In this ambitious work, Edward O. Wilson, one of the most distinguished scientists of our times, and a man I greatly admire, goes perhaps a bit beyond his area of expertise as he envisions a project that is perhaps beyond even the dreams of science fiction. "...[A]ll tangible phenomena," he writes on page 266, "from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics."
This in a nutshell is his dream of "consilience." It is also the statement of a determinist. My problem with such a laudable endeavor (and with determinism in general) is this: even if he is right, that the arts and the humanities will ultimately yield to reduction, how do we, limited creatures that we are, do it? It seems to me that in the so-called soft sciences like sociology, economics, and psychology, for example, and even more so in the world of the humanities and the arts, reduction is so incredibly complex that such an attempt is comparable (in reverse order) of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. It's ironic that Wilson uses almost exactly this metaphor on page 296 to explain why once the rain forests are chopped down, they're gone forever. He notes, "Collect all the species...Maintain them in zoos, gardens, and laboratory cultures...Then bring the species back together and resynthesize the community on new ground." Will this work? Wilson's answer is no. He writes, "...biologists cannot accomplish such a task, not if thousands of them came with a billion-dollar budget. They cannot even imagine how to do it." He adds, still on page 296, that even if biologists could sort and preserve cultures of all the species, "they could not then put the community back together again. Such a task...is like unscrambling an egg with a pair of spoons."
This is exactly how I feel about the consilience of human knowledge. I cannot even imagine how reductionism could help us to understand a poem. There is a dictum among poets that "nothing defines the poem but the poem itself." No amount of reduction will allow us to understand what makes the poem tick. This is because the poem is an experience, a human emotional, intellectual, sensual experience dependent upon not only the literal meaning of the words, but on their connotations, their sounds, their rhythm, their relationships to one another, their syntax, their allusions, their history, their use by other poets, etc., and also what the individual reader of the poem brings to the experience. Reduce the poem and you do not have an understanding of the poem. At best you have an essay on the poem, at worst something alien to the esthetic experience. In essence, I should say that the problem with consilience is that our experience is not reducible.
I have read a lot of what Professor Wilson has written, including On Human Nature (1978), the charming memoir, Naturalist (1994), parts of The Ants (1990) and his controversial, but ground-breaking and highly influential, Sociobiology (1975). And I have read some of his critics, most recently essayist Wendell Berry's Life Is a Miracle (2000) and Charles Jenck's piece in Alas, Poor Darwin (2000). What has struck me in these readings is the disconnection between what Wilson has written and what some critics have criticized him for writing! For example it is thought that Wilson is a strict biological determinist when it comes to human behavior. But here he writes, very clearly on page 126, "We know that virtually all of human behavior is transmitted by culture." Wilson has had to weather more than his share of unfair criticism because, as the father of sociobiology, which some mistakenly see as a furtherance of a rationale for eugenics, he has been made the target of the misinformed. Additionally, Wilson is not the lovable sort of genius we adored in Einstein, nor the heroic scientist overcoming a terrible handicap as in the case of Stephen Hawking, but a slightly nerdish genius from Alabama who spent much of his life crawling around on the ground and in trees looking at ants. Some people make it clear that such a man should not presume to tell them anything about human beings and how we should conduct our lives or how we should view ourselves. But I think they are wrong. Wilson brings unique insights into the human condition, and he has the courage of his convictions. I think he is a man we should listen to regardless of whether we agree with him or not.
Even if its central thesis is wrong, Consilience is nonetheless an exciting book, full of information and ideas, elegantly written, dense, at times brilliant, a book that cannot be ignored and should be read by anyone interested in the human condition regardless of their field of expertise.