognitive neuroscience, human behavioral genetics, evolutionary biology, and environmental science.  [For an interesting perspective on the demise of SSSM, From Human Nature to Public Policy: Evolutionary Theory Challenges the Standard Model (pdf)]
He blasts economics out of the scientific waters because it is unsuccessful at creating predictive models of the future from its own theories – the definitive quality of good scientific theory: because it is unable to answer key macroeconomic questions; because it is battered by exogenous shocks (earthquakes and tsunamis); because it lacks a solid foundation of units and processes.  In short, social “science” (including economics) has failed to even attempt serious consilience with the natural sciences.
The key problem with economics and the remainder of social sciences is “the translation from individual to aggregate behavior” resulting in theories (especially economic ones) that are internally consistent but little else.  Thus, they are mostly irrelevant.  As long as economists ignore or deny the epigenetic rules of human behavior they will continue to accept underpinnings of  “folk psychology” on which to build their models.  In sum, the social sciences are the representation of the death of the Enlightenment.
How do the creative arts become enfolded in consilient explanation?  Wilson argues that interpretation is the logical channel, by calling on the defining quality of the arts as the expression of mood or feeling, all the senses are summoned.  The history of art criticism is a history of cyclic behavior from Enlightenment to Romantic to Rational Modern to Deconstructionist and Post-Modern swings.  Can the opposed Apollonian and Dionysian impulses applied to criticism be reconciled?  Wilson states that that will depend on the existence or nonexistence of an inborn human nature.
The mounting evidence leaves little room for doubt – human nature exists.  The gene-culture coevolutionary theories will have their place in the arts.  Already terms like “biopoetics” and “bioaesthetics” are in use.  Both the arts and the human brain seek elegance, a descriptive word for the innate characteristic of humans to seek pattern that makes sense of a confusion of detail.  Under consilience, anything that has roots in the real world can reach all possible worlds, and finally to all conceivable worlds.
“The epigenetic rules of human nature bias innovation, learning, and choice” and lead to the building of archetypes, “the themes most predictably expressed in original works of art.”  Archetypes are understood with examples that are gathered because they share certain prominent features in common (in science – definition by specification).  Here is a list of the most frequently cited.  As readers and book lovers, you will probably recognize these as the Lexicon of Fiction.
In the beginning – creationist and origin stories
The tribe emigrates – promised land stories
The tribe meets forces of evil – battles for survival; triumph over heavy odds
The hero. . .descends to hell; is exiled; undergoes an odyssey; comes to town
The world ends in apocalypse – dystopia; science-fiction; fantasy
A source of great power is found. . .talismans, amulets, spells, formulas, rituals
The nurturing woman – all the incarnations of the Earth Goddess/Mother/Queen
The seer – embodiment of wisdom; wizard, shaman, magician, priestess
The Virgin – power of purity that must be protected at all costs
Female sexual awakening – always bestowed by the unicorn, gentle beast, stranger, kiss
The Trickster – disrupter, chaotic element, truth-teller, jester, clown, eternal youth, Peter Pan
A monster threatens humanity – Satan, golem, dragon, vampire, Godzilla, mad scientist, robot
These archetypes are universal to our species.  The arts are what we do to resolve and regulate these archetypes.  Why do we?  Probably because the impetus to create through the arts has biological origins and is an expression of the epigenetic rules from archetypes they generate.
One such rule is brain response to redundancy in abstract design.  Measuring alpha waves of the brain – the more they are desynchronized, the greater the psychological arousal -- psychologist Gerda Smets discovered peak brain response when the redundancy in the abstract designs was about 20%.  “That is the equivalent order of. . .a logarithmic spiral, or cross with asymmetrical arms.  The 20% redundancy effect appears innate.  Newborn infants gaze longest at drawings with about the same amount of order.”  An aesthetic derived in part from such a basic natural rule is universal.
Where ethics has a broad convergence across cultures, religion has the opposite effect.  What is clear is that moral behavior arises from biology, not from god.  Discoveries in neuroscience have led to natural explanations of the religious impulse.  The transition of choice between is and ought may best be addressed by game theory and its usefulness in analyzing dilemmas that are solvable by cooperation when the payoffs are the proximate rewards converted to Darwin’s universal bottom line of genetic fitness: greater longevity and a secure growing family.
If political science is ethics applied to the community, then we must find the ways natural sciences can inform them and become their foundation from a convergence of experimental psychology and underlying neural and endocrine responses; by identifying prescribing genes; by understanding moral sentiments and ethical systems as deriving from epigenetic rules; and by understanding why they exist in the first place in terms of Darwinian evolution.  Blind faith does not suffice in ethics or religion.  Or politics.
The central tenet of consilience is that all tangible phenomena are based on material processes ultimately reducible to the laws of physics.  It is a new view or philosophy of the Human Condition; one needed at this stage of human technological evolution.  Implied is a choice: Either alter the biological nature of the human species in any direction you wish, or leave it alone.  We face the prospect of “volitional evolution” displacing “natural selection” and we mus be ready for it.
If we are to survive at all, we must understand the true meaning of conservatism, which is not selfish libertarianism seen in American politics today, but the ethic that “cherishes and sustains the resources and proven best institutions of a community.”  Our biggest threat to survival is ironically over-population.  The “local” population of Earth is about to exceed its local carrying capacity – further growth will not be sustained with the technology available.  A new technological orientation is required devoted to decarbonization and dematerialization of our environment.  In Wilson’s view, the single greatest intellectual obstacle to environmental realism is the “myopia of most professional economists.” [Hardly surprising, given his dismissal of economics as having any basis in science.]  Carbonized materialistic civilization is directly responsible for the “going extinct” phenomenon of the last 150 years.  To deny it is to affirm our own extinction.
To save ourselves requires a global resurrection of the legacy of the Enlightenment, the belief that “entirely on our own we can know, and in knowing, understand, and in understanding, choose wisely.”  To become consilient as well as sentient creatures.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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