'Jumping' to a wrong conclusion

February 12, 1999

Cultural traditions are punctuated by attempts by major participants to describe the essence of the tradition, to assess how far it has travelled towards its goals and how best to achieve them in the foreseeable future. Now that biology has begun to overtake physics as the dominant strand of the 400-year enterprise of modern science, it is not surprising that the figures coming forward to take on this role are biologists working from the perceived centre of gravity of the subject: evolution.

E. O. Wilson, named the new Darwin by Tom Wolfe, takes on this task in his ambitious book Consilience. Evolution came to him in his youth as a revelation, an epiphany that provided a dynamic context for his first love - grasping the wondrous diversity of living nature through naming and classifying its creatures. Wilson's twin passions of encountering and getting to know everything that moves, from ants and termites to sharks and whales, together with his need to order and explain the phenomenal variety of living forms, has given rise to a series of widely acclaimed books containing some of the most moving and articulate expressions of the insights achieved within the biological tradition. The latest volume celebrates the Enlightenment ideal of seeking a unified conceptual framework for understanding an intrinsically orderly world.

Consilience means "jumping together", a word Wilson prefers to coherence to express the linking of fact-based disciplines to create a common framework of explanation. The explicit goal of the book is to define such a framework for the union of natural science with the humanities, thus returning to the theme of Wilson's earlier Sociobiology. He is well aware that in returning to this ground he is walking through a minefield, so he mobilises all his skills of persuasion and conciliation. But in the end, the narrowness of his conceptual base undermines the ambitious building he tries to construct. The scope of Consilience is vast, as befits its theme. The historical depth that Wilson brings to his inquiry is impressive, so that his judgements about contemporary trends are well grounded in past movements. His references are not just standard Descartes, Bacon, Hume and Locke, but Condorcet, Goethe, Moore and Rawls as well. But with Goethe he fails in terms of his own criteria of empirical understanding, because it is clear that he has never performed Goethe's simple experiments with a prism to discover a different approach to light from Newton's - complementary rather than conflicting.

A failure to recognise such ways of extending science to include secondary qualities is one of the limitations of Wilson's attempts to encompass the humanities within a unified context. He starts from the observation that disciplinary boundaries are disappearing in science. One of the greatest obstacles that he sees to "consilience by synthesis" is the exponential increase in the complexity discovered at each level of organisation. He recognises that the new sciences of complexity have their focus precisely on the attempt to understand how orderly properties arise from such complexity, but regards most work in this field as poorly grounded in biological detail.

Wilson has his own proposals for handling this problem. In relation to emergent patterns of human behaviour from the complexity of the brain, he uses the language of developmental biology: the study of the orderly and repeatable emergence of high-level morphological and behavioural characters during embryonic development of the adult organism from the fertilised egg.

Aristotle's term for this process was epigenesis, which today can be interpreted as going beyond the genes. Wilson makes extensive use of "epigenetic rules" to describe hereditary regularities of species, acknowledging that human nature is not in the genes. However, human inheritance, shaped by natural selection, imposes constraints on human behaviour. This is the link that Wilson uses to "jump together" biology and the humanities, via the constraints of what he calls gene-culture co-evolution. Parental investment, mating strategies, territoriality and incest avoidance are the foundations of human cultural patterns, with aesthetics and moral concepts derived from innate emotions designed by natural selection.

Few people would disagree with the view that human morphology and behaviour are constrained by evolutionary history. The debate centres on the extent to which these constraints provide an adequate basis for understanding central aspects of human culture. Wilson pushes hard on the necessary connections between biology and culture, seeing ethics in functional terms as the glue for the social contract that confers selective advantage on human communities.

Wilson's primary concern in bringing together the sciences and the humanities is to maintain continuity of reasoning from human prehistory to cultural history. Since Darwinism provides explanations in functional, adaptive terms, the same reasoning is applied to cultural phenomena. But there are other traditions of explanation that respect continuity from biology to culture but proceed with a different emphasis.

One of the dominant aspects of human cultural life has to do with the search for meaning, which of course includes science itself. There are two aspects of meaning: one formal or third person, involving relationships within a whole, which concerns intelligibility; the other, affective (feeling) or first person, which involves "mattering", ie understanding that much of cultural life that acknowledges the importance of biological roots goes so far beyond them that they cease to have significant explanatory value. I quote from Peter Caws's Structuralism: The Art of the Intelligible (Humanities Press International, 1988): "The roots of mattering lie in the structure of biological needs, and it is in the intelligent satisfaction of those needs that meaning first comes into play. In the case of the matching of a structure of praxis with a structure of desire, the proportion of the purposive to the intelligible is very high; as the immediacy of needs lessens, the balance of the two components changes, until at an advanced stage of culture or education a very complex structure of intelligibility may be evoked by almost casual purposes. One of the ways in which the meaningfulness of significant activity is maintained is through an intention to pursue the intelligible for its own sake, and in high civilisations this becomes literature, music, art and other forms of creative activity."

Such a context respects biology but also acknowledges emergent properties that can so far transcend their lower-level substrata that they function in an almost autonomous manner. Of course these structures still have functions, primarily the resolution of the complexity that Wilson recognises as a problem in the explosive growth of biological and other knowledge. This is a primary function of science itself. But Wilson's Darwinian functionalism is unable to articulate the intrinsic organisational properties of cultural structures. It thus falls short of his goal.

There is a final aspect of Wilson's book that I would like to consider. He suggests that the enterprise within the social sciences best poised to bridge the gap to the natural sciences is economics, since it uses facts and mathematics in analysing economic processes. It is strange that someone so passionately concerned about environmental and species destruction as Wilson should promote a subject that fails to take account of nature as a third partner with labour and capital in the business enterprise. But later, Wilson argues with utter conviction for a reformed economics with full-cost accounting, and makes a moving appeal for an environmental ethic based on conservation rather than technological fixes: Homo sapiens rather than Homo proteus . This is the master at his most powerful, with his knowledge firmly attached to his ethics in a manner that demonstrates how "is" and "ought" belong together, as he insists should be the case.

Brian Goodwin is scholar in residence, Schumacher College.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Author - E. O. Wilson
ISBN - 0 316 64569 9
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £18.99
Pages - 374

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