All We Know

The Unity of Knowledge
Edward O. Wilson
Alfred A. Knopf, 1998
ISBN 0-679-45077-7

As I recall, the reason I came across Edward Wilson's Consilience was because I was researching ethics, and came across a Catholic priest who wrote scathing comments about Wilson's book. I could not imagine what would impel such venom. I especially could not imagine what a book with the subtitle "The Unity of Knowledge" would have to say on ethics. I decided to check out the book.

Wilson is a biologist. He describes himself in his youth in love with the Linnaean system of classifying living things, until he discovered evolution. That discovery was for him like throwing a switch, as it suddenly made all of these arbitrary seeming classifications fall into place. No longer were creatures merely similar to each other; they were related to each other, and the reason for classifying them in a particular way was that relationship.

He calls this illuminating discovery the "Ionian enchantment," by which he refers to Thales of Miletus, the Ionian who is considered by many the father of the physical sciences for proposing that all observable phenomena have their basis in the natural world. Wilson sees the Ionian enchantment as the idea that all knowledge is connected. He believes that it drove the Enlightenment, and that it still drives most scientists today.

Wilson points out that everything in the natural sciences is linked. All of the knowledge is consistent: physics allows us to explain the behavior of atoms and chemistry, chemistry allows us to understand molecular biology, from where we get an inkling for the basis of cell biology, and then the biology of living things.

So far, so good. Few people have a quarrel with this much, since it's all factual and doesn't really touch on controversial issues. The controversy starts when Wilson points out that, since the activities of neurons are based on the same physical laws, then the brain and its product, the human mind, should in principle be understandable in terms of those same physical laws. Since culture is a product of the human mind, that too is amenable to analysis, as are religion and ethics.

"When we have unified enough certain knowledge, we will understand who we are and why we are here."

In essence, in the same way that we can understand the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, we can also understand how those laws generate the humanities: psychology, sociology and economics, the arts, philosophy, religion, and ethics.

Wilson bases his argument on the observation that all human beings are evolved from common stock, and we all have enough in common with each other that there is a certain human nature, a set of parameters that circumscribe all human behavior. A given person's behavior may be unpredictable, but it isn't infinitely variable. The same goes for groups of people and entire societies.

If we all have human nature in common, argues Wilson, and that human nature is based on physical laws, then the products of human nature are in turn based on those same physical laws.

Wilson acknowledges a couple of difficulties in the enterprise. The first is that this notion tempts people to consider that one particular culture or one particular kind of art is more in keeping with the laws of nature. This is what soured people on the Enlightenment, and it is this idea that allowed movements such as the German National Socialists or the Soviets to justify their atrocities.

The second difficulty is that the phenomena covered by the humanities are so complex. A given behavior could be analyzed in retrospect, but it is practically impossible to have enough information at the outset to predict the behavior. However, Wilson believes that complexity should not stop us.

The reason why Wilson feels that the enterprise is important is that without the insight given by the physical sciences, the humanities have reached an impasse. He points out that economists spend most of their time explaining why their predictions didn't work, that criticism of the arts has turned into a kind of silly navel gazing that affords no one insight into the work under consideration, and that political science is mostly guesswork, among many failings of the humanities. This is not because these aren't sciences, branches of knowledge worthy of study, but because they are in fact many magnitudes more difficult to understand than the physical sciences, and because so far the humanities have not worked on crossing the borderlands to the physical sciences.

Wilson spends some time analyzing the possible advances, should the humanities make the leap and embrace the physical sciences. Psychology is well on its way, since the brain sciences are providing just the information needed. Sociology, instead of being a kind of cataloging of present day cultures (akin to the naturalist of the 18th century who merely catalogued species before the advent of Darwin's theory of evolution) will be able to understand the behavior of groups and the shapes of cultures with the information provided by a mature science of Psychology. Economics should follow, as should the arts.

In the end, Wilson considers the grail of the humanities, ethics. There are essentially two positions possible: one is that ethics consists of an external set of laws of what should be, and the other is that ethics is a set of laws based on what is. Wilson points out that human behavior is the product of thousands of generations of people living and evolving together. One of the products of that evolution is that we make contracts: agreements on what is and is not acceptable behavior. Some behaviors are so desirable that they appear to be instinctive, and most cultures include features that further reward such behavior. Others are so undesirable that most cultures have laws designed to suppress these behaviors. The framework of these laws is ethics based on human nature. Wilson points out that it is in no way inferior to laws imposed from a higher authority; any of the external laws are in fact deeply flawed, based as they are on tribalism and superstitions.

This last part, really only a very small portion of the book, was then what had incensed the Catholic priest. And yet, the arguments that Wilson puts forth are very sensible. Perhaps it was the sense inherent in Wilson's argument that is so upsetting. Wilson disposes of the soul and of God. Even today those two beliefs are essential for the happiness of many people. For Wilson the difficulty is not insurmountable. He suggests that any deities that might exist and interest themselves in our species should be tickled to observe human beings discover the basis for ethics in themselves, rather than hope for revelations from outside.

What I found most admirable about Wilson's book is that he presents his thesis without apology. The climate in academia is not very kind to people who feel the way Wilson does. But perhaps, since Wilson's point is that the humanities must find their way to join up with the physical sciences, it would be counterproductive to apologize too much.

In any event, the book is very readable. Wilson's style is not chatty, but he never quite becomes overbearing. It's an excellent summary of a point of view that is, in my opinion, not shared by nearly enough people.

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